Sarah, a young analyst at one of the world’s biggest investment banks, is back in her Lower Manhattan office about three days a week now, mostly clocking the kind of long hours typically required of the junior Wall Street set.
She’s got free breakfast in the morning, a comped gym membership and can expense a car ride home at night if she doesn’t feel like hopping on her bike and pedaling back to Chelsea, all new perks dangled by her bosses to lure employees back to headquarters in the late Covid era.
But the tug of remote work remains.
During the pandemic year, Sarah (who asked not to use her real name so as not to upset her employer) had more autonomy over her workday: She could log into her computer early, put in her hours, then duck out for a walk or dinner before jumping back online later to finish up.
When in the office, Sarah says, bosses typically disdain anyone who says they will be “working from home.” Pre-Covid, they considered that code for, “I won’t actually be doing anything.”
As a result, people stuck around late just to be seen by their managers. Covid changed all that. And Sarah doesn’t want to revert to the way things were.
“I could see being in the office a few days a week, and they are doing whatever they can to get us back,” Sarah said in an interview. “And some of my colleagues with kids and families really want to go back so they aren’t bothered all the time at home. But I think for a lot of us, a hybrid model is what we want.”
Sarah’s experience is playing out across the white-collar working world as the biggest, fastest and most head-spinning disruption in American working life in generations rambles toward some kind of return to normality. The trouble is that almost no one — workers or bosses — has any real idea what normal means now.
The pandemic almost instantly transformed working life in the U.S. and across the world, driving companies in industries from finance to technology and media to upend the way they operate, vacating centralized workplaces and turning employees’ homes into offices.
It scrambled how parents handle childcare. It made employers question whether they needed most of their employees to come into headquarters or if they could dramatically cut down on overhead costs, especially expensive urban real estate.
In other words, Covid smashed the fast-forward button on transformations already under way in the nature of white-collar work. The “Future of Work” is already here. But it’s a deeply confused picture.
Initially it looked like workers could be just as — or even more — productive if they no longer had to commute and could structure their hours however they liked. In September of last year, a study by consulting firm Mercer found that 94 percent of employers said productivity was as high or even higher following the rapid shift to remote work.
Senior managers across Wall Street began to calculate how much money they could save on expensive Manhattan commercial real estate if they simply shifted large blocks of their workforce to remote work.
“Early on we looked at the productivity numbers and they were great and the cost savings looked significant,” the CEO of a large bank said in a recent interview, requesting anonymity to talk freely. “But we’ve kind of rethought a lot of that.”
Now, as many big employers target the end of summer as the time to figure out exactly how they will structure work in the post-Covid era, there is little consensus. And remote work itself has already become a bargaining tool as a tight labor market affords employees more leverage and limits bosses’ ability to demand their workers get back to the office.
“It’s all over the place,” said Ed Egee, who handles workforce development for the National Retail Federation. Remote work is “definitely going to change the workplace. But I don’t think I know, and I don’t think [employers] know, exactly how yet.”
If there was one industry that might have seemed ripe to go remote, you might have expected it to be Wall Street. After all, most trading long ago moved off physical trading floors and onto computers and servers, and bankers and financial analysts are some of the most technologically savvy workers you can find.
But investment banks also have a traditional way of working that required long hours in the office and traders yelling at each other between desks during market hours. Now employers on Wall Street and elsewhere are struggling to decide just how much being physically present in an office really matters to their work culture and their bottom lines.
So far, there’s little consistency. Banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorganChase are nudging and prodding and sometimes, gently demanding that workers get back to the office. Others like Citigroup are using the promise of continued remote work as a lure to draw talent away from rivals.
At JPMorgan, branches are mostly reopened with workers back on the job. CEO Jamie Dimon has urged the employees in the corporate office and the investment bank to be there in person at least half the time now with a plan of getting closer to normal full-time office work by the end of the year, albeit with some increased flexibility.
Some of the calculus at JPMorgan is around worker productivity, an executive at the bank said in an interview. But some of it is also about employee mental health.
“What we found is, the question is kind of ‘Are you working from home or are you living at work?’” the executive said, requesting anonymity to speak freely. “People can get really depressed and isolated working from home. And from a mentorship and diversity perspective, it’s much harder to train and connect with a new or younger person if you’ve never actually seen them in person.”
The executive noted that the calculus on Wall Street, where profit margins are high, might be different than for media or other industries where it is much lower. “When real estate is 1 percent of revenue it’s a different calculation than if it’s 120 percent of revenue.”
For employers in other industries, the last couple of months have also been a scramble to come up with plans for returning some or all workers to offices while watching the latest data on Covid-19 vaccinations, the risks of new virus variants and keeping an eye on what competitors are doing.
Like many of them, D.C.-based law firm BakerHostetler is starting out with a hybrid model in which some employees can stay remote, some will split their time between home and office, and others will need to return to the office full time. The full-time category will include receptionists, file clerks, and mailroom workers. As for the lawyers themselves, they will be “fully flexible” and have the freedom to decide when they want to work from home, and when they want to work from the office.
Where employees land on that spectrum is partly a matter of leverage. Receptionists and clerks don’t have very much. Lawyers have a great deal of it.
“What we’re telling people [is]: ‘Look, your job requires you to be in the office because of teamwork; because of collaboration; because of coaching, mentoring, apprenticeship, the value of collegiality,” Baker Hostetler Chair Paul Schmidt said in an interview. “But you might not need to be in the office every day of the week, every week of the year.”
And then there’s the fact that when everyone in an office had to work remotely, there was no loss of status for being out of the office. But once some employees have face-to-face access to the bosses and some don’t, disparities may emerge.
“The pandemic has proven that lawyers can be very effective at getting their work done remotely,” Schmidt said. “But it’s not a great sampling of what a remote or hybrid work environment will be like in the future when some people are in the office.”
After the advent of the internet and email a couple of decades ago, and with the development of ever-better communications tools like Zoom and Slack, employers have gained new powers to command employees’ time and attention no matter where they are physically.
In that light, what the pandemic did was return a measure of autonomy back to workers, whether it was to control their own hours or just do their jobs in sweatpants. So it’s not surprising that many want to keep it.
Many employers have recognized that going forward, their ability to fill white-collar jobs may depend on how much work-from-home flexibility they are willing to offer. More than twice as many job postings mentioned remote work in June as they did pre-Covid, according to data provided to POLITICO by Indeed, the online job search firm. That’s particularly surprising, said Indeed chief economist Jed Kolko, because “the rebound in job posts is biggest in sectors that can’t be done remotely,” like manufacturing and warehouses. In other words, the option to work remotely seems to be built into most job postings where it's at all possible.
The tech sector is the most likely to mention remote work in job postings, but that is increasingly true as well in other industries where “remote work was technically possible but it wasn’t the norm,” Kolko said. Those included fields like education, finance and law.
Not all employers are comfortable with employees’ new demands for work-from-home options. At the Washingtonian Magazine, CEO Cathy Merrill prompted a staff protest in May after publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post basically threatening employees who would not come back to the office.
“The biggest benefit for workers may be simple job security,” Merrill wrote. “Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.”
Still, most employers are currently using more carrots than sticks, in part because that’s what their competitors are doing.
“A lot of this is about keeping talent,” Schmidt said. “Right now, there is a high demand for talent, particularly among associates, and what we are seeing in the marketplace … is that there are firms that are going fully remote and competing for some of our talent in geographies where we wouldn’t normally have competition from those firms because they didn’t have offices.”
The shift to remote work is also returning power to workers in other, less tangible ways — including by empowering employees to become more assertive in drawing work-life boundaries.
IBM circulated an internal memo called the “work from home pledge” during Covid that created company-wide standards for respecting workers’ time, including the option to keep the camera turned off on conference calls and the requirement that employees respect each other’s working hours, among other things.
“I've noticed a lot more people guarding their time in a way that they didn't necessarily do before when they were in an office,” said Kathryn Snyder, who works in IBM’s communications office. “There’s not this pressure that you need to respond all the time.”
A May survey from Morning Consult and Bloomberg News found that 39 percent of workers said they would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. A July report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that three-quarters of small businesses are mulling incentives like a remote or hybrid work environment to lure new talent.
In many ways, this is a reversal from previous norms.
“If you go back to the old literature on work, remote workers were the low-status group in general,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School who studies remote work. “Part of it was because they just didn't have the social capital, from interacting with your coworkers on a day-to-day basis.”
“Now, you could start to actually see the reverse where people make that as a bargaining chip for very valued employees,” Galinsky said. “Maybe they're going to say: ‘You want to retain me, then I get to work remote three days a week.’ So it could be the opposite … where remote workers are seen as more prestigious.”
In an interesting twist, more than one-third of workers report that their level of engagement has increased while working from home, a survey out July 1 from The Conference Board found. Four in 10 workers question the need to return to an office at all.
The JPMorgan executive said that no matter how much discomfort employers may have with workers doing their jobs out of sight, the bank will not return to pre-Covid limitations on remote work.
“We want to get back to normal,” the executive said. “But we know it will never be the same.”
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