Corporate America comes around on remote work

Corporate leaders attempting to coax employees back to the office have largely accepted the inevitability of the hybrid work model — a strategy buttressed by the reality of raging coronavirus rates, a tight labor market and the nation's more than 10 million job openings. (Getty Images)

Nearly two years after millions of Americans became abruptly acquainted with Zoom, questions about what the post-pandemic office will look like can be answered with a quick look around: It's already here.

The case for the functionality of remote work has largely been settled: The wheels of productivity continued to hum on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley and other corporate strongholds even as their sprawling offices lay vacant. Employees stayed home and learned how to live at work. And throughout 2021, profits rolled in.

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Corporate leaders attempting to coax employees back to the office have largely accepted the inevitability of the hybrid work model - a strategy buttressed by the reality of raging coronavirus rates, a tight labor market and the nation's more than 10 million job openings. Now they are learning to leverage its benefits, according to Adam Galinsky, a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School in New York. That includes more flexibility and less time commuting for employees, and lower real estate and operating costs for companies.

"We are fundamentally not going to go back to what we had before," he said. The ability to do their jobs remotely has changed when people work, what they wear, and what tasks they save for the office and do at home.

But the downside of remote work - particularly the deleterious effects on mentorship and person-to-person interactions that shape company culture - still trouble corporate leaders. More than a third of the executives polled in Deloitte's 2021 Return to Workplaces survey said the biggest concern about hybrid or remote work was preserving company culture. Maintaining performance and collaboration also were top concerns.

Such worries are most acute in investment banks, consulting firms and sales organizations, Galinsky said, businesses in which mentorship is often tied to advancement. So it's no surprise that industry titans like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs are planning to return to the office in the coming weeks even as the omicron strain of the coronavirus tears across the country.

"We are not changing our long-term plans of working in the office (while also experimenting with rotational work schedules)," JPMorgan told its U.S. employees in a memo at the end of December.

The nation's largest tech companies have held fast to the idea that their staffs will be working together in person again, even as they embraced hybrid work. Google, Microsoft and Apple have postponed their returns indefinitely, emphasizing that they were responding to employee calls for flexibility.

"While the future of work will become increasingly flexible, the ability to collaborate and build community in person will remain an important part of Google," the company told The Washington Post in an email. "It's why we continue investing in our offices around the world."

On Friday, Google announced that it was spending $1 billion to buy the office space it uses in London, a mile and a half from where it is already constructing a massive new headquarters. The commitment "represents our continued confidence in the office as a place for in-person collaboration and connection," Ronan Harris, vice president of Google UK and Ireland, said in a blog post.

Though Lyft plans to fully reopen its offices in February, it will allow employees to work from home through the rest of the year if they choose. But the ride-hailing company already is seeing more workers coming in, senior communications manager Ashley Adams told The Post in an email.

Many of the companies still pushing to go back to the office have also been among the most persistent in their vaccine requirements. This past week, JPMorgan's chief executive, Jamie Dimon, said the bank would fire unvaccinated employees. Citigroup has plans to do the same, even after the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its vaccine mandate for large employers, further complicating corporate efforts to convince workers it's safe to return to the office.

The tension between the demand for flexibility and the costs of committing to it entirely is likely to grow. Fewer than 28% of those employed in the nation's 10 biggest business districts, including Washington, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, were at the office the first week of January, according to data from Kastle Systems. And 55% of remote workers would consider quitting if their companies tried to force their return to offices, according to research this month from Morning Consult.

Robinhood, the popular trading app, will allow most of its 3,400 employees to work from home permanently, joining a growing cohort of tech firms, including Coinbase and Shopify, to go "remote first." But Robinhood is keeping its 10 offices across the country.

"Even as we are primarily remote, we still care deeply about cultivating a great office and in-person experience," Cindy Owyoung, Robinhood's vice president of inclusion, equity and belonging told The Post in an email. "All employees have access to our offices with Safety First protocols in place so teams can come together in-person for key experiences and moments that drive connection and innovation."

The rise of the hybrid workweek is a matter of market dynamics, said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., chief executive of the Society for Human Research Management. In a labor market where workers are leaving jobs at record rates - a phenomenon economists have dubbed the Great Resignation - executives have had to listen to employee calls for flexibility and challenge their ideas about what can be done outside the office.

"The days of the 9 to 5, Monday through Friday workweek, those are gone," Taylor told The Post.

Though there are plenty of reasons to justify a remote workforce, getting executive buy-in comes down to growth, according to Marc Cenedella, chief executive of Ladders, a jobs site for positions that pay more than $100,000.

"If you want the opportunity to grow your business in 2022, if you want to hire, it turns out that you have to hire out of office," he told The Post.

Companies already are seeing the benefits of bigger talent pools. Twitter credited its shift to remote work with making the social media giant's U.S. workforce more diverse: Black representation grew by a third, to more than 9 percent, in the past year while Latino hiring grew by half, to hit about 8%, the company said this past week in its annual diversity report.

Before the pandemic, Ladders was a "classic no-remote" company, Cenedella said. He shuttered the office in the early days of the pandemic and for a while targeted a 2021 reopening. But in December, after months of surveying his employees, he decided the company would be fully remote from now on.

His move mirrored what scores of other companies did at the end of the year: 3 million professional jobs went permanently remote in the fourth quarter 2021, according to data collected by Ladders. By the end of 2021, 18% of all professional jobs were remote. Ladders projects that number will be close to 25% by the end of 2022.

"Remote is permanent," Cenedella said. "It's here to stay, it's accelerating, and it's the largest change to American living and working arrangements since World War II."

Still, the landscape remains unsettled as the workplace continues to evolve. Little illustrates the fragmented experience for white-collar workers better than the "Zoom mullet," the practice of presenting a polished upper half to colleagues while rocking sweatpants and fuzzy slippers outside the screen's frame.

Hailed as the perfect pandemic attire by some, the Zoom mullet nonetheless gives the wearer a sense of dissonance, according to research by Galinsky and his colleagues at Columbia of the psychological effects of the remote work wardrobe on productivity. They randomly assigned hundreds of workers across a range of industries to dress in work attire, home attire and a mixture of the two.

"Mixing professional and personal attire left workers worse off," according to a paper the researchers published this past week. Home attire, meanwhile, "increased authenticity and engagement."

Although it might be tempting to dismiss clothing choices as frivolous for remote workers, Galinsky's research indicates they are "meaningful . . . with important organizational consequences." A shift to more casual dress could help simplify things for employees juggling multiple roles and level the playing field for disadvantaged groups. Ultimately, it benefits the employer and the employee, research suggests.

Raul Villar Jr., chief executive of Paycor, took his company virtual in 2020. The 54-year-old said that surveys of his 2,000 employees at the HR software company over the course of the pandemic repeatedly showed that about 90 percent prefer to work from home - and that's been better for productivity.

"A lot of people in my generation didn't think it could work, but during the first four months of the pandemic, we were all proven wrong," Villar told The Post. "We're operating in a virtual environment, and we're not going to change that in six months or two years."

In a sense, the digital pivot has been a great leveler, Villar said. Employees outside Paycor's corporate office in Cincinnati didn't used to get the same experience as those within it. Everyone is equal in a Zoom grid. And he's been able to expand his talent pipeline to include the whole country: "We're able to hire the best person for the job, regardless of where they live."

Villar calls the embrace of remote work an "employee-first stance," one that has provided a measure of stability at a time when all are juggling competing demands and grappling with a revolving door of uncertainty. He doesn't want his employees worrying about whether their kids will make the bus, or fearful for their health.

"We've taken a lot of that stress out of the equation for our employees so they can focus on what they do best for Paycor, and then focus on their family," Villar said.

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