Working In Sweatpants May Be Over As Companies Contemplate The Great Office Return

Jun 7, 2021
Originally published on June 8, 2021 6:14 am

On a walk outside his office in downtown Washington, D.C., Greg Meyer stops to peer in through the glass windows of a fast-casual lunch spot called Leon. The exposed brick interior gives it a cozy coffeehouse vibe. But the lunch crowd is nowhere to be seen. The whole place is dark.

"The pandemic put them out of business," says Meyer, region head for Brookfield Properties, which owns almost all the buildings on this block and hundreds more around the country.

Now with vaccines available on demand and infection rates falling, Meyer believes businesses have a civic duty to bring workers back.

"It's time now," he says. "We've got to do everything we can do to get people back as quickly as possible."

Fifteen months into the pandemic, Brookfield's office buildings in Washington are only at about 14% occupancy, down from 80% in normal times. Companies that ordered their employees to work from home in March 2020 are only now starting to bring them back into the office. Some are waiting until fall to bring back workers in significant numbers, while others have no plans to return to pre-pandemic work arrangements at all.

Navigating the return to the office is a delicate operation that has the potential to define a company's culture for years. What happens over the coming months could also have a profound effect on cities such as Washington.

"It makes me worried," Meyer says. "We have to make sure the city is vibrant again, that businesses feel welcome."

Meyer's own staff at Brookfield Properties came back to the office in September, working a hybrid schedule with people coming in every other day. Upgraded air filtration, masks and a checkerboard seating pattern kept people safe, Meyers says. Still, some employees have opted to remain fully remote.

According to Gallup, 45% of full-time workers in the U.S. are still working remotely at least some of the time. Among white collar workers, it's about 70%. In survey after survey, an overwhelming majority of workers say they want flexible work options to continue.

After the summer, Meyer wants everyone back in full time.

"We're in the office business, and so if we don't believe in it, I don't think we can expect anyone else to," he says. "But equally importantly, we think it's a really important part of our success — having people work together, teach each other, learn from each other, all those things which you can't do remotely very well."

Six blocks away at the World Resources Institute, the thinking is: not so fast. The environmental nonprofit has yet to bring anyone back to the office on a regular basis. Renuka Iyer, the head of human resources, says only about 3% of employees say they need to come back to do their work properly.

Renuka Iyer, chief human resources officer for the World Resources Institute, sits in an empty office. The environmental nonprofit's staff has been working remotely since March 2020.
Andrea Hsu / NPR

The plan is for those people to return this summer, followed by more in the fall. But a return to the numbers of people in the office before the pandemic? Maybe never.

"The pandemic has really had us rethink what it means to get work done, and how we get the work done," Iyer says.

Top of mind for Iyer as she contemplates how to bring people back is the institute's mission: to move human society to live in ways that protect the environment. A smaller office would save energy, but so would just having fewer people in the office, Iyer says.

Still, she's wary of moving too fast. She knows a lot can be lost when you're not face-to-face with colleagues, and she's already getting questions from employees who wonder if they'll miss out on mentoring or career opportunities. She doesn't yet have the answers but believes there may be surprising ways to build human connections that haven't been thought of yet. She looks to the past for inspiration.

"You just look back into how humanity has lived life, and you have pen pals," Iyer says. "Who would have thought pen pals would have great human connections? But they did."

To get an idea of what a permanent hybrid setup might look like, walk into the offices of Creative Theory, a marketing and consulting agency in Washington's Union Market District. The company helps big brands such as Google, Netflix and Under Armour shape their cultural messaging.

"What's been really exciting is to see folks coming back into the office and wanting to be around other people," CEO Tamon George says.

On a recent afternoon, about a third of Creative Theory's 20 or so employees were in the open-plan office. In the front part of the office is a shop they run, selling items created by local Black artisans.

"We are incredibly connected to our community here," George says.

Those connections are informing how he thinks about the future. He envisions the office as a place where his employees interact not just with each other but with the public. And yet he knows how productive working from home can be when there are no distractions. The company more than doubled in size in the pandemic while everyone was working remotely.

George says he can't see ever requiring people to be in the office five days a week. He has two toddlers at home and appreciates being able to divide his time between home and office. So three days a week in the office might become the norm. However it ends up, he expects people will want to be around the table — the actual, physical table — for what he calls "the good times."

"Not that there are a lot of bad times," George says. "But if we can enjoy ourselves, enjoy the work we do together, celebrate together, share the wins together, that counts."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When are we going back? And how many days a week do we have to be in? Those are questions many of us are asking as workplaces that went fully remote in the pandemic start bringing people back. As NPR's Andrea Hsu reports, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and companies have a lot to weigh.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Outside his office building in downtown D.C., Greg Meyer is worried. He's the regional head for Brookfield Properties, a big commercial real estate company with office buildings all over the country. More than a year into the pandemic, things here are still fairly quiet. We peer in through the glass windows of a fast casual lunch spot called Leon, which catered to the office crowd.

GREG MEYER: You could go in and buy an inexpensive lunch, and it was fantastic. And, you know, the pandemic put them out of business.

HSU: Now with lots of people vaccinated and infection rates way down, Meyer believes businesses have a civic duty to bring workers back.

MEYER: It's time now. We got to do everything we can to get people back as quickly as possible.

HSU: A majority of his employees have been back in the office since last September - with no issues, he adds. They upgraded the air filters, wore masks and seated people in a checkerboard pattern. People came in every other day, a hybrid schedule. But after the summer, Meyer says, no more remote work. He wants everyone back full time.

MEYER: We're in the office business. So if we don't believe in it, I don't think we can expect anyone else to. But, you know, equally importantly, we think it's a really important part of our success is - having people work together, teach each other, learn from each other, all those things which you really can't do remotely very well.

HSU: According to a recent Gallup poll, close to half of full-time workers in the U.S. are still working remotely at least some of the time. Among white-collar workers, it's about 70%. In survey after survey, an overwhelming majority of workers say they want flexible work options to continue. To get an idea of what a permanent hybrid setup might look like, walk into the offices of Creative Theory. They do marketing and consulting for companies like Google and Netflix. Its CEO is Tamon George.

TAMON GEORGE: What's been really exciting is to see folks coming back into the office and wanting to be around other people.

HSU: About a third of Creative Theory's 20-or-so employees are here today. Those who are comfortable coming in are coming in; those who aren't aren't. And Tamon George is fine with that. He has no plans to require people to be here five days a week. The last year proved that people can get a lot done at home.

GEORGE: I think a lot of people worked well with no distractions (laughter). But in terms of, like, what we think somebody would need to be around the table for - the good times, you know? If we can enjoy the work we do, celebrate together, share the wins together, you know, that counts.

HSU: My next stop takes me to a company that has yet to return to the office at all.

RENUKA IYER: This is it.

HSU: Wow. Silent. Lights are off.

IYER: Yes.

HSU: I'm at the World Resources Institute with Renuka Iyer, the head of HR here. She says, normally, this place would have been buzzing with people

IYER: Chatting, talking about what they found in the research, speaking passionately. We have a lot of passionate people.

HSU: Their passion is the environment, and that's top of mind for Iyer as she contemplates the future. A smaller office would save energy; so would just having fewer people in the office. But Iyer knows a lot can be lost when you're not face-to-face with colleagues. She's already getting questions from staff, including from younger ones.

IYER: Questions like, will I miss out on opportunities? How am I going to get mentored?

HSU: She doesn't yet have the answers. But she believes there's so much to learn and explore about how to build human connections, and she draws inspiration from the past.

IYER: Sometimes you just look back into how humanity has lived lives. And you have pen pals. Who would have thought pen pals would have great human connections? But they did.

HSU: For now, Iyer's plan is to bring a few people back this summer, those who want to be back, then more in the fall. But a return to the way things were? Probably never.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.