What Will Make Hybrid Work Stick?

Freight elevator doors opened onto 50,000 square feet of office real estate. Right now, it’s empty, but Seth Besmertnik, chief executive officer of software company Conductor, points proudly at beams and concrete floors. He has plans for his company’s new office—meeting rooms, handball courts and, of course, all of his 200 employees in the New York City area.

Mr. Besmertnik admits that it was intimidating to convince his board to sign a lease to double his office space by 2021. But for him, renting a larger office is a symbol of his faith. his belief in direct, direct collaboration.

“Saving money can be a good thing, but I want to save our souls first,” he said, with enthusiasm that often ignites conversations about work in person nearly three years after the pandemic. “I want to do the right thing for the company in the long run.”

However, for many companies, signing an office lease is just the first step. Next, the executives must convince their workers to fill it out. The conductor relied on both the carrot (“Cold brew? Beer?” Mr. Besmertnik jokes, at 10:15 a.m.) and the stick (staff must come three days a week). And like most companies, it’s still experimental.

“I am considering going up to four days,” Mr. Besmertnik said. “We certainly won’t go to five. And maybe just three.

Business leaders are in a trial and error phase that comes with incredible risks. They are counting on how many days it will take to call employees back to the office, and above all how rigorously they enforce their rules. While some companies work five days a week and others have worked remotely permanently, many other employers have been looking to a hybrid solution, and when they announced these plans, they were faced stiff opposition. Amazon recently told its corporate employees to back to the office at least three days a week starting in May and facing outcry on Slack, the company’s employee messaging system, and Starbucks has asked its 3,750 employees to take three days off, prompting one open letter of the demonstration.

“I prefer working from home,” said Eric Deshawn Lerma, 26, an executive assistant at Amazon who is a member of the more than 29,000-person Slack channel at a company called “Remote Advocacy.” “Depriving me of that choice based on purely speculative observations does not work for me.”

Offices hit a key benchmark earlier this year: They’re in half their pre-pandemic capacity. According to Gallup, just over half of workers who can work from home currently combine telework and in-person work. A closer look at New York, from the Partnership for New York City, found that 82% of Manhattan office employers surveyed at the end of January are maintaining or adopting end-to-end policies. incorporated in 2023. So the company’s experts — McKinsey, Mercer, PwC — consulted their crystal balls and declared: The future is union.

Hybrid looks very different on every office. If the future is mixed, for many executives it means the future is an adventure of your own choosing. But now, the focus is shifting from adventure to choice. Executives are planning a more permanent return to the office, communicating requirements more clearly after months of hesitation and vague expectations, even though what their plans look like varies widely. .

“There is no Combined Office 101 where you can pick up the book and see what the previous 100 offices have done,” said Richard Buery, executive director of the Robin Hood Foundation.

When Amazon’s CEO, Andy Jassy, ask employees to return to the office three days a week, he cites the need for more “in-person interactions” and “accidental interactions.” In the past, team directors have set expectations for working remotely. In response to the policy change, employees protested, drafted petitions, and started the “Remote Advocate” Slack channel, where they argued that going back to the office will make it more difficult to care for children and communicate concerns about their badge data being tracked. One message from Slack, seen by The New York Times, reads: “I haven’t slept through the night since the announcement.”

At Starbucks, which recently asked its employees to return to the office three days a week, more than 40 of them wrote an open letter to protest“Morale is at an all-time low, and the brand reputation and financial value of this publicly traded company are at risk,” said.

At Conductor, which has required all employees to return to the office within 90 minutes three days a week, managers are making sure their teams follow the rules. Mr. Besmertnik believes that the lack of discipline, with the combined work, leads to “self-fulfilling failure”.

Orchard, a real estate company, has given its 500 employees an “open enrollment” period to decide if they want to work as an office worker or remotely. 60 percent chose the office expected to arrive two days a week.

The decisions executives make will have an impact far beyond their own workspace. Researchers estimate that office real estate values ​​will fall 39 percent from pre-pandemic levels in the coming years. Economists have foretold a “doing cycle” for urban business districts: With fewer people moving to downtown areas, retail and services will suffer. , causing even fewer people to move, resulting in reduced tax revenue that could further harm downtown services such as public transport.

Some companies have been fighting for a future without offices — especially Airbnb, which has benefited as far-flung workers move to far-flung cities.

“The cat was out of the bag,” said Dave Stephenson, chief financial officer and head of employee experience at Airbnb. “For almost every CFO I spoke to, who had a policy of getting people back to work, people were doing less than they were asked to. If they say they want to come back three days a week, they come back two days.”

The fully remote work is simple enough to dictate, as well as fully in-person. Combined work often creates a conundrum. Employees say their main motivation for coming to the office is to make sure to see teammates. That requires coordination, with everyone arriving on the same day. But rigid policies often provoke more backlash.

“A well-organized mix is ​​best,” said Nick Bloom, an economist and teleworking expert at Stanford. “The problem is that organizing it requires disciplined managers.”

Wall Street leaders have made it clear that work arrangements are not a matter of popular debate. James Gorman, chief executive officer of Morgan Stanley, which has employees mostly in the office three or more days a week, said this year telecommuting is “not an option for employees”.

Other executives have been less solid. They understand that their employees save time and money by staying at home, and they want to make money by making the office attractive.

At Orchard, the real estate company, that meant that on a recent Wednesday, employees were greeted with the rumble of a cart whizzing past their desks, as the head of the department plays a classic of Chumbawamba — “I’m knocked down, but I’ll get up again” — while providing drinks from an ice bucket filled with Six Point IPA, Modelos, and sauvignon blanc. The trolley had a photo of Jimmy Buffett with the caption, “Somewhere it’s 5 o’clock.” In New York, it was 4:54.

Court Cunningham, the company’s chief executive officer, refused to drink because he said he was heading to the gym and couldn’t pair burpees with beer. But he stressed that rituals like happy hour ensure that the office is a space where employees want to spend their time, so managers don’t have to act as hall custodians.

“It’s hard to make it work, but when you do, it’s magical,” said Lorraine Buhannic, chief human resources officer at Orchard.

In Orchard’s magic, there’s some element of randomness: “We basically roll the dice and say let’s do it two days a week,” Ms. Buhannic said, adding that the decision was also partly based on employee survey responses.

However, business leaders realize that their dice-rolling decisions are shaping the way their employees approach work — how people generate ideas and work-life balance. And research flows are emerging about the impact of remote work on both.

A study in Nature discovered last year that virtual communication can inhibit creativity. Other learn from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that when remote work begins, the formation of what sociologists call a “weak relationship” — as measured by email between people with general contact – down 38%. But then there’s the tremendous stress relief that some workers have experienced while working remotely. Parents have found that it allows them to better balance professional duties with childcare. Staff of color say it reduces violation and factions.

The best hybrid arrangement promises to combine the values ​​that all parties want: the creativity of face-to-face collaboration, the ease and fluency of working from home. Some executives still hope they can strike that balance.

Mr. Cunningham recalls the early years of his career, when his colleagues at an investment bank had to be in the office late into the night. He recalls a colleague carrying a cardboard box, telling the group he had to send something, then using the box to sneak his coat so he could finally go home. Expectations of unnecessary face time have now largely vanished. (Perhaps that box can now be used to sneak more beer home.)

Back at Conductor, Mr. Besmertnik watched his office start to buzz as the head of internal communications, Dani Weiss, turned on the music, grabbed the microphone and called everyone together for an all-staff meeting. . Employees in New York, scattered around the open office, rotated their chairs to face her, while screens flashed into the faces of workers in San Francisco, Berlin and Kyiv, Ukraine.

“When you’re in a company-wide meeting on Zoom, from home, you don’t feel like this,” Mr. Besmertnik said. “Right?”

“Let’s go, people!” Miss Weiss shouted. “I don’t see butts on those chairs.”

Moments later, they were there.


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