A year ago and a pandemic, more than 100,000 people filled the central business district of Charlotte, North Carolina, leaving offices, including several recently built skyscrapers, and towards restaurants, bars and sports venues. Then, when the coronavirus sent employees home, much of downtown quickly became silent and dark.
The return of those employees to their offices has been entertaining and difficult. Last fall, Fifth Third Bank began bringing workers back, but soon changed course. LendingTree, which is moving from the suburbs to the city, is looking forward to the end of the school year. Wells Fargo has delayed their return to the office multiple times, recently telling their employees that they will continue to work remotely until at least May 1. And Duke Energy will bring some employees back in June, and most of the 6,000 people at its headquarters in September, when kids should be able to go back to school.
Corporate executives across the country are struggling with how to reopen offices as the pandemic begins to loosen. Businesses, and many employees, are eager to return to some sort of normal work life, to return to the office, to have lunch at their favorite restaurant, or to stop for a drink after work. But the world has changed and many managers and workers recognize that telecommuting has its advantages.
While coronavirus cases are on the decline and vaccines are on the rise, many companies haven’t committed to a time and strategy to bring employees back. The most important variable, many executives said, is how long it will take for most employees to get vaccinated. President Biden said Tuesday that the United States was “on its way” to having enough vaccines for all adults by the end of May.
Another important consideration revolves around the children of workers. Businesses say they can’t make firm decisions until they know when local schools will reopen for in-person learning.
Then there’s a broader question: Does it make sense to go back to the way things were before the pandemic given that people have become used to the rhythms of teleworking?
“We all have different levels of comfort when we return,” said Chuck McShane, senior vice president of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, an organization that has helped attract businesses to the area. “For some companies, it depends on the type of work you are doing and whether you can stay home. But one concern about continuous remote work is, how do beginning workers socialize in the office culture? “
About a quarter of employees nationwide go to offices these days, according to Kastle Systems, an office security firm that collects data from 3,600 buildings in the United States.
Many companies, paying to rent empty office space, are eager for that number to rise. Its executives believe that having employees working side by side enhances collaboration, supports the development of younger employees, and nurtures the heart and soul of any company – its culture.
That’s why some managers like Mark Rose, CEO of Avison Young, a Chicago-based property management and commercial property consulting firm with offices around the world, are asking employees to return to the office in April. .
“They are not going to fire you or write if you don’t come back, but it is the expectation that, subject to local laws and subject to your individual problems, you will start coming back,” Mr. Rose said of his 5,000 employees. “It’s definitely going to be an expectation.”
A massive return to the office would, of course, be a boon for commercial real estate companies like Avison Young. Homeowners, whose incomes are threatened as corporations move or reduce the amount of space they rent, would breathe a sigh of relief. Many tenants have more space than they need. In Manhattan, the amount of subleased office space available for rent increased nearly 50 percent last year and is currently 27 percent of all available space, the highest proportion since the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. , according to Savills.
Plus, a return to the office would help revive city centers that have been ghost towns for months. Restaurants and bars could start hiring again, and returning travelers could generate much-needed revenue for distressed transit systems.
The course of the pandemic has largely dictated attendance at the office. That number plummeted in March and April of last year as the pandemic took hold and began to rise slowly in late spring, according to Kastle. Another spike in infections after Thanksgiving reduced occupancy, but it appears to be on the rise.
There are big regional differences. In large Texas cities, more than a third of workers have returned, while the New York, San Francisco and Chicago areas remain below 20 percent.
Some of these regional differences could be explained by the way people get to work.
“In places where people travel by public transport, we know that makes people much more vulnerable to Covid due to the mere presence of others, compared to traveling in their own car,” said Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School. teacher studying distance work.
Some companies that have started trying to get workers back to the office, like Vivint, a Provo, Utah-based home security company that has more than 10,000 employees nationwide, say they do so voluntarily. .
Vivint is allowing 40 percent of its 4,000 Utah employees to return, although only about 20 percent have chosen to do so regularly. The company has required that some call center workers “be struggling to get their calls done” and need additional training to get on.
To accommodate social distancing, Vivint has restricted access to each building to a single entrance, where employees’ temperatures are taken. The signs remind employees to wear masks at all times and the company has limited capacity in conference rooms.
Vivint also has an on-site clinic that has been offering 15-minute rapid virus tests to employees and their families. “It is very important to our ability to provide peace of mind for our employees,” said Starr Fowler, senior vice president of human resources.
The company hopes to use the clinic to distribute coronavirus vaccines to its workers, when Utah allows it.
Some companies like Davis Wright Tremaine, a Seattle-based law firm, have said that workers who want to return to the office should get vaccinated. But others like Duke Energy have said they are trying to encourage, not demand, vaccines.
As an incentive for employees to get vaccinated, Duke Energy is providing “health reward points” for vaccinated employees, similar to the points employees receive for having an annual physical exam or not using tobacco, said Neil Nissan, spokesman for Duke. Those points can lower monthly health insurance costs for employees, he added.
The company said the pandemic will most likely have a lasting effect on its operation.
“We are going to have a hybrid working model,” Nissan said. “Some days, an employee will be in the office and other days, they will work remotely. It gives employees flexibility and prevents everyone from being present at the same time. “
More than 55 percent of people surveyed by consulting firm PwC late last year said they would prefer to work remotely at least three days a week after the pandemic recedes. But their bosses seem to have somewhat different preferences: 68 percent of employers said they believed employees needed to be in the office at least three days a week to maintain the corporate culture.
Salesforce, the San Francisco-based software company, earned praise from some people when it said that most of its employees could come to the office one to three days a week, an approach the company described as “flexible. “Once the pandemic is no longer a threat to public health. The company did not say whether it now needed less office space.
But other companies ultimately want all or nearly all employees to return for most of the week, and are telling workers that their careers could be affected if they don’t return.
Rapid7, a Boston-based cybersecurity company, will expect workers to return to the office at least three days a week when it determines it is safe to do so.
“We truly believe that our in-person workplaces advance our culture and core values,” said Christina Luconi, the company’s chief personnel officer.
Employees who choose not to return to the office could face professional repercussions, he said.
“We are not saying that we are going to stall his career intentionally,” added Ms. Luconi. “But if you’re the odd person when everyone else is together again, that may be a challenge for you.”
Still, this discussion is somewhat theoretical. Rapid7 has not yet set a date to return to the office and Ms. Luconi said she would wait to do so until vaccines are widely available. The company is leaning towards allowing only vaccinated employees to return to the office.