Back to the Office: The New Nudge

Some big firms are quietly trying to coax people back to the office—and in a few cases with Labor Day deadlines. Will workers go along?

Labor Day is the traditional end-of-summer US holiday that normally sees many workers returning to the office, rested and primed to work together on new projects for the fall. The question now is: Could that mean literally being back in the office?

In moves that haven’t attracted a lot of attention, some heavy-hitting firms in a wide range of sectors, from finance to oil, are beginning to reopen offices and encourage at least some of their workforce back. Experts say the recalls—which run counter to some other companies that decided to keep workers home well into next year—are largely at the experimental but potentially clashing stage.

“There are a lot of sides to this,” says Anthony LoPinto, global sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Real Estate practice. “Some firms may be asking people back, but that’s pretty much sector by sector and certainly not universal.”

According to recent news accounts, for example, JPMorgan Chase told employees it has started bringing back sales and trading volunteers to its massive Manhattan tower this summer, expecting about 20% occupancy by Labor Day. Meanwhile, Bank of America announced last week that it plans to bring employees back to offices in phases after Labor Day. They are joining other firms, including some major oil ones in Texas and a large healthcare software company in the Midwest, that have nudged large parts of their staff back to their offices.

Businesses with factories and warehouses, of course, have already had employees return en masse when the work was essential and with full safety protocols. Now, leaders must weigh the notion of boosting occupancy in their many office buildings, an idea that strikes fear in many people’s hearts. Some are very worried about the virus spreading both inside an office setting and during the commute there. And indeed, some companies that tried to bring back office staff this summer jettisoned the plans when their states reported a spike in cases.

Still, according to Mike Eichenwald, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Advisory practice focused on global financial markets, organizations in some sectors have plenty of reasons for wanting their employees back in one place. There are many leaders who do best interacting with employees face-to-face, he says, and colleagues just interacting often leads to new ways to do business, new products, and better ways of collaborating. Experts say even casual interactions at the office provide a lot of support, both professionally and personally, for employees. Remote work, for its part, is forcing workers to reinvent how they work with clients and other employees. “Some people can reinvent themselves and other people can’t,” Eichenwald says.

The firms that are reopening their offices have instituted a host of safety protocols and office redesigns to ensure social distancing. Elevators, ventilation systems, and cleaning processes have been adjusted. How effective these changes will be, however, is hard to know, raising both health issues for workers and legal liabilities for firms. At the same time, many employees remain fearful of public transportation. “No one wants to gear up and then shut down again,” LoPinto says.

To date, the biggest headlines on the topic have been in the opposite direction, with firms like Google announcing workers can stay at home working remotely until well into next year—Twitter, meanwhile, said its workers could do so “forever.” And in June, Fujitsu, the Japan-based IT firm, said it would shift 80,000 of its employees to remote work full-time, slashing the amount of real estate it uses in Japan by 50%.

Ultimately, the decision to return to the office will be in the hands of a few top leaders. There are bosses who naturally believe in a work-in-the-office culture, says Eichenwald, which may dictate what to do next. Or they may rethink how work is done. “The workspace is a place you go to when you have good reasons to go, rather than going because it's what you’ve always done,” he says.