Tensions Brewing As Leaders Push A Return To The Office — And Workers Push Back
Corporate and political leaders have begun prodding workers to come back to their office desks with the greatest intensity since the onset of the pandemic, potentially inviting a showdown with workers who are digging in their heels on remote work.
“You can’t tell me you’re afraid of Covid on Monday and I see you in a nightclub on Sunday,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said during a speech at the state Democratic Committee’s Nominating Convention Thursday, after having implored company CEOs in the city to formulate return work plans. “New Yorkers, it’s time to get back to work.”
Across the country, there is a growing belief — or hope — that the crisis stage of the pandemic is coming to a close. This week, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they are weighing changing their mask recommendations, in keeping with local governments around the country dropping indoor mandates. Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that has not announced plans to relax masking rules, The New York Times reports. Earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief White House medical adviser, said the U.S. is moving closer to the end of the “full-blown” pandemic phase.
These moves have given cover to those with skin in the game, like elected leaders with city economies to stabilize, CEOs fretting over innovation and culture, and office owners with space to fill, to ramp up the pressure to close the curtain on the remote work era.
But many employees have a different take, and won’t be letting go of their work-from-home arrangements without a fight. It is showing in occupancy numbers too, with workers only trickling back.
The 10 biggest U.S. office markets are hovering just above 30% of pre-pandemic occupancy in the first two weeks of February, the highest since reaching a peak of over 40% in the first week of December, according to the Kastle Systems Back to Work Barometer.
But Americans have come back to travel and restaurants in greater numbers than to the office, Kastle’s analysis shows. Flight and restaurant reservations are at 77.2% and 66.8% of their February 2020 numbers, according to Transportation Security Administration and OpenTable numbers.
“We're actually going through a period that is more disruptive than we've ever had before,” said Brian Kropp, the chief of research in the HR department at Gartner. “The uneven re-entry into the workplace is going to be more disruptive than the abrupt and sudden — but consistent — departure from the workplace in March of 2020.”
Very few companies are making workers come back to their desks five days per week, Kropp said, either allowing workers to set their own schedule or requiring them to come in on a mandated number of days. Workers prefer flexibility, for the most part, but managing that kind of arrangement is far more challenging.
“[Companies] are really worried that their managers don't have the capability and sophistication to manage the complexity,” he said.
Allowing some work from home gives employees some flexibility, but not the true autonomy that they really desire, he said, and certainly not what they have gotten used to the last few years.
“For companies that are adopting much more of a radical flexibility approach, those are going to be the companies that see the most real estate cost savings [and] are going to be the most effective at attracting employees,” he said. “That's how employees would really prefer to work for the most part — but it's also the most complex and difficult to manage.”
Evidence of people's desire for remote work continues to mount. Some 61% of people who are working from home today have elected to stay remote, even though their office is open, according to a Pew Research Center survey of nearly 6,000 workers last month. Just 38% of respondents’ offices were closed.
A profile of exactly who is favoring a return to work is starting to take shape: largely the people in positions of power.
Slack’s Future Forum most recent quarterly survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers around the globe found that of those working remotely, executives are almost three times more likely than those in non-executive roles to want to return to the office full time. People of color want to work remotely the most, according to the survey.
“The view of the office looks different from the top,” Future Forum Executive Leader Brian Elliott said in the report, which was published last October. “While executives are banging down the door to get back to their corner offices, non-executive employees are demanding flexibility in where and when they work. Companies must do more to bridge this gap in order to attract and retain top talent.”
Even though the gap persists, some of the country’s largest and most influential companies are still now rolling out formalized return-to-office schedules.
Microsoft told workers around its Washington state headquarters that it was moving to "our sixth and final stage of the hybrid workplace model, effective Feb. 28, 2022. From this date, employees will have 30 days to make adjustments to their routines and adopt the working preferences they’ve agreed upon with their managers.
"Thousands of Chevron workers are coming back to the office as of next week following the omicron-fueled delay. Citigroup reportedly told its New York cohort to be back earlier this month, while Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase told employees to come back to the office at the start of February.
“We've had three false starts on reopening. But I think people finally feel that between the vaccine and therapeutics we are in a position where it's safe and appropriate to bring people back to the office,” Partnership for New York City CEO Kathryn Wylde said.
Nevertheless, she believes concerns about crime is a factor slowing down office returns.
“There's a lot of anxiety," she said. "I have not seen anything like this since the 1980s.”
As workers navigate their new relationship with the physical office, most companies still see it as a key piece of their growth strategy, said Ramneek Rikhy, a senior vice president at CBRE.
“Many of these companies have continued to grow and prosper during the pandemic and continue to hire employees,” she said, noting she is busy looking for space for office tenants who are either trying to lease new office locations or expand, even if they are still not back in the office full time.
Like many in real estate, Rikhy thinks more workers in the office buildings will go a long way in restoring normality.
“Returning to the office is good not just for these specific companies, but for the city,” she said.
She’s not the only one — workers’ returns in many cases are being pitched not only as a chance to build culture and collaboration, but also as a civic duty.
“I am a proponent of mandatory come back to work, I think people need to come back to the office, I think New York needs people to come back to the office,” Open Impact Real Estate founder Lindsay Ornstein said on Bisnow’s podcast last week. “I think people need people to come back to the office whether they realize it or not.”