Decision time has arrived: Keep working at home or go back to the office? That choice now confronts millions of employees (and their bosses) around the world. The impact could be profound on business activity, real estate values and the future of city centers. Not to mention marriages.
Here are the early results of the workplace wars: The vote seems to be 50-50.
While office shutdowns persist across much of the U.S., European workplaces are opening widely, with varying results. In Germany, 74% of its workers have conscientiously returned, but usually for only two- or three-day work weeks, according to a study by Morgan Stanley. Meanwhile, in France 84% are back at their desks, compared with under 40% in the UK, reports The Economist.
The upshot: Some giant companies already are squirming out of their mega-leases; others, like Bloomberg in London, are offering bonuses to employees to return to the office.
In Hollywood, executives are edgy about discussing the issue. “There’s no f*ing way I want to return to my office grind,” admits a senior network decision maker. “But I’d never admit that publicly.”
Attitudes vary company to company. Prior to COVID-19, the Netflix tribal culture always embraced a continuum of intense office meetings; co-CEO Reed Hastings termed working from home “a pure negative.” Even off-campus lunches were discouraged, while the Hollywood studios, by contrast, still accept the midday exodus.
I sympathize with the ambiguities. Having worked for several major companies over the years, I’ve welcomed the frustrations and occasional surprises of office inter-action, from the sudden firings to the budgetary crises. I remember a film director interrupting one executive meeting by phone to report he’d just been busted for cocaine possession (he was in mid-production).
“Most Hollywood workplaces operate on the edge of chaos,” Hastings wrote in his recent book. So how can you deal with chaos from home?
Talk to stay-at-home workers, and you understand some hard realities: Their work day is typically longer by two or three hours. Zoom meetings may be briefer than in-person encounters, but the results are shorter on innovation. Work space is confining at home, and entities like WeWork may advertise their “flexible work zones” but often fail to deliver.
Home-bound employees tend to be paranoid about job security, and with good reason. In a gig economy, employment law is chaotic. When no one clocks in, it’s easier to get clocked out.
Issues of privacy also loom. Companies are developing technology to replicate the office, such as higher-quality cameras and microphones as well as more efficient data centers. The end of the virtual office may also spell the end of the pajama clothing code.
Further, there are growing signs of fatigue and ennui among home-bound workers. According to The Economist, more employees are resorting to “asynchronous communication” – a polite term for pre-recorded video messages exchanged between employees to disguise checking out. Mindful of the trend, more companies are mandating face-to-face meetings with supervisors two or three days a month, as well as scheduling “non-linear work days” – i.e., days off.
The office commute is clearly a key motivation behind the stay-at-home syndrome, which, in turn, strikes fears among those who covet the energy and excitement of city life. The decline of “downtown” has been exacerbated by crime rates and the pandemic as well as by complex urban planning rules and daunting taxes.
The Broadway theater used to be a great motivation to head downtown, but it seems more remote to folks who spend their lives hovering over a computer in their kitchen.
So will they all stay home? More important, will that mean the rest of us may have to?