It’s been six months since offices closed their doors to slow the spread of COVID-19. As companies have weighed the pros and cons of working from home, different industries have found drastically different answers to the question of if WFH is the future.
About 35% of US companies reported that they have “no timeline” for bringing employees back to the office, according to a survey by The Conference Board of executives at more than 1,000 firms. This makes sense: there’s no clear sense of what the pandemic’s future in the U.S. will be. After weeks of decline, COVID-19 infection rates are ticking up again as schools, hinting at a much-feared second wave. Despite this volatility, not everyone is playing it by ear.
Finance plays with fire
After six months of working from home, the notorious workaholics at America’s biggest banks were the first to ask employees to head to the office. Donald Trump praised JPMorgan earlier this month when the bank said it was requiring traders and managers, except for those with child care issues or who were immunocompromised, to return by September 21.
Although the bank recently charted a record quarter amidst a recession, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Simon said his workplace was missing the "creative combustion” of face-to-face contact, and that productivity was down according to NPR. Their gamble’s been rocky, to say the least. There hasn’t been an outbreak linked to a bank yet but JPMorgan sent multiple staffers home after testing positive for COVID-19 within a week into their reopening.
Spokespeople declined to specify how many cases they’ve had, only offering up that they’ve been “managing individual cases across the firm… and following appropriate protocols when they occur. Traders now required to work from the office have complained that JPMorgan wasn’t transparent Covid-19 was in the building. “Why did I have to read about this in Bloomberg?” one trader said to CNBC. Early in the pandemic JPMorgan sent full-company memos about new cases, but the bank’s global markets head Troy Rohrbauch said the bank’s current policy is only to inform those on the floor or who may have had contact with a sick person.
Goldman Sachs has faced similar setbacks. According to Bloomberg, they’re bringing “most” divisions back in week-in, week-out rotational shifts starting in October. But they’ve already sent least one trader home last week after testing positive from their Manhattan office. Similar to Diamond, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon has stressed the importance of bringing people back to rebuild company culture.
These banks are the biggest and most aggressive companies to head back to Wall Street, but they’re not alone. Advisory firm Evercore and P. Schoenfeld Asset Management — which have a few hundred employees a piece — have both brought trading staff back to the office, reports New York Post. Amex gave workers permission to stay home until June 2021, but phasing 10% of workers back. These firms are copying JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs in bringing senior staff and executives back first, with plans for lower-rung employees to follow. “They’re hoping that having some rainmakers and traders come in first will provide a comfort level for everyone else — and praying there isn’t a bad virus outbreak,” a source in the industry told the outlet.
Bankers in the woods
Some businesses have instituted an optional return to the office and are trying to lure people back with perks (which should already be entitlements.) Citibank plans to return 30% of its staff back by October 5, up from 5% currently. Employees who return to the office will get 40 days of subsidized child care, help with online learning supervision and nanny placement services.
Among the purveyors of the more creative back-to-the-office solutions is Bridgewater. The $140 billion hedge fund has set up tents in a field of pine trees across from their Westport, Connecticut headquarters. About 50 of the firm’s 150 employees have been working there since May, bringing their computer monitors, routers and all into the woods. It sounds ludicrous, but to be fair, there are no reported cases tied to the company. They’ll face the same issues as everyone else once the temperature starts to drop: the firm plans to move inside at the end of October.
Not everyone on Wall Street is following suit — Deutsche Bank and Bank of New York Mellon Corp have return-to-the-office dates for mid-2020 — but no other industry besides finance has taken such an aggressive approach. These banks and finance moves are in spite of local trends. NYC has been reopening at an extremely cautious rate thanks to the devastation of its early Covid-19 spike. According to the Wall Street Journal, only 10% of NYC office workers are back versus 25% nationally, 40% in Dallas, and 32% in Los Angeles.
The current word from the experts is that even a carefully managed, distanced return to offices is still a calculated risk. "Just because you can doesn't mean you should. And not all companies necessarily need to open. There should be a really good reason to bring people back in," Dr. Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist at the NYU School of Global Public Health told CBS News. So why are finance CEO’s rushing? Washington Post’s Megan McArdle has a guess. “I suspect that bankers are going back to the office, not because the organization or the nation requires it, but because bank culture has spent decades filtering for macho displays of pointless sacrifice, and the people at the top are apt to be among those who most enjoy them.”
Tech is staying in their sweats
Meanwhile, over in Silicon Valley, tech CEOS have been competing with each other to propose the most flexible and far-reaching work from home policy. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey announced in May that employees could work from home “forever” if they wanted to. They’re sticking to the plan: Twitter recently listed over 100,00 square feet of their San Francisco headquarters for a 2-5 year sublease. Square and Slack have also both introduced permanent WFH options. Pinterest recently paid $89.5 million to escape the lease for the 88-floor high rise complex it was building near their existing San Francisco office. There’s one downside for employees of big tech companies who can now work from Tulsa, Oklahoma if they want: many companies are planning to implement location-based pay reductions.
Alphabet (AKA Google)’s CEO Sundar Pichai has said that many Google’s 200,000 employees will never return to in-office work full time. While this is a radically different tune than Wall Street’s warnings of damage to their business and culture if they don’t return to the office soon, Pichai is less confident than Dorsey that WFH is a 100% solution. At the TIME100 Honorees: Visions for the Future event, Pichai called for a longerm hybrid model that includes some days in the office. (Currently, employees have permission to work fully remot until June 2021). “Having a sense of community is super important when you have to solve hard problems and create something new,” he said. “So we don’t see that changing. But we do think we need to create more flexibility.”
Apple’s Tim Cook is also less celebratory of WFH than some others. He said, according to Fortune, that he “hopes the majority of staff can return to the company’s new campus in Silicon Valley sometime next year.” Already, 10-15% of Apple employees have returned to their campus. However, Cook also says things will never go back to the way they were before, because of how well WFH has been going.
Amazon and Facebook have both adopted the typical tech return date of June and July 2021 respectively. Mark Zuckerberg has said he “expects as much as half of his firm’s employees to work from home within a decade.” However, both companies are also sending big signals they see a future in the office. Earlier this summer, Facebook picked up real estate in New York City’s west side tech corridor earlier this summer and most recently, moved to buy REI’s unused, brand new campus in Bellevue Washington. (REI was slated to move into their new headquarters this summer but announced in August they were offloading it as they leaned into remote work. Amazon recently leased new offices for around 3,500 employees in Dallas, Denver, Detroit, New York City, Phoenix, and San Diego.
Media's mixed bag
Recently, some of the loudest resistance to working from home has come from the entertainment industry. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently called working from home a “pure negative” and that he didn’t see “any positives” about in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. His timeframe for returning to the office? “Twelve hours after a vaccine is removed.” But although Hastings sounds as eager to end remote work as JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs’ CEOs, he was serious about the vaccine thing. He’s indicated he won’t try to repopulate the office until there’s a vaccine, which, based on the 12-18 month estimates from experts, puts Netflix on track with Silicon Valley. Hastings' attitude makes sense considering Netflix’ notoriously cutthroat culture and staff policies.
Others in the entertainment world are taking advantage of their cities reopening plans. In coordination with California’s reopening plan publicity firm DKC reopened their West Hollywood office this week, with an alternating schedule for different teams. Not everyone is included: after Disneyworld’s chaotic reopening in Florida in July, California is keeping theme parks closed despite Disney Parks chairman Josh D’Amaro’s reported plea to state officials to give them the greenlight. Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood and others remain closed.
Music has stuck to their guns. There’ve been no revised policies yet from Spotify or the big three labels Sony, Warner and Universal, which have all given summer 2021 return dates.
Media is seeing mixed responses from movers and shakers. Hearst Corporation boss Steven R. Swartz was one of 163 executives, alongside reps from Goldman Sachs, JetBlue, Mastercard, Morgan Stanley, Pfizer and Warby Parker, as well as from top law firms and real estate developers, who lambasted Bill De Blasio in an open letter demanding he get the city on track to reopen sooner. The media conglomerate is reportedly offering free city parking and additional child-care reimbursement to try to incentivize staff to return to the office. Meanwhile, their rival Condé Naste appears to be accepting their fate. A month ago, they were reportedly in talks to break their 25-year, billion dollar lease on the One World Trade Center. Employees have been told to collect their personal items, according to an employee there.
Some players in art started bringing workers back in September. Like banks, they’ve faced pushback. While most Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum staff are still working remotely, Sotheby's and The Museum of Modern Art have reopened. Both asked their entire staff, except those with medical or childcare issues, to return to work. MoMA staffers interviewed by ArtNet about the policy said they felt they were being asked to choose between their health and their jobs. Given that the art world saw a tsunami of layoffs and furloughs this Spring, museums reopening have an obvious upside for workers. But like most industries, there’s no good options.
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