You Could Be Ordered Back To The Office By Fall


It may be time to get a professional haircut and take your working clothes to the dry cleaner (while being sure they fit over any “pandemic pudge” you may have gained.) Although companies will allow more home-based work than before the pandemic, there’s evidence that office work is on the way back, and could be ramping up by this fall.

JP Morgan Chase

CEO Jamie Dimon signaled this in his April annual letter to shareholders.  Although the letter contained a wide range of balance sheet and macroeconomic analyses, Dimon said about the workplace (around p. 45) that “we envision a model that will find many employees working in a location full time.”  Some will be in a “hybrid” blend of office and home work. But only “a small percentage of employees, maybe 10%, will possibly be working full time from home for very specific roles.”

“Many” workers will be in “a location,” “some” working hybrid, and “a small percentage…possibly…in very specific roles” at home full time.  Hardly a ringing endorsement of expanded or permanent work at home.

Dimon and Morgan aren’t alone here.  As I noted recentlyAmazon

 told employees it plans a “return to an office-centric culture as our baseline” by the fall. Large tech firms like Facebook and Google

are adding new office space even while they permit some increased home-based work.

As Forbes contributor Jack Kelly described, last fall Morgan tried to bring traders back to work.  But without vaccinations, a wave of Covid-19 put an end to that premature experiment.

Now many workers are fully vaccinated or soon will be.  And vaccinations are concentrated among exactly the type of workers Morgan and other banks and tech firms employ.  The Kaiser Family Foundation found that 56% of all adults had received a vaccine by April.  And a February survey from USC found “76% of U.S. adults with at least a bachelor’s degree had been vaccinated or planned to get vaccinated” compared to 53% with less than a college education.  

Workforces in finance, tech, and other office-based industries have higher levels of formal education than other industries, so they fit this pro-vaccination profile.  Of course, they also are the workers who have been most able to work from home.  The Pew Research Center found 58% of college-educated workers (and 68% of those with postgraduate credentials) said their jobs can be done from home, compared to only 17% with a high school degree or less.

Both the vaccination and employment figures are unevenly distributed by race, with whites having the highest rates both for vaccination and work-from-home potential.  And many workers want either full time work from home or a hybrid model—-81% in a recent Harvard survey of professional workers who’ve homeworked some or all of the time during the pandemic.

Compare that to a January PWC survey, which found “75% of executives anticipate that at least half of office employees will be working in the office” by July of this year.  PWC concluded “the office is here to stay,” with 68% of executives saying employees need to be in the office “at least three days a week to maintain a distinct company culture.”

Workplace “culture” is being invoked by CEOs to justify office returns. In February, Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon rejected permanent work at home, saying the firm has “an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture” so working at home was an “aberration” that couldn’t become “a new normal.”  Morgan’s Dimon used similar language in his shareholder letter, saying “most professionals learn their job through an apprenticeship model, which is almost impossible to replicate in the Zoom world.”

Overall, working from home is slowing down.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that 18.3% of workers did some work for pay during April due to the virus, continuing a steady decline from last May’s peak level of 35.4%.  And although office work in the New York and San Francisco metros remains at very low levels, other cities are showing increases.  Keycard access data for May shows rising employee office visits as a percentage of pre-pandemic levels, led by Texas metro areas like Houston (39.3%) and Dallas (41.2%).

As I’ve written previously, employers—not employees—will make the decision about how much homework to allow and under what circumstances.  A recent article by Joe Mysak made the same point, saying “it’s up to…bosses” to decide on the “return to the office.”  Mysak says it well—even though employee desires will be taken into account by bosses, “this doesn’t mean that the ship is going to be run by the crew.” So talk to your boss before you assume there’s permanent homeworking in your future.

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