Welcome back to the office everyone! We want you to stay…really.
That’s the message that companies are twisting themselves into knots trying to convey, with mixed results.
Many workers have gotten used to the perks of doing their jobs remotely—I can take the kids to school, have dinner with the family, run errands, work without interruption—which makes coaxing them back to the office easier said than done.
Companies have been trying a variety of approaches.
Elon Musk required Twitter employees to sign a pledge to be “hardcore” and reportedly brought in some beds to set expectations. As if that wasn’t clear, he also circulated a memo specifically telling employees that they need to be in the office “a minimum of 40 hours” per week. “If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned,” Musk added.
Law firm Sidley Austin decided to encourage associate attorneys by threatening to cut their bonus cash (ranging from $20,000-$120,000) if they don’t go to work in-person at least three times a week.
Other organizations are trying a softer touch—bringing out carrots like free lunches, parking, pool tables, and ping pong.
Still not good enough? There’s also the specter of layoffs roiling Corporate America right now. Daily news of job cuts sends a thinly veiled message to those who might be weighing where to spend their work day: It’s probably easier to let someone go if you don’t see them on a regular basis.
There is no right answer that applies across the board to all organizations.
Communication—both ways—is critical.
First, companies need to outline why it’s important to be in the office.
Some, like Airbnb and law firm Quinn Emanuel, are fine if you “work anywhere.” Others deeply believe that there’s tremendous benefit from the personal interactions that go on every day in an office environment, which is lost with remote work.
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Is your organization going back to the office because its leaders have always worked in an office and don’t trust employees to get the job done independently? Or can you outline specific reasons to believe that the work will get done better in-person? Your ability to clearly and credibly outline the “why” will play a big role in determining how your “back to the office” policy is received.
Companies also need to listen. Talk to employees. Find out what they like about remote work, and what they get from coming into the office. Can subtle changes, like limiting the “in-office” policy to three days a week and offering flexible start times ease the transition?
Many organizations are finding that people really do miss in-person interaction with their teammates, both professionally and personally. But they don’t get much out of returning to a half empty office. The right answer may be to have certain days where entire teams agree to all come to the office, so that they can see each other and work collaboratively.
Specificity is key. A vague rule is sure to be gamed. And there’s nothing worse than having a rule that practically can’t be enforced, especially when people’s money is on the line.
Take Sidley’s new policy that attorneys’ annual bonuses will be docked if they don’t show up in the office three days a week. I can just imagine how a group of lawyers will have fun with this one. What does “three days a week” actually mean? Do weekends count? If so, for which week? How long do I have to stay in the office for the day to count? If I leave at noon, is that an office day? What if I’m in court or taking a deposition or on a plane for work? Does that count as an office day? What if I work two days in the office one week, and four the next week? If I work two days a week in the office, can I get two-thirds of my bonus?
Enforcement of a three-day office week has its own challenges, even if you iron out all the technicalities. Who is going to track attendance, and will that person have to be in the office every day to make sure the count is accurate? (I saw Sally on Tuesday and Wednesday, did anybody see her yesterday?) Will Sidley’s attorneys have a time clock for checking in and out?
What about enlisting the IT department to get data on computer login locations or security badge check in times? And if there’s talk that employees are sharing card keys to check each other in, should you start using facial recognition?
The best result is to create a workplace where people want to show up. Where leaders are in the office most of the time, setting an example and mentoring or simply interacting with other employees. Where employees have fun with each other. And where there’s a little flexibility for employees to stay at home from time to time without fear that skipping a badge swipe will get them in trouble.
This kind of culture can’t be created with a days-per-week rule.
Rob Chesnut is the former general counsel and chief ethics officer at Airbnb. He spent more than a decade as a Justice Department prosecutor and later oversaw US legal operations at eBay. The author of “Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution,” Rob consults on legal and ethical issues.
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