For many people in white or some blue collar jobs, work life has included a commute, a cubicle or desk, consistent hours, managers, and meetings. The amount of time we spend at our jobs has a massive impact on the way we live our lives. The global pandemic has turned that world upside down, for employers and employees alike but ultimately it’s proved that it’s possible for us to work differently. How will society adjust it’s thinking on where and how we work...from offices and desks, to hours and location?
KCRW talks with Chip Cutter, a reporter who covers workplace issues for the Wall Street Journal about why even after the pandemic is under control work may never be the same. His recent article was titled “The Death of the Office Desk is Upon Us”
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: you’ve reported on how businesses are adapting to the pandemic. Tell us the story of Dropbox, just one of the many California tech companies
Chip Cutter: “Dropbox is fascinating and they've been more prescriptive than most companies. Dropbox has told its workers that later this year, even if it’s possible to reopen its offices safely, it is going to basically make them off limits to individual workers. The company says it wants people to do their own work at home or if people insist on space outside of home, they'll give them a stipend that they could use for WeWork or a co-working space, but that they want offices to exist solely for collaboration. So for example, you might go to a Dropbox office for a day of meetings with your colleagues and that's it, you go in one day a week. Or for other people now live elsewhere they can fly in for a couple of days of meetings at Dropbox’s headquarters and that is the extent of their in person involvement for that quarter.
So Dropbox now wants to call it offices studios, spaces for people to talk with each other. They are not spaces where you'll sit at your desk, grind away, work on your individual tasks — they say that is not what our offices should be for post pandemic.”
And how did they come up with that decision?
Cutter: “The company CEO, Drew Houston had been thinking a lot about this with other executives and with the company's board and he said that he realized that something had to be done. He called this a one way door, the pandemic had dramatically changed the way people would want to work and expect to work going forward and he did not want to keep putting out return to work dates which then get pushed back. He wants to give people a clearer sense of what the company was thinking and that's how they landed on this.
It took a lot of debate, even within the company and this is certainly an adjustment. But the company thinks this is a smarter way to work going forward. It may mean that the company needs less real estate, but the company might also spend more money, for example, on travel costs, if you're flying people in for in-person meetings, so it could be a cost savings but it could also cause the company to spend some money too.”
A lot of millennials want flexibility in how they work and sometimes creative work can't be done sitting in a cubicle and argue that we’ve been functioning in a way that’s been unnatural for hundreds of years. Do you think this is what workers want?
Cutter: “No question about it and this is being driven primarily by younger workers who do expect to work this way. We've had more than one CEO say that the social contract has changed. The idea that managers are going to assess your performance by being able to watch you at your desk from nine to five, that those days are over and that just as an old outdated view of management. It’s one reason why so many companies are throwing around words like “a more hybrid approach to work.”
It's interesting, because every company has a slightly different view of what that looks like. Some companies are talking about coming into the office three days a week, others are saying it's going to be totally up to you, so there hasn't been a real consensus and it's going to vary from company to company but many feel that there has to be more flexibility built in.
It's also worth noting, though, that there are some companies that are telling workers, “do not get used to this - we do want you back in the workplace five days a week, as you were before.” I think inertia can be a powerful thing and some executives aren't necessarily willing to grant workers that additional flexibility that some might want.”
Talk about the issue of management; I was talking to a traveling financial consultant and she was telling me how, it's been the managers who’ve been the most stressed out in this period, because in the old model, managers saw their workers at their desks eight hours a day and getting things done - now they have to justify themselves in other ways.
Cutter: “Absolutely. I'm so glad you brought that up because in some ways managers have had the hardest job during the pandemic. They have been taught a certain way of supervising their employees and have risen through the ranks, largely by being able to see their peers and being able to evaluate their employees in person. Now, they're expected to keep their workforce engaged, to rally the troops, to keep productivity high remotely and at a time when everyone is going through such a difficult period, everybody is feeling this fatigue and managers are left trying to sort this out. And most often it's the middle managers, the ones who get no respect, even in the good times, who are stuck trying to sort of figure this out.
So a lot of companies are embarking on new management training programs right now, realizing they need to retrain our supervisors for this new way of working. Some of it can be as simple as in one-on-one meetings, structuring those differently to accommodate the fact that workers are now remote and out of the office. But a lot of companies feel like they have to get their arms around this and retraining managers is going to be a priority for the rest of this year.”
What about workers who now have the opportunity to work from any location. Many workers live in really expensive places like the Bay Area, Los Angeles or New York. They cannot afford a home and would rather be somewhere else. Are you seeing people moving to the mountains or Oregon, will there be a migration of workers out of densely populated areas?
Cutter: “Absolutely and we are already starting to see that migration, certainly from San Francisco and the Bay Area and it’s one reason rents have come down a bit in that area. Real estate agents now see an influx of workers from other places who are looking to set up lives in more remote destinations and this is a trend that will continue.
How companies handle it, though, is interesting. A number of technology companies say you will take a salary adjustment if you move. They pay market prices and the market price for an engineer in a remote City in Oregon is different than it is in San Francisco, where there's so much competition for that talent. So workers have had to ask themselves whether they’re willing to take a salary hit if their company is going to go that direction? Or would it be worth it for an improved quality of life. Even if you make as much perhaps your cost of living is less and your quality of life is higher and it may be worth it.
So a lot of companies and workers are trying to assess that right now. It's also brought up interesting tax questions and many HR departments haven't totally been able to grasp how to handle this. Some are asking workers, please just tell us where you're working and other companies have asked their people to move back to their home locations saying we need you to prepare for that. So this is going to be a big theme this year.”
Are there any new technologies evolving that will help to make remote work a bit more palatable?
Cutter: “Some companies are trying to make this experience better and part of that is even non digital. Companies are giving people the flexibility not to appear on camera, or not scheduling any meetings before 9 a.m., or giving time off on Fridays — Adobe, the technology company has done that.
But we've also seen companies develop algorithms, to determine who should get access to physical space in offices, and this will avoid putting that burden on managers and a way to protect people's egos because as offices do reopen, there's limited space. Nobody wants to be told they're not an essential part of that company, we don't need you back but we might want one of your peers back. So companies have developed tools that help with that, so it's not a manager delivering that feedback but an algorithm that helps to determine who should come back first, who's ready to come back or which workers are willing to come back.”
We've talked a lot about tech companies and white collar workers. Will any of these changes impact frontline workers?
Cutter: “Happy you brought that up because it really hasn't necessarily changed that much for those who have to be on the frontlines in health care or in food service or in grocery stores, people that we've really depended upon throughout the course of this pandemic. We haven't seen as much of a shift there but we have seen companies experiment with different ways to compensate these workers, to give them hazard pay, which some companies offered early on and dropped to later. We just haven't seen the same kind of innovation or thinking about how frontline work may change going forward.”
What about the eight hour workday? Some people may want to work shorter days or break up their days especially if they have kids that need help during certain hours?
Cutter: “We've seen a number of companies even in the pandemic start to experiment with this. I talked to one company, a nonprofit in Denver who followed some corporate principles and they’re not working Fridays and have gone to 10 hour days and no one can schedule any meetings with anyone on Fridays. They've had fairly good success with that.
There is this desire among workers to get more control of their schedules, particularly as we've gotten more used to working this way and bosses are willing to explore more. One of the real takeaways of the pandemic has been a number of companies saying “we’re finally willing to adjust our thinking on the way we work. Offices and our working lives may have been pretty similar for a long time but this has shaken us up and proven that we can work differently.”
That has led to a conversation of perhaps four 10 hour work days or just changing the notion of how many hours you need to work, period! People not needing to be in office for a given amount of time really helps with that and not feeling like you need to have that button a seat from nine to five. It does open up the chance for more flexible schedules.”