As the pandemic enters its eighth month, companies are trying to determine not if but when to get employees back into the office and, more importantly, how to do it. Some people in our network are surprised to learn that many WeWork employees have been back in our offices since late June, making WeWork one of the first large companies to oversee the return of our workforce.
We’re approaching this complex issue in a constantly evolving set of circumstances, all while trying to balance safety, productivity, logistics and employee sentiment. After people suggested we share our journey and findings more broadly, we decided to do that for our New York offices. We focused on New York City because it has been one of the most complicated cases, and covering the different approaches we have taken in every region around the world simply wasn’t practical in one article.
How we assembled a task force
For the first eight to 10 weeks of the shelter-in-place edict in New York and New Jersey, we were among the people excited and even relieved by working remotely. However, as we passed month two, we began to realise that – despite all the positive employee feedback on working from home and the press coverage hailing the end of the office – we needed to start planning a return to a ‘new normal‘, when we could safely return to the office in some way.
We found over a dozen studies suggesting that long-term working from home has a negative impact on people. For example, 56 per cent of people report increased anxiety (Forbes), 32 per cent of people are more distracted (Upwork) and 45 per cent of employees reported being less productive when working from home (Eagle Hill Consulting). And, in fact, 90 per cent of people reported wanting to get back into an office at least one day a week, according to a WeWork and brightspot strategy survey.
In addition, it’s clear that there are severe negative consequences for companies, in addition to overall impact on the economy. More than half of employees (55 per cent) now feel less connected to their companies (Morning Consult) and nearly 60 per cent are less connected to their colleagues. In April 2020, a McKinsey report concluded that co-located teams have an easier time building trust and making quick decisions. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom summed up the sentiment we were hearing from many of the companies we talked to: ‘I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth.’
We assembled a cross-functional team (yes, on Zoom) and met every day for nearly three months. In addition to the human resources function that we’re part of, we had representatives from real estate, security, technology, communications and operations. We spoke frequently with elected officials, and began researching both our own employees’ behaviour and what other companies and researchers were finding.
We decided to ask our in-house people analytics team of data scientists who work specifically on HR issues to study the behaviour of our own employees, so we could make decisions on how to return to work safely and effectively. In the end, we took different approaches in various geographies, given different sets of circumstances, government direction and the size of our employee base.
What our internal research showed
Our internal research confirmed that employees were isolated and more anxious, and were working less effectively in some ways. Cross-functional collaboration was suffering while employees worked from home. To get to these findings, our team assembled over a billion data points, including amassing the metadata of emails, Slack messages, Jira tickets, calendar invites and Zoom meetings, from both before and during the shelter-in-place edict. (This data did not include the contents from any of these media, only the metadata, such as the ‘to’, ‘from’ and ‘date’ fields.)
First, we wanted to find out how long people were working: The data proved that our more than 6,000 employees were, on average, working the same number of hours.
In addition to the metadata analysis, we surveyed employees to gauge how they were faring during shelter-in-place and the initial phases of returning to the workplace. Sixty per cent of our employees were experiencing increased isolation working from home. Some also reported being less productive and efficient, a point underscored by the 250 per cent rise in the average number of participants on Zoom calls. Zoom calls aren’t efficient, and research has shown that Zoom fatigue can occur, especially given how much these calls – particularly after many hours of video-conferencing – tax the brain.
We did find that manager-to-direct-report interactions increased during working from home, particularly in one-to-one meetings.
We were particularly interested in the collaboration and innovation questions, since both are central to our company culture and business. We were surprised to learn that the overall number of interactions among employees did not decrease, as we had expected. However, what the data made extremely clear was that innovation was starting to suffer: while interactions remained consistent, so-called ‘weak tie connections’ – interactions between employees in different functions and regions – was down nearly 50 per cent. Employees were ‘retreating’ to their own functions and regions in an effort to get their daily tasks done – at the expense of meeting with other functions and regions.
Since our culture, business and products rely on innovation, these findings underscored our urgency to have a plan to return to the office.
Preparing our facilities
Our first priority was to make sure that we could ensure our spaces were safe and compliant with government guidelines. Luckily, our facilities and design teams did an amazing job, both with our employee facilities and all the commercial spaces that we provide to our members. They came up with a three-part strategy: 1) introduce social distancing in the office, 2) update our physical spaces and 3) establish new protocols.
To establish social distancing in our offices, we decreased the capacity of our meeting rooms, team rooms, lobbies and lifts. We marked each workspace with a green dot to let employees know where they could work at safe distances from one another. The team added plenty of signage in all common areas that encourages people to socially distance. We made our hallways and staircases one-way to eliminate bottlenecks and close interactions.
In our buildings, we acquired and distributed personal protective equipment (PPE), wipe dispensers and mobile phone UV sanitisers, and improved the air quality with extended HVAC hours, enhanced filter maintenance and air-quality sensors. In terms of new protocols, we introduced face covering standards, temperature screenings and a clean desk policy so people would not leave personal items at work.
Bringing employees back to the office
As we were preparing our buildings, we also studied how we could best get people back into the office in a way that made them feel as safe as possible. After studying many options and talking to our executive leadership and employees, we ultimately decided on a three-phase strategy:
- Phase A: employees return to any of our 100-plus WeWork buildings in New York City at 25 per cent capacity in four one-week waves, with 25 per cent of employees in each wave
- Phase B: employees return to assigned spaces at one of our four ‘flagship’ headquarters offices in NYC at 50 per cent capacity
- Phase C: different teams, working with employees to develop their own schedules, combine in-office and at-home working, while retaining appropriate capacity limits to prioritise employee and member safety
Throughout each phase, we provided employees with as much flexibility as we could, very much in line with the flexibility we offer to our members – all of whom have All Access to any WeWork facility in the world (for free in 2020). In Phase A, for example, we encouraged employees to work from the WeWork closest to them, to minimise commuting times and offer the most convenience, while simultaneously helping them relearn what it is like to be back in an office setting after spending several months away.
As we went through the first four waves of Phase A, we surveyed the employees from each wave to gather feedback and suggestions. We then made improvements during each subsequent wave to prepare ourselves for the 50 per cent density of Phase B. About 40 per cent of employees did not return to work during Phase A because of childcare issues, underlying medical conditions, or a relocation to a city without a WeWork. For that group, we allowed them the flexibility to keep working remotely. We also found in the survey that 33 per cent of employees ended up walking to work, 35 per cent took public transportation, 18 per cent drove and 14 per cent cycled.
For Phase B, another 13 per cent of employees returned, most doing every other week in the office. By Phase B, most employees were able to return from other cities and, in many cases, sort out childcare. We did have a large number of requests for temporary flexibility (ranging from weeks to months), and we accommodated nearly 100 per cent of those cases. By Phase B, we found that over 40 per cent of employees reported that collaboration had increased.
Working out the logistics for Phase C was complex and required our team to work closely with each executive leader to develop a schedule for their teams that balanced safety, employee requests, in-person collaboration between teams and building capacity. It took nearly two weeks to work through the details on a person-by-person basis, but in the end we were able to accommodate everyone’s requests. Now we have people on schedules that include coming into the office every other week, several days per week, alternating days every week and other variations.
How employees felt
In our follow-up survey, over 70 per cent of employees were satisfied with the updates to our buildings, and 67 per cent said that the ‘overall experience returning to work’ was ‘good’ or ‘great’ – an encouraging outcome given that only 27 per cent of employees were initially eager to return to the office. Each wave helped the next wave of returning employees feel more comfortable.
While we did send communications at both the company and function level, in the end it was WeWork colleagues talking first-hand about the experience and the excitement and buzz of being back in the office that really made our employees comfortable. Similarly, for Phase B, we found employees taking advantage of the flexibility we offered by creating their own schedules. That flexibility extended and evolved into Phase C, and now we believe we have a good balance, with nearly every employee working both remotely part-time and in the office at least part-time.
While we recognise that our approach may not work for every company or organisation, we hope that our journey and the lessons learned will be helpful as you plan and execute your own return to the office.
Matt Jahansouz is WeWork’s chief people officer, responsible for the recruitment, engagement and well-being of the company’s global workforce. Jahansouz partners with our leadership team to design and deploy strategic talent initiatives that positively impact our culture and advance our business and financial objectives. He oversees all aspects of the people team, including talent management, inclusion and diversity, reward and recognition, organisational design and HR service delivery to employees. Jahansouz was previously a managing director at Goldman Sachs & Co., where he worked in a variety of HR roles, including global head of recruiting, global head of talent management, head of HR strategy and chief of staff. Jahansouz started his career at Deloitte Consulting LLP, working in the company’s human capital consulting business.
Tom Osmond is the chief operating officer for the people team and the global head of total reward. In this capacity, Osmond oversees the operations, infrastructure, systems, analytics, communications, compensation, benefits, mobility and equity administration for WeWork. Osmond previously worked at BlackRock, where he helped oversee a multi-year transformation of the human resources function, including organisational design, technology, business process and operating model. Prior to BlackRock, Osmond worked at Goldman Sachs & Co. for 14 years in a wide range of HR roles, including head of recruiting, head of learning, and head of infrastructure and people analytics. Osmond started his career in HR at PricewaterhouseCoopers and United Parcel Service.