Back to the Office: Employers Push for a Post-Labor Day Return
Employers have become increasingly adamant in their efforts to get workers to return to the office, with the week after Labor Day emerging as a turning point to reset workplace norms that for more than two years have been upended by the pandemic.
Companies ranging from small mom-and-pops to global financial giants are setting the calendar for an early September comeback that, if successful, would finally realize more than two years of efforts to get employees back working in office real estate.
Apple, Tesla, Disney and Goldman Sachs have each said they expect employees to work from an office on a more regular basis starting after the holiday weekend, a shift expected to kick off the next stage of the pandemic's impact on the country's economic landscape.
While the goal of getting workers back to some level of in-person interaction is the same, strategies in realizing it are varied. Some companies are doing away with vaccination requirements and enforcing strict return guidelines, while others are trying to lure employees back with perks such as gourmet catered lunches or renovated offices complete with game rooms, rooftop decks and coffee bars.
"The built environment has to be a place folks want to go," Rob Olivet, a senior vice president for global project management firm MGAC, told CoStar News. "Historically, office space was centered around how much square footage each person needed and economizing costs, but the pandemic has made it so that it isn't just about the dollars and cents. The COVID and hybrid workforce has prompted more attention to certain amenities, and those high-end amenities are definitely helpful in getting people back to the office."
The Labor Day 2022 return effort caps a series of delays companies made in their initial office reopening plans, with concerns stemming from a variety of COVID-19 variants, case spikes, local restrictions and mandates, as well as employee worries that kept a big chunk of America's office portfolios unoccupied at least on some days of the week since the onset of the health crisis in early 2020. However, with each postponement, workers' preference for remote or flexible work has strengthened, adding another complicated layer to employers' attempts to return to in-person operations.
Employee Retention AidWhile remote and hybrid work models were initially deployed in response to the pandemic, they have since become a significant benefit for companies looking to keep employees happy and for workers that value the flexibility, said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University professor of economics and a co-founder of WFH Research.
More than 90 million workers across the country, just shy of 60% of the American workforce, had the chance to work from home at least once a week in 2022, according to a report from global management consultant McKinsey & Co. Roughly 35% of the nation's workforce was able to work from home five days a week. That's a roughly sixfold increase compared to pre-pandemic days in 2019, when a little more than 5% of workers were able to operate primarily from home, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
"The long-run trend of work from home is upwards, as it has been over the last 50 years," Bloom said, adding that work-from-home opportunities are now stabilizing as they become a permanent fixture in the U.S. economy.
As remote work became more common in the workplace, many employers were initially hesitant about if and how often workers would be allowed to remain at home.
"In late 2020 there was a big gap between how many work-from-home days workers wanted and how many employers were planning," Bloom said. "That gap has mostly gone."
Companies walk a fine line between mandating employee returns and the accelerating push for more flexibility, a trend that has been fueled by a tightened labor market and dire worker shortage. Yet, as part of the debate for when and how to get employees to return to the office, the big question emerging now is what strategy will end up sticking.
Here's a sampling of how some companies across the United States are asking workers to spend more time in the office:
Headquarters: Cupertino, California
Number of employees: More than 37,000 in the U.S.
Return-to-office schedule: The Silicon Valley tech giant told employees to prepare to return to the office for three days a week following the long Labor Day weekend. Workers will be required to head to an office on Tuesdays and Thursdays for mandatory in-person days, with a third day to be determined by individual departments. CEO Tim Cook said in June that the company's return-to-office initiative was "the mother of all experiments." The iPhone maker has received severe blowback from some employees, who argue the blanket return mandate doesn't take into account individual workers' situations.
Headquarters: Oakland, California
Number of employees: About 1,300 across the country
Return-to-office schedule: The Bay Area fintech firm has been trying for the better part of the past year to get employees into its offices. The company, which relocated its headquarters to Oakland from San Francisco in 2021, recently told workers they would need to be in an office at least a few days a week on a schedule to be determined by individual teams. To make the space more attractive, Credit Karma stocked its new Oakland headquarters with perks such as a game room, coffee bar, rooftop lounge and events such as kombucha by the fire pit.
Headquarters: New York
Number of employees: Nearly 44,000 around the world
Return-to-office schedule: The investment bank is a leader in a cohort of Wall Street powerhouses pushing employees to return to the office on a pre-pandemic schedule. While it has been competing in an increasingly tight labor market, emerging macroeconomic concerns and a volatile stock market bolstered Goldman's efforts to set a post-Labor Day return mandate. The company said Aug. 30 it would lift all COVID-related protocols such as vaccination requirements and masking, and employees would be required to return to an office on a full-time basis after the holiday weekend.
Number of employees: Roughly 190,000 around the world
Return-to-office schedule: The cable, news and entertainment conglomerate will begin requiring a firm three-day workweek for employees across the country, with workers expected to come into an office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays starting Sept. 12. The schedule is a shift from an earlier policy that asked employees to be in an office for a few days each week but didn't specify when. "A big part of our culture is working together," Comcast Cable CEO Dave Watson wrote in a memo to employees last month. "It is clear that in-person interaction and collaboration is core to our company and culture. To optimize the experience while supporting the business, we’ve concluded that we need more certainty and direction to coordinate our in-office time better.”