The coronavirus has disrupted office life as we know it.
For many, the daily commute has turned into a social distancing walk, the pantsuit has become a sweatsuit and the board meeting has been replaced by a Zoom call. While some offices in the United States have begun to reopen, millions of workers — particularly those based in New York City — remain uncertain about when they would be able to return to their offices.
A number of companies such as Spotify and American Express have said that staff will be permitted to work from home for the remainder of 2020. Others like Twitter and Facebook have gone so far as to allow permanent remote work. By allowing employees to telecommute, companies have afforded their workers more flexibility in their daily schedules, helped workers save on transportation costs and reduced potential office distractions.
While the pandemic has made clear the value and effectiveness of working from home, for many firms, there are some aspects of office life that WFH policies may not be able to replicate. Here, FN rounds up the reasons why some companies are unlikely to ditch their communal spaces in favor of 100 percent remote work.
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The Management Dilemma
Remote work can create a challenge for managers in particular, as it can be difficult to ensure that workers stay engaged without in-person contact — and video calls may be unable to fill in all the gaps, warned the Oxford Business Group.
“One concern is that remote workers collaborate less efficiently, missing out on both planned and unplanned ‘face time,’ for which — some argue — digital connectivity is a poor substitute,” the research firm wrote in a report.
Potential distractions associated with work from home, OBG notes, have been compounded by COVID-19-induced school closures coupled with other lockdown measures. Naturally, the more people in a single household, the bigger the chances for disruptions.
The Office as Community Grounds
For many employees, going to work isn’t just about plugging away at a computer — it’s also about the relationships with colleagues, which are typically forged through in-person communication.
“We’ve never had anyone really working from home,” Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario explained in a conversation with LinkedIn editor-in-chief Daniel Roth. “It was very, very rare because we always think of ourselves as a family and a community, and we want to be together.”
Today, all employees in the outdoor brand’s corporate office are working from home, compared with “almost zero” prior to the pandemic. “That’s been a huge change for us,” Marcario added.
The Compensation Challenge
Unlike their salaried counterparts, hourly workers will continue to be tracked for their time as they work from home. Although there are remote ways to log those hours, employers will need to trust employees sight unseen.
“[Businesses] should have a clearly defined work-from-home policy so that employees know it’s not a free for all, that they still have to treat it like [they’re] at work — just at a different location,” explained Florida-based labor and employment lawyer Michael Elkins.
To keep track, some companies might even feel compelled to install tracking software to remotely supervise their employees. However, such a move could raise concerns about invasion of privacy among workers and potentially breed resentment.
From choppy Wi-Fi connections to server connectivity issues, some employees might not have the tech infrastructure required to maintain a remote work culture. Technical difficulties are made even more challenging for teams that often collaborate on projects or do business with clients in different countries.
In order to get up to speed, employers might have to invest in setting up entire systems that would make it productive, let alone possible, for employees to continue working from home for the long term. Some might even need to provide workers with stipends or other necessary supplies required at their home office spaces.
While the cost of throwing resources behind tech infrastructure would vary widely by company, such an investment could pay off in the long run: According to Global Workplace Analytics, nearly six out of ten employers identify savings as a significant benefit to telecommuting. Many off-the-shelf solutions currently exist for companies to support telework efficiency, whether for remote workers or traveling associates.
Many companies have made big investments in corporate offices — and in some cases, at a huge cost: According to Commercial Café data, Manhattan office space costs an average of around $75 per square foot in 2019. Corporations that have invested in HQs complete with features like fitness facilities and in-house dining may be reluctant to have their space sit empty as restrictions ease up.
What’s more, companies are unlikely to get a break from their landlords while office doors are shut. In recent weeks, a number of retailers, including Ross Stores, the NBA and Gap Inc., have entered into in legal battles with commercial landlords after skipping out on rent payments. The latter two are squaring off over leases in expensive Midtown Manhattan — home to offices for fashion brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Foot Locker.