Office Mandates. Pickleball. Beer. What Will Make Hybrid Work Stick?

The freight elevator doors opened onto 50,000 square feet of office real estate. Right now, it is empty, but Seth Besmertnik, chief executive of the software company Conductor, gestured at the beams and concrete floor with pride. He has plans for his company’s new office — conference rooms, a pickleball court and, of course, all of his 200 employees in the New York City area.

Mr. Besmertnik conceded that it was scary to persuade his board to sign a lease doubling his office real estate in 2021. But to Mr. Besmertnik, leasing a larger office was a symbol of his belief in physical, in-person collaboration.

“As much as it might be nice to save the money, I want to save our soul first,” he said, speaking with the zeal that often inflects conversations about in-person work nearly three years into the pandemic. “I want to do the right thing for the company in the long term.”

For many companies, though, signing the lease for an office is just the first step. Next, executives have to persuade their workers to fill it. At Conductor, the company has relied on both carrots (“Cold brew? Beer?” Mr. Besmertnik offered, jokingly, at 10:15 a.m.) and sticks (employees are required to come in three days a week). And like most other companies, Conductor is still experimenting.

“I’m considering going to four days,” Mr. Besmertnik said. “We definitely won’t go to five. And might just stay at three.”

Seth Besmertnik, the chief executive of Conductor, believes that in-person work is the right direction for his company in the long term.

Business leaders are in a phase of trial and error that comes with staggering stakes. They are figuring out how many days to call employees back to the office, and on top of that how strictly to enforce their own rules. While some companies are in five days a week and others have gone remote forever, many more employers have landed on a hybrid solution, and as they announce these plans they are facing fierce resistance. Amazon recently told its corporate employees to return to the office at least three days a week starting in May and faced an outcry on Slack, and Starbucks asked for three days from its 3,750 corporate employees, prompting an open letter of protest.

“I prefer to work from home,” said Eric Deshawn Lerma, 26, an executive assistant at Amazon who is part of a more than 29,000-person Slack channel at the company called “Remote Advocacy.” “To have that choice stripped from me based on purely speculative observations does not sit right with me.”

Offices reached a crucial benchmark at the start of this year: They’re at half their prepandemic occupancy. Just over half of workers who can do their jobs from home are now combining remote and in-person work, according to Gallup. A closer look at New York, from the Partnership for New York City, found that 82 percent of Manhattan office employers surveyed in late January are maintaining or adopting hybrid policies in 2023. So the corporate experts — McKinsey, Mercer, PricewaterhouseCoopers — have consulted their crystal balls and declared: The future is hybrid.

Hybrid looks vastly different across every office. If the future is hybrid, to many executives that means the future is choose-your-own-adventure. But now the emphasis is shifting from adventure to choice. Executives are making return-to-office plans with more permanence, communicating requirements more clearly after months of hesitation and mushy expectations, though what their plans look like vary widely.

A New Office Culture

The past two years have changed the way we work in profound ways.

  • Job Satisfaction: Companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars assessing and measuring their workers’ level of engagement, but workers are still unfulfilled and stressed. What’s behind the disconnect?
  • Laid Off in the Living Room: Angst recently rippled across laptop screens, as dozens of companies announced layoffs. For remote workers it was an especially lonely, surreal experience.
  • Corporate Cafeteria: As the dining halls of yore struggle with emptier workplaces and the expectations of younger workers, many companies are reinventing the company meal.
  • Romanticizing the Office: As many workers chafe against employer mandates, some content creators are using TikTok to share more positive images of office life.

“There’s not a ‘hybrid office 101’ where you can pick up the book and see what 100 offices have done before,” said Richard Buery, chief executive of the Robin Hood Foundation, whose employees are required to come in two days a week.

When Amazon chief executive Andy Jassy told employees to return to the office three days a week, he cited the need for more “face-to-face” and “serendipitous interactions.” Previously, team directors each set remote work expectations. In response to the policy change, employees rebelled, drafting petitions and starting the “Remote Advocacy” Slack channel, where they argued that returning to the office would make child care more difficult, and exchanged concerns about their badge data being tracked. One Slack message, viewed by The New York Times, read: “I have not slept through the night since the announcement.”

At Starbucks, where corporate employees were recently told to come back to the office three days a week, more than 40 of them wrote an open letter in protest: “Morale is at an all-time low, and the brand reputation and financial value of this publicly traded company are at risk,” they wrote.

At Conductor, where all employees within 90 minutes of an office have been required to return three days a week, managers are ensuring that their teams adhere to the rules. Mr. Besmertnik believes that a lack of discipline, with hybrid work, leads to “self-fulling failure.” At Orchard, a real estatecompany, the 500 employees were given an “open enrollment” period in which they could decide whether they wanted to be remote or office workers. The 60 percent who selected the office are expected to come in two days a week.

A gong and Foosball table in the Conductor offices in New York.
Conductor employees can earn time in a Blizzard of Dollars box for high performance.

The decisions that chief executives are making will have effects far beyond their own work spaces. Researchers estimate that office real estate values will plunge 39 percent from prepandemic levels in the coming years. Economists foretell a “doom loop” for urban commercial areas: With fewer people commuting to downtown neighborhoods, retail and services will suffer, prompting even fewer people to commute, spurring a drop in tax revenue that could further hurt downtown services such as public transportation.

Some companies have championed an office-free future — especially Airbnb, which has seen its business benefit from ultra-remote workers relocating to far-flung cities.

“The cat’s out of the bag,” said Dave Stephenson, Airbnb’s chief financial officer and head of employee experience. “For almost every C.F.O. that I’ve talked to who has had a policy of bringing people back to work, people are doing less than what they’ve been asked. If they’ve said they want to be back three days a week, they’re getting them back two.”

Fully remote work is simple enough to dictate, as is fully in person. Hybrid work often creates a conundrum. Employees say that the primary motivation for them to commute into the office is the guarantee of seeing teammates. That demands coordination, with everybody coming in on the same day. But rigid policies often spark greater backlash.

“Well-organized hybrid is the best of all,” said Nick Bloom, an economist and remote work expert at Stanford. “The problem is that organizing it requires managers to have discipline.”

Wall Street’s leaders have been clear that work arrangements are not up for popular debate. James Gorman, chief executive of Morgan Stanley, whose employees are mostly in the office three or more days a week, said earlier this year that remote work is “not an employee choice.”

Other chief executives have been less firm. They understand that their workers save time and money by staying home, and they want to earn the commutes by making the office enticing.

At Conductor, employees can choose between free cold brew coffee or beer.

At Orchard, the real estate company, that meant employees were greeted on a recent Wednesday with the rumble of a bar cart rolling past their desks, as the head of facilities played a Chumbawamba classic — “I get knocked down, but I get up again” — while offering beverages from an ice bucket filled with Six Point IPAs, Modelos and sauvignon blanc. The bar cart had a photo of Jimmy Buffett with the caption, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.” In New York, it was 4:54.

Court Cunningham, the company’s chief executive, declined to drink because he said he was heading to the gym, and couldn’t combine burpees and beer. But he emphasized that rituals like happy hour ensure that the office is a space where employees want to spend their time, so mangers don’t have to serve as hall monitors.

“It’s hard to make it work, but when you do, it’s magical,” said Lorraine Buhannic, Orchard’s chief people officer.

In Orchard’s magic, there’s some randomness: “We basically rolled the dice and said, let’s make it two days a week,” Ms. Buhannic said, adding that the decision was also made partly based on employee survey responses.

Business leaders realize, though, that their roll-the-dice decisions are shaping the way their employees approach work — how people are generating ideas, and balancing lives and careers. And there’s streams of research emerging about the effects of remote work on both.

Employees at Conductor are currently required to work in the office three days a week, but that could increase, as the company experiments with what seems to work best.

A study in Nature last year found that communicating virtually can inhibit creativity. Another study from researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that with the onset of remote work, the formation of what sociologists call “weak ties” — measured in terms of emails between people with mutual contacts — declined 38 percent. But then there’s the immense stress relief that some workers have experienced with remote work. Parents have found that it enables them to better balance professional duties with child care. Employees of color say it reduces microaggressions and cliques.

The best hybrid arrangements promise to combine the values that all sides want: the creativity of in-person collaboration, the ease and fluidity of working from home. Some executives remain hopeful they can strike that balance.

Mr. Cunningham recalled the early years of his career, when his teammates at an investment bank were expected to be in the office until late at night. He recalled one colleague carrying in a cardboard box, telling the team he had to mail something, then using the box to sneak out his jacket so he could finally go home. Those expectations of needless face time have now largely dissipated. (Maybe now that box could be used to sneak home extra beers.)

Back at Conductor, Mr. Besmertnik watched his office start to buzz as the head of internal communications, Dani Weiss, blasted music, grabbed a microphone and called everyone together for an all-staff meeting. Employees in New York, scattered around the open office, swiveled their chairs to face her, while screens beamed in the faces of workers in San Francisco, Berlin and Kyiv, Ukraine.

“When you’re joining an all company meeting on Zoom, from home, it doesn’t feel like this,” Mr. Besmertnik said. “Right?”

“Come on everybody!” Ms. Weiss shouted. “I don’t see butts in those chairs.”

Moments later, there they were.

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