By Elisabeth Buchwald
After Labor Day many Americans were set to return to work in person, but the delta variant forced employers to return to the drawing board to pick a new return-to-work date and decide how many days it makes for employees to come to offices.
While some companies including PwC and Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR -1.36% are allowing employees to work from home indefinitely, Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -1.38% announced earlier this week that it’s putting corporate managers in charge of deciding how many days, if any, employees who report to them should work in person.
“We’re intentionally not prescribing how many days or which days — this is for directors to determine with their senior leaders and teams,” Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said in an Oct. 11 memo to corporate employees.
“We expect that there will be teams that continue working mostly remotely, others that will work some combination of remotely and in the office, and still others that will decide customers are best served having the team work mostly in the office,” Jassy said.
Should other employers follow Amazon’s lead? It’s a question that has become increasingly pressing now that nearly 79% of the U.S. adult population has been vaccinated against COVID-19.
George Penn, vice president in the Gartner HR practice, thinks so. “Managers are [responsible for] defining the nature of work, establishing measurable goals and actively managing against those goals across a performance cycle,” said Penn.
Therefore, they are well-suited to decide the number of days employees work in person together, which “comes down to the nature of the work being done,” he told MarketWatch.
So why not give employees enough agency to decide for themselves? Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, has carried out monthly surveys of 30,000 Americans throughout the pandemic, and has found that nearly one-third of Americans say they never want to work from home.
He too favors the top-down approach. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he says people could feel excluded, “Employees at home can see glances or whispering in the office conference room but can’t tell exactly what is going on. Even when firms try to avoid this by requiring office employees to take video calls from their desks, home employees have told me that they can still feel excluded.”
“The second concern is the risk to diversity. It turns out that who wants to work from home after the pandemic is not random. In our research we find, for example, that among college graduates with young children women want to work from home full-time almost 50% more than men,” he writes.
“Single young men could all choose to come into the office five days a week and rocket up the firm, while employees with young children, particularly women, who choose to WFH for several days each week are held back,” he writes. “This would be both a diversity loss and a legal time bomb for companies.”
Considerations when deciding in-person work days
As Alyson, a Cincinnati, Ohio, an administrative assistant in her 20’s who works at a staffing agency, told Marketwatch in July : ““A lot of people are getting promotions — and most of them are in the office. It’s like even though you show up on time to your desk at your home and clock in, and you work all day and you’re doing a lot.”
Others suggest a hybrid decision-making approach, making it more of a conversation rather than a blanket rule, thereby taking into account the different needs of employees. Remote work, for example, can be a critical access to the workforce for many people with disabilities.
First and foremost consider what would “best service your customers or client needs,” said Julie Schweber, a senior knowledge adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management. Then think about how you can “work that in with your employee base.”
With that in mind, try to imagine what your busiest, most demanding days look like, Schweber recommended. Would those days be less stressful if more employees were working together in person, or would it not make a difference one way or the other?
“If there’s no business necessity for working in person it may come down to employee preference,” she said. Employees, in that case, may welcome the opportunity to decide how many days, if any, they want to come into an office.
But none of these decisions should be made in a vacuum, said Penn, and different employees have different needs. “Managers cannot determine anything in isolation without communicating with their direct reports first.”
Ultimately, “managers should not be setting policies, but rather establishing guiding principles that allow for flexibility and adaption given the needs of the business or the employee situation,” Penn said.