How will companies decide who returns to the office first? – Quartz at work


Here’s a version of the story of remote working that no one has seen coming: now that coronavirus blockages are ending region by region around the world, some people may need to convince their bosses to let them Stop work from home.

Office workers have spent years refining the argument for working policies from anywhere, and publications, including this one, have shared countless messages with tips for winning a skeptical boss . Now, the coronavirus pandemic can turn the whole debate upside down.

This assumes that more companies are following the example of Cloudflare, the cyber protection and web infrastructure company, which plans to comply with social distancing directives by reopening with only a fraction of its employees working in person in its eight offices. worldwide. The company will decide who returns first by examining petitions to that effect.

And what could motivate these employees to make such a request when the virus remains a threat everywhere? “We learn as we go along, but it’s like,” I have three roommates and I can’t call the customer and I’m on sale, “says co-founder and COO of Cloudflare Michelle Zatlyn. Or, she adds, “It could be that people are going through a really stressful situation at home. But first they’ll have to get their application approved by the company.

“We are trying to understand why people want to go back and see if we can do it safely,” says Zatlyn.

What could go wrong

Although this is only the beginning of the reopening phase of this pandemic, we know that Cloudflare is not alone with its methodology. Rob Falzon, vice president of Prudential Financial, told Quartz that about 2% of the company’s employees were in critical positions that could not be performed remotely and that they would be the first people invited to return. in the office. But “to go further into this intermediate phase, there is a process,” he said, “and it must be approved at a fairly high level. “

On the surface, this approach seems sensitive and sympathetic to the needs and preferences of employees, whether they want to stay at home because they like flexibility or are nervous about moving, or if they aspire to a appropriate office and reliable Wi-Fi or hope to escape the office the minute they can resume child care.

However, the drawbacks of asking people to argue for a place in the new sparsely populated office are also evident. Namely, there is a risk that such a policy could induce people to share information about their privacy, which could make them feel isolated or overexposed. Or, if people feel that being in the office ultimately benefits their long-term careers, because employees who are visible to managers are more likely to be promoted, workers may be encouraged to push for an office in the elite club that they envisage is formed at the headquarters of the company.

Meanwhile, someone who does not join the jockey for a spot – someone who may not be able to raise their hand due to the circumstances of life – may have to worry about appearing less loyal or ambitious.

Questions about commuting, when a business does not provide a safe service, only complicates the question. Without access to transportation that is sufficiently secure, allowing commuters to spread and reducing the risk of getting coronavirus from another traveler, an employee may have little choice as to whether to return. In the United States, where even car access is often a privilege of race, white workers will enjoy a greater advantage. In this case, who returns may not be representative of the company’s workforce, which could lead to a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity among leaders in the future, if this intermediate stage of recovery lasts long enough.

Notably, some of the potential pitfalls echo the same issues as employees who, before Covid, had to seek approval to work from home. For example, in companies that have questioned the value of distance work policies, women – and parents in general – are dissatisfied with having to ask for the flexibility required to care for children, which attracts pay attention to their specific needs and, in the worst case, leaves them stigmatized.

Arguably, any request that may require careful consideration by an employer, whether the ability to work from home or the right to return to the office, carries a similar risk.

Asked how difficult their decision-making process could become, Janet Van Huysse, Head of Personnel at Cloudflare, reiterated the company’s commitment to act on what it hears from its employees. “By talking to employees around the world, we learned that some homework situations are very difficult and, in some cases, dangerous. It was important for us to take these situations into account and make sure that the employees who have to work in an office can do it as quickly as possible, ”she said.

How will companies make these decisions?

If there is an ideal process for deciding who returns when, it is not obvious.

Of course, the first dibs should go to people who must be in the office because of the nature of their work or the equipment they use, or the expectation that they will meet clients and clients in person. Beyond that, one can only guess at the possible systems that can arise, says Alexander Colvin, professor of labor relations, law and history at Cornell University.

When employees are also located, he says, companies enter the realm of ethical decision-making and best practices. The key, he says, is that organizations are asking, “What are the allocation criteria that will be seen as fair by employees? “

Like much of the new reality created by Covid-19, this is completely new territory for all parties, Colvin points out, and it is complicated. There are cross-cutting concerns about personal safety, business management and managing uncertainty about the behavior of the virus or the occurrence of a new epidemic.

However, Colvin names a possible sorting criterion that could come into play, almost by default: seniority.

Respecting seniority in a company is an old union tradition that is more relevant to manufacturing plants than the average office, but that does not mean that it is not a powerful force in other contexts. “What we actually see is that in many workplaces – non-unionized workplaces too – seniority is often a factor used in decision-making as a rule of fairness,” he says. .

“Maybe someone who’s been there longer has the first choice of parking lots or offices. Holders are prioritized, ”he says. “Even in startups that are five or ten years old, you can still prioritize people who have been there since the start of the business.” In the event of return to work, this privilege would be the first right of refusal.

Demand won’t be a problem for all businesses

At this early stage of the reopening phase, it is unclear whether companies will find that more employees will want to return than is reasonable, or whether employers will have the opposite problem: can they attract enough people by promising that it will is on?

Although the strange survey suggests that people are anxious to return to the office, perhaps to gain more separation between home and work, to socialize, and you know, change of scenery, several other surveys have found that not everyone wants to give up the many benefits of working from their living room.

Colvin imagines that the struggle to fill seats will be different for each company, again, depending on the industry, but also on the corporate culture. If an organization had a strong culture of working remotely before residence orders, it can be difficult to argue that it is time to return to the office. If, however, pre-pandemic company policies discouraged remote working, it is conceivable that employees would show more interest in returning.

If the decision is left to employees, it will still be up to managers to ensure that people feel safe – that they believe their work environment is not a health hazard and that their jobs and opportunities are safe – whatever decision they make.

It’s time to rethink the old truisms

In fact, Cloudflare didn’t have a flexible homework policy before the closings, says Zatlyn. In her technology-centric circles, she said, “there was the assumption that you have to be an office business or a remote business, and it’s very difficult to mix the two. “

It was an accepted truism at Cloudflare: the hybrid system was considered the least efficient model, slowing down teamwork and communication. So in the past, she said, when employees came to their manager and said, “I’m moving to Portland and I’d like to work from there,” the company would be inclined to say no, even if it meant losing a talented worker.

However, in the wake of Covid-19, Cloudflare briefly became a hybrid operation, allowing employees to choose where they worked, and then moved away almost overnight, with governments banning non-essential travel and business activities. The transition was almost seamless, reports Zatlyn, with few “bumps” as demand for the company’s cloud optimization and protection tools soared. Now the hybrid model is the only way for the company to reopen its offices. It will take several months for the building capacity to slowly increase and reach pre-pandemic levels.

Does this mean that Cloudflare will abandon its all or nothing position? Zatlyn will only say that given the extraordinary times and how much things have changed – and seeing how people have shown that they can be productive at home – the review of homework policies is on the table.

To date, the number of employees requesting to return to the office has not exceeded the number of available seats, said Van Huysse of Cloudflare. She told Quartz that, according to her rough estimates, about 20% of the employees in the offices where the staff were interviewed expressed interest in returning. (The company claims to have spoken to employees in Beijing, Munich, Lisbon and Austin, Texas.) On average, Van Huysse expects that there will initially be room for 25% to 30% of the staff in the reopened buildings.

Significantly, the number of people who want to return to the workplace is cut in half again when they hear the details of what the office will look like, says Van Huysse. “Sometimes the employee has in mind that we go back to the previous situation, that they sit with the whole team, hang out and have snacks, and that’s not how it is,” said- she. Once employees are made aware of the reduced number of people in attendance and all of the routine health checks that will be required, “10% of them could still raise their hands and say yes.”


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