Businesses tell their workforce to return to offices by Labor Day – or even sooner
Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect figures for the number of Americans working from home in May 2020 and May 2021.
Many company executives, in a shift from early this spring, say they want their employees to return to their offices by Labor Day or sooner.
The move could pose a dilemma for workers who largely worked from home during the pandemic and have become accustomed to throwing in a load of laundry or walking the dog in between Zoom meetings during the day.
Last month, 40% of Americans said they preferred to work from home full time, compared with 35% who sought a home-office hybrid and 25% who wanted to go back to the office full time, according to a Harris Poll survey of 2,063 provided to USA TODAY.
But they may no longer have that choice.
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From Wall Street to Main Street, employers are telling their workers it's time to quit wearing T-shirts and sweats and put on a tie or pantsuit and start the commute into the office.
John Mitchell, an independent economist who previously worked for U.S. Bancorp, says the reasons are fairly simple: Employers believe their workers will be more productive by sharing ideas and collaborating in an office setting, and it's far easier for human resources to "onboard" new workers.
Plus, Mitchell says, "Do you really know how many hours people are working from home?"
Andy Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says company executives are also itching to get staff back into offices to protect the bottom line.
"In the short run, companies didn't see productivity fall. But over the long run, companies think those interactions and sharing ideas (in the office) create a better product," says Challenger, whose company specializes in job placements.
But Challenger notes a "disconnect" with employees.
"I talk to job seekers and employees," he says. "There's a feeling that they were pretty productive when they worked from home, and they enjoyed it."
Challenger says typically it's younger employees who may not have the "nostalgia" of working in an office environment and who want to keep working from home. Yet, he says the isolation in a home office keeps employees from creatively collaborating and bouncing ideas off one another.
Challenger says it's way too easy for a job recruiter to contact a candidate at home and lure that employee away.
"Being in the office makes the jobs stickier," Challenger says.
Productivity up in 2020?
While Mitchell and Challenger say employers may be concerned about productivity, work output actually increased in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The federal agency found that labor productivity in the private nonfarm sector rose in 45 states and the District of Columbia last year when the pandemic caused much of the economy to shut down in March.
However, Corby Garner, an economist with the office of productivity at BLS, says her agency's figures can be a bit misleading.
Garner says labor productivity is a measure of real output over hours worked, and the driving factor behind more productivity last year was that work output increased but workers were logging fewer hours to do their jobs.
Garner says overall output in the economy went down last year, but because the number of hours worked also declined more, the situation created a "double negative" resulting in productivity numbers being higher.
"In 2020, two negatives equaled a positive," Garner says. "With the recovery, we are still seeing positive productive growth, but we are not back to where we were before the pandemic."
Choosing to return
Pamela Cone, who works in business solutions for Carenet Health in San Antonio, says she worked hard at home for nearly a year but started returning to the office in early April.
"It's refreshing," Cone says. "There are obvious advantages to working remotely, but you can feel isolated from your colleagues and teammates. I was ready to see everyone's faces in a conference room and have coffee conversations. It's been a grueling year."
Cone says she also avoids some of the distractions of working at home, such as her dog barking every time the doorbell rings or sharing internet bandwidth with her daughter who was attending school remotely.
"There is a lot of synergy when we get together," Cone says. "It's tough to duplicate those 'ah ha' moments when you are in a conference room."
In Montclair, New Jersey, Erin Mills had the option to keep working from home with her new business-to-business firm, but she decided to have a formal office setting.
"There is an energy that can't be replicated by 100% virtual interaction. There is an energy in picking up coffee or going down the hall to see a neighbor," says Mills, who runs Strat House. "It's important to have a brick-and-mortar establishment to have that space to bring people together."
Return by Labor Day
While Cone and Mills have returned to the office voluntarily, major companies across the country are encouraging or demanding that their staff come back by Labor Day.
Here are examples:
►Twitter plans to reopen its San Francisco and New York offices at reduced capacity for vaccinated employees starting July 12. Intel is beginning a phased-in reopening with most employees working from home returning by Sept. 1. And Medtronic, which makes medical devices, has asked its workers to voluntarily return this summer.
►The New York Times wants its staff back in the office at least three days a week in September, according to Business Insider. Meanwhile, Gannett, the parent company of USA TODAY, has reopened more than 150 of its locations across the country and plans to reopen most offices, if not all, by September.
►In the banking industry, Labor Day (Sept. 6) is the target return date for Bank of America, while US Bank wants its employees who worked onsite prior to the pandemic to return full time or in a hybrid role with some work being done from home by early September.
►JP Morgan Chase, which began bringing employees back to its offices on May 17, expects all of its employees to be back in the office by early July on a "consistent rotational schedule" subject to its 50% occupancy cap.
Then there's Morgan Stanley.
CEO James Gorman made headlines earlier this month when he said at an investing conference that with more people being vaccinated for COVID-19, it's time for Morgan Stanley's workers in New York to get back to the office – or else.
“If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office. And we want you in the office,” Gorman said.
JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley are among New York City's largest commercial tenants and prior to the pandemic, they had thousands of workers in Manhattan.
Gorman's comments came after he previously told Bloomberg that his company had "proven we can operate with no footprint. That tells you an enormous amount of where people need to be physically."
Other executives in the banking industry appear to have made a similar shift.
In May 2020, a New York Times headline said: "Manhattan Faces a Reckoning if Working from Home Becomes the Norm," and the story included a Barclays' executive who said: "the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past."
Vaccinations up, return to normalcy
Data from the Labor Department shows 151.8 million Americans were employed in May 2021, and 25.2 million teleworked or worked at home for pay at any time in the prior four weeks because of the pandemic. In May 2020, 137.5 million Americans were employed and 48.7 million teleworked because of COVID-19.
The number of new COVID-19 cases continues to fall, with nearly two-thirds of American adults having at least one COVID-19 vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And as Morgan Stanley's Gorman pointed out, restaurants around the United States are open and even extra cautious California Gov. Gavin Newsom opened his state's economy on June 15, allowing vaccinated residents to go mask-free in many businesses, theme parks and sporting stadiums.
The encouragement – or pressure – to get workers back in the office appears to be a shift from this spring when many executives were content to let their employees keep working from home with a leisurely return to the office in 2021.
But a large number of employees said they liked a model that allowed them to work at least part time from home, giving them more flexibility and eliminating onerous commute times.
Listening to employees
Even if many companies want their employees back as soon as possible, Intel and Twitter are willing to be a bit more flexible than major banks.
An Intel spokesperson says the major tech company is listening to its employees about "the future of how we work."
"We know that to keep and attract the best talent, we need to evolve and be nimble and competitive," says Chelsea Hughes, an Intel spokesperson. "We believe in finding ways that maximize team productivity while offering individual flexibility when possible."
A Twitter spokesman says while the company plans to reopen two offices next month, if employees have a "role and situation that enables them to work from home indefinitely or split their time between their home and the office, we will support that."
Intel and Twitter aren't alone in trying to enhance a work-life balance.
A recently released Willis Towers Watson survey found the number of U.S. organizations making improvements to the employee work environment a top priority has surged.
The survey included 258 U.S. employers from March 29 and April 23, with those respondents employing more than 3.6 million workers.
The Arlington, Virginia-based firm's findings come as a worker shortage is slowing the recovery from the COVID-19 recession, largely blamed on generous unemployment benefits and people caring for kids and sick relatives.
The survey also found that employers expect their percentage of employees working remotely to drop from 53% to 20% in three years.
"As organizations look ahead to the post-pandemic era, their ability to move the needle on the employee experience will be critical," says Suzanne McAndrew, global head of talent, advisory, data and software, for the firm.