[caption id="attachment_232062" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] While some employers, such as Carvertise, have started a return to the office, it won't look the same as it did in the pre-pandemic period. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
I spend a lot of time talking with executives around the state about the state of their operations and workforces.And while white-collar employers cover a wide range of industries from technology to legal to banking and more, they all have one key commonality: they work out of offices.At least we used to.
[caption id="attachment_222223" align="alignright" width="300"] Jacob Owens Editor Delaware Business Times[/caption]
When COVID shut down our reality for weeks on end three years ago, it was hard to imagine the lingering impact that the experience would have on our day-to-day lives. It wasn’t a singular pause, but rather a moment of generational change.Pre-pandemic I was commuting to our offices nearly every day, and Wilmington’s downtown streets were buzzing at noon with office workers seeking a bite to eat. For months after our state of emergency began though, we quickly adapted to relying on technology to host meetings, conduct interviews and sell clients. It was an experience shared by millions of us nationwide.In the aftermath, we have seen a hodgepodge of workforce solutions, including strict back-to-office mandates, hybrid remote-and-office schedules, and full moves to remote, usually with a number of steps between.I’ve talked with a marketing account manager whose company gave up their lease and moved all staff to work-from-home, a fintech banker whose offices were similarly vacated and who now schedules weekly visits to the local library for time out of the house, a legal claims processor who has shuffled between remote to various required days in office, and lawyers who are back Mondays to Fridays. It’s an uneven state of affairs.Major employers have been attempting to force workers back to offices for the better part of two years. Delaware’s largest for-profit employer, JPMorgan Chase, had been at the forefront of the back-to-office march, requiring executives to report back every weekday, although its rank-and-file are still in a hybrid model.WSFS Bank Chief Human Resources Officer Michael Conklin told me last week that the bank’s planned move to a four-day weekly office schedule after Labor Day for many employees was something they’ve been discussing for several months and engaging employee groups about. The move to get more of its thousands of employees and leadership back into its downtown Wilmington offices more frequently was partially to enhance collaboration, but also to foster an environment where new associates could better learn and advance in their careers.We all know how hard it can be to get a word in politely over a Zoom call, but conferring with a colleague or boss in the office kitchen is much easier.“No one ever thought in March 2020 that we'd still be talking about what to do with our offices in July 2023. No one's got a playbook, but we believe that we have managed this very well,” Conklin said.For Wilmington’s largest landlord, Buccini/Pollin Group, the pandemic has unleashed a bit of a Bizarro World, where tenants still have not reach pre-pandemic occupancy in its varied office buildings, but they’ve also been successful in converting and amenitizing its spaces to attract a significant number of new tenants – our newspaper included.Interestingly too, BPG told me that most tenants that leased space during the pandemic are in the office four to five days a week, while its longer-term tenants have been a little slower to return. Essentially, if a company decided post-pandemic that it still wanted office space, it was going to be used versus left vacant half of the workweek.The other question that is often left quietly discussed about return to office plans is compliance. I’ve frequently heard from executives that mandated return to office plans are hard to enforce after nearly three years of largely unfettered flexibility, especially for senior leadership. But the policies are only effective if employees can collaborate with a whole cross-section of an organization.Some of the nation’s largest law firms, including Sidley, Davis Polk, and Simpson Thacher, are now tying office attendance to associate bonuses as a way to enforce compliance. Conklin said WSFS wouldn’t be explicitly tying attendance to pay, but it would be a part of an employee’s annual review discussion.For employers, an unqualified five-day-a-week return to the office may never be in the cards for good or bad – putting the genie back in the bottle will likely prove too hard.The imbalance of today’s labor market that continues to offer nearly two jobs for every available worker – a trend that shows little sign of abating as millions of older workers have left the labor force – will only hamper employer’s ability to force employees back to the office.And even if employers can manage to get employees to return, they may find that their staffs have been changed from pre-pandemic norms.One executive I visited recently had moved most of his staff back to offices full-time and compliance was strong, but even then, he found that collaboration would be a bit different today.Some employees continued to congregate together in blocks of desks to work and chat throughout the day, but others moved away on their own to find some quiet space – almost as if they were still working from home.
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