Return to work? It looks different across companies and regions
Different approaches take into account employee preferences and regulations.
Since this story published, some companies mentioned have pushed back or altered their return to office plans due to the Delta variant.
Shopify, a U.S.-based e-commerce firm, has said its employees can work from home indefinitely.
A major international bank returned to a near-full office presence in the U.S. and U.K. in June.
Other companies are taking a middle road, like a major tech company, which announced plans to require employees to come into the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays starting this fall.
The grand work-from-home experiment has morphed into an experiment about work in general. Companies are trying out a plethora of approaches, working with COVID-19 regulations that vary by country and region.
While some industries follow a certain trend - with financial institutions largely favoring in-office work and tech companies largely skewing more toward remote work - there are plenty of outliers. There’s also a labor shortage that is pushing companies to listen to employees in order to retain them.
“Companies must acknowledge that figuring out a hybrid working model will be a long-term project and require a significant period of testing and learning,” says Phil Ryan, Director, U.S. Office Research, JLL. “The process of forming a hybrid work program requires adaptation - both to changing COVID-19 regulations and to employee preferences in a highly competitive talent market.”
Banks have largely been pushing for employees to re-enter physical offices this summer, while tech companies continue to make adjustments to remote work policies that are responsive to employee feedback, Ryan says. And there’s a bit of trial and error.
For example, while a major financial institution received pushback against its planned permanent return to the office in March 2021, it still went forward three months later with the plan in its U.S. and U.K. offices.
Meanwhile, an e-commerce company adjusted its return-to-work plans to allow for a mix of remote and in-person work after employees pushed back against an “office-centric” plan announced earlier in the year, wanting more flexibility. Another tech company, which had previously announced a full return to office in September, now says employees can continue working remotely until September; after that, many will have options to continue working remotely, while others have options to come into their pre-pandemic office or relocate.
Part of the reason why this breaks across industry lines is because financial institutions are highly regulated, and have higher security needs, both of which challenge the ability of banks to be fully remote long term. Fraudulent activity and cybersecurity attacks have been on the rise, with risk and vulnerability accentuated during the pandemic.
Financial employees, in particular, are at heightened risk, given the high sensitivity of transactional and confidential information. Those working from home are more vulnerable to phishing and other technology breaches, as well as the risk of other household members using devices that are meant only for the employee, says Giles Wrench, International Director, Client Development, JLL Work Dynamics.
“The challenges around compliance and security are important factors when it comes to bank’s decisions on where their people can work,” Wrench says. “This is an industry that is used to having their people in a controlled environment, and for which regulation is a greater factor than for almost any other office-intensive user. The reality is there’s a lot of indecision and waiting to see before deciding who can work remotely long term.”
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As of June, only 13% of workplace activity had returned to Frankfurt, according to Google mobility data. Singapore was at 33%. London was at 40%.
The differences in different regions largely have to do with COVID-19 regulations.
For example, in the U.S., Atlanta recently had weekly leasing activity that was even higher than its 2019 average - 115% of it, o according to JLL research. Meanwhile, San Francisco was at 67% and New York was at 62%.
Why Atlanta is recovering faster has a lot to do with the fact that it opened up and loosened COVID-19 regulations - including capacity regulations that prevent offices from operating at more than 50 percent capacity in other U.S. states - more quickly than its coastal peers.
In many cases, the pandemic sped up trends that were already occurring in markets, Ryan says. In the U.S., for example, the Sun Belt, which includes Atlanta, was already seeing inbound migration because of more affordable tax rates. Because of its diverse economy, it was not solely reliant on live entertainment, for example, and other industries hit hard by the pandemic. It was also less “structurally overbuilt” than places like New York City, Ryan says, because it didn't have as intense of a building boom in the 1970s and 80s.
“There is less slack in the system,” Ryan says.