The boss returned but the workers remained at home

Such was Chesley Maddox-Dorsey’s devotion to her job as chief executive at American Urban Radio Networks that she worked daily from the company’s Manhattan office for the past nine months-before she received her Covid vaccination- 19.

As the pandemic subsided and New York City reopened, Maddox-Dorsey wondered how to get his staff back, most of whom were accustomed to working from home last year.

“I think it can be a lot more visible and complicated than that,” he said, when asked if vaccination is enough for employees to be convinced to continue office life. To his fellow chief executives he observed: “I think it might be a little scary for all of us to know that everyone doesn’t have the same desire to go to the office that we want.”

Across New York and other major cities, chief executives have returned to offices that are, often, their seat of power and most beloved environment. Yet statistics suggest that their workers don’t feel the same pull-whether it’s because of health concerns, lack of child care, or suffering from travel.

As of May 5, the “back-to-work” barometer published by Kastle Systems, the maker of office security systems, shows that only 16.3 percent occupy New York offices, up 0.1 percent from last week and only a few percentage points from November.

“They’re trying to figure out how to get them back, and who exactly they can push,” said Ruth Colp-Haber, chief executive of Wharton Property Advisors, about the CEOs she consulted about the needs of assets of their companies.

David Rubenstein, chief executive of Rubenstein Partners, a commercial real estate firm, agreed. “Most CEOs are back, and they want their workforce back.”

At stake are competing workplace visions of the future, and the level of suitability that workers should have in deciding where and how they will do their jobs. Or, as Colp-Haber predicted in a recent note to clients, “class warfare may come to an office near you about the scope of hybrid work”.

The result is also of great importance in cities like New York, which have built their economy on full office towers, and the investors who own such buildings. If more people work from home, the demand for office space may fall and assets may become less in value. Already, renting is under pressure, thanks to much of the unwanted space thrown up by companies in the sublet market.

Lunch in New York: repatriation of workers is essential in cities that have built economies with dense office towers

Lunch in New York: the return of workers is crucial in cities that have built economies with multiple office towers © Amir Hamja / Bloomberg

This is not the first time that a pandemic has affected the balance of labor management. After the Black Death swept Europe in the 14th century, leaving farms without farm hands, landowners were forced to provide better pay and conditions to serfs.

In recent days, many companies have issued orders for employees to return to the office. JPMorgan Chase became the first major financial firm to set a firm date, telling workers last month that they expected the most in July. (Perhaps that’s not surprising since the bank is building a new 2.5m square-foot headquarters on Park Avenue). Blackstone, Goldman Sachs and others are also following suit.

In a recent letter to staff, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai predicts that 60 per cent of workers will spend a few days a week in office, with 20 per cent permanently remote and another 20 per cent full-time in office .

IBM chief executive Arvind Krishna told Yahoo Finance that he expects 80 percent of staff to adopt a hybrid model, and that it will take a year or more to resolve the situation.

Privately, some executives have said they are inclined to turn the screws on but fear that doing so could result in workers with talent for rivals willing to allow more flexibility.

“I’d say the head of HR and the chief executive of a lot of companies have this discussion right now,” said Rubenstein, who believes most workers will follow the boss back into office in September, if not sooner. . At that time, schools would have to open as well – at least in the US and UK – and vaccines would be available to anyone who wanted them.

“I don’t believe a lot of sea changes are going to happen,” he said. “People want to be around when there are judgments being made and things are happening.”

But Phil Kirschner, who has led WeWork’s arrival at several companies, and is now a workplace consultant, sees more and more changes happening. The pandemic, he argued, only justified a shift toward a faster working life that began many years ago – but one that was rejected by many chief executives.

“The desire for more flexibility is not new. What is holding it back is that managers want to see workers in front of them to make sure they are productive,” he said. “And now that bandage has been removed. . “

Even before the epidemic, power changed as companies vying for talented young workers joined a career in arms “amenities” in an attempt to make their offices more more attracted to a new generation. In a world where great coffees, yoga rooms, massage, grocery delivery and outdoor space today of rigueur, speed – the ability to work remotely even a fraction of the time – is another motivator.

“Companies have to work harder than ever to make working for them feel truly compelling,” Kirschner explains, describing the mindset of young workers as: “‘ I used to work in the office-now I don’t. That’s why you have to convince me why I have to do it. ‘”

Nadir Settles, who manages 6m sq ft of New York office space for Nuveen, has a similar vision. His company invests in hotel -like comfort for its offices. “Whoever has the most curated environment, who welcomes employees back, that’s the winner,” he said.

Others talk about on-site child care and medical care. In New York, where public transportation is about to come as a particular obstacle, some are talking about tax incentives for travelers.

Some jobs are better suited to quick work than others. A programmer, for example, who can accomplish a lot of work on their own – as opposed to a marketing executive who is constantly interacting with others.

Like many chief executives, Maddox-Dorsey said he was willing to allow more flexibility after Covid but worried that the coordination and cooperation needed to make a radio program and then sell it would suffer.

“In order to have immediate feedback from team members, everyone has to be involved at the same time,” he said. “If you have people deciding at the beginning of the week what day they will come, it’s like we’re working more on individual schedules as opposed to having a common goal as a company trying to be fulfilled.”

He also discovered that it’s not straightforward to know who should be in the office and who shouldn’t. An older employee, with deep experience and company relationships, may not see the point of enduring a long trip to put in the time to deal with or do a task as quickly as they can. from home. Even more so if they have small children.

But its absence could deprive young employees, who benefit from working on their side. “It’s a personal choice but what has to be done as CEOs is to manage a lot of personal choices,” he says, “and sometimes they’re the opposite.”

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