Across the Bay Area, employers and employees have had to find new ways of working as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered offices. But as California moves in fits and starts to reopen, almost everyone has the same question: Will office work ever be the same?
Probably not, experts say.
“We’re not going to go back to something called ‘normal,’” said Martin Reeves, a San Francisco-based managing director for the Boston Consulting Group. “All major social crises, epidemics and wars have had long-lasting changes.”
During weeks of sheltering in place, many business owners and managers have been surprised to discover how adaptable they’ve become, thanks in part to video conferencing and other technological tools that help workers collaborate and meet virtually. “I think most organizations would say, ‘Wow, we can do a lot more remotely than we thought,’” said Jennifer Chatman, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
That may produce lasting change. A recent survey of more than 100 mostly large businesses by the Bay Area Council spanning industries from tech to law to construction found that even after restrictions are lifted, executives expect only 74 percent of workers will be back in offices, and nearly a fifth of firms plan to go fully remote.
Before the shutdowns, some of the Bay Area’s biggest employers already had flexible schedules, collaboration tools and remote teams. Tech companies were among the first to send workers home and may be among the last to have them return to an office. Twitter has said many employees can work from home forever and Google has extended its work-from-home plan until the end of the year. Yet many businesses — restaurants, hair salons, manufacturing plants, construction firms and a host of others — can’t operate that way. Even people employed in jobs that can be done remotely, like graphic design or architecture, may not have the computer infrastructure at home to support the massive files they use, noted Bay Area Council chief operating officer John Grubb. But as companies examine new state and local guidelines for social distancing and disinfecting at work, some are starting to challenge old ways of thinking.
At Attivo Networks, a Fremont cybersecurity company, CEO Tushar Kothari is already talking about a future in which coming to the office isn’t required. He’s been going into work during the shutdown, but he’s the only one. “We learned that we could do everything without being face to face because we use all this video-conferencing,” Kothari said. “In fact, our productivity has gone up. All put together it’s been a very, very positive experience. And we think that we’ll carry this forward well into the future. We just don’t see the need to go back to where we were before.”
Kothari believes Attivo will make office work optional once shelter-in-place orders are relaxed. “We are moving to what I call task-based and results-based work: As long as you complete your task and you produce your results, that’s more important than you being here 8-5 or whatever,” he said. Possibly the company will organize weekly lunch meetings, with a couple of hours in the office on either side, for employees to get together, socialize and share ideas, he said. But, said executive Carolyn Crandall, Attivo’s 30 Bay Area workers and 170 others in 10 countries are not “dying to return to commuting and dressing up for work.”
San Jose artificial-intelligence fraud-prevention firm Signifyd has relied heavily on remote work for several years. Before the pandemic, about half its engineers worked outside company offices. The outbreak has “forced our hand,” said human resources head Emily Mikailli. “We’re not alone in thinking long term, ‘Do we really need an office?’” she said. It’s likely only a matter of time before the company goes completely remote, because productivity can be upheld while expenses are cut, she said. “It’s very, very hard to get ahead as a tech company in Silicon Valley when you look at all of the costs,” Mikailli said.
Berkeley’s Chatman says that with a recession looming, many companies are going to be looking to cut costs. She predicts the first thing to go will be “dedicated space for one person who’s the only owner for that space.” The practice of “hoteling,” in which workers use desks and meeting rooms as needed, will become widespread as company footprints shrink, she said.
Jonathan Wasserstrum, CEO of SquareFoot, a New York commercial real estate firm with Bay Area listings, is skeptical. “As long as some of the folks want to be in the office some of the time, they want their own desks,” he said. Even in the Bay Area, the cost of providing dedicated space is small compared to a worker’s compensation, Wasserstrum added.
Besides, with requirements that employers provide more space for those who do return to an office, some companies may need to expand. The Bay Area Council’s Grubb said the head of a major accounting firm just told him the company was going to need more space to maintain social distancing among workers.
But Patrick Moorhead, a Texas-based tech industry analyst who often works in Silicon Valley, said that with many workers now adjusted to working from home and preferring it to office work, “If you’re an employer and you don’t allow your employees to do that, you’re not going to be a competitive place to work.”
Working from home has downsides, Chatman noted. “The upside is that maybe we don’t have to go through as many crazy machinations to get to work — for us in the Bay Area the traffic is just insane. It may enable greater productivity because people are focused on what’s really important, which is getting the work done,” she said. However, “this permeable boundary between work and home could instigate a kind of work creep into your life and it could actually cause people to feel more pressure more of the time than they really should,” she said.
Also, the pandemic has revealed that remote work doesn’t suit everyone, with some workers having trouble focusing, or suffering mental-health issues, or running into difficulties while trying to parent and work at the same time, Mikailli said.
While the question of what Bay Area workplaces will look like going forward will be answered in time, the more immediate question for many businesses is when they will reopen the office.
“I don’t have a good answer,” said Mikailli. “I’m struggling to find a compelling reason to push forward with that.”
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Author: Ethan Baron