When everyone can work from home, who goes back to the office?

Find your seat.
Find your seat.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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Behold a twist in the tale of remote work that no one saw coming: Now that coronavirus lockdowns are ending region-by-region around the world, some people may need to convince their bosses to let them stop working from home.

Office employees have spent years fine-tuning the argument in favor of work-from-anywhere policies, and publications including this one have shared countless posts with advice for winning over a skeptical boss. Now the coronavirus pandemic may turn the whole debate upside down.

That’s assuming more companies follow the example of Cloudflare, the cyberprotection and web infrastructure company, which plans to comply with social-distancing guidelines by reopening with just a fraction of its employees working in person at its 13 offices around the world. The company will decide who goes back first by reviewing petitions to do so.

And what might motivate these employees to make such a request when the virus remains a threat everywhere? “We are learning as we go, but it’s like, ‘I have three roommates and I can’t do a customer call and I’m in sales,’” says Cloudflare co-founder and COO Michelle Zatlyn. Or, she adds, “it could just be that people have a really stressful situation at home.” But they’ll first need to have their request approved by the company.

“We’re trying to understand why people want to go back and see if we can do it in a safe way,” Zatlyn says.

What could go wrong

Although it’s still early days in the reopening phase of this pandemic, we do know that Cloudflare is not alone with its methodology. Rob Falzon, vice chairman at Prudential Financial, told Quartz that about 2% of the insurance firm’s employees are in critical roles that can’t be done remotely, and they’ll be the first people invited back to the office. But “to go beyond that during this intermediate phase, there’s a process,” he said, “and it has to be approved at a pretty senior level.”

On the surface, this approach sounds sensible and sympathetic to the needs and preferences of employees, whether they wish to stay home because they like the flexibility or are nervous about commuting, or whether they long for a proper desk and reliable wifi or hope to escape to the office the minute they can restart their childcare arrangements.

However, the downsides of asking people to argue for a spot in the new, sparsely populated office are apparent, too. Namely, there’s a risk that such a policy could nudge people to share information about their private life that could leave them feeling singled out or overexposed. Or, if people are of the belief that being in the office is ultimately beneficial for their career in the long run, because employees who are visible to executives are most likely to be promoted, workers may be incentivized to push for a desk in the elite club they envision is forming at the firm’s headquarters.

Meanwhile, someone who doesn’t join the jockeying for a spot—someone who perhaps can’t raise their hand because of life circumstances—might have to worry about looking less loyal or ambitious.

Questions about commuting, when a company isn’t providing a safe service, only complicate the matter further. Without access to transportation that feels sufficiently safe, that allows commuters to spread out and reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus from a fellow traveler, an employee may have little choice about returning or not. In the US, where even access to a car is a privilege that often falls along racial lines, white employees will enjoy a greater advantage. In that case, who goes back may not be representative of the company’s workforce, which could lead to a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity among leadership ranks in the future, if this in-between stage of the recovery lasts long enough.

Notably, some of the potential pitfalls echo the same issues that dogged employees who, pre-Covid, needed to seek approval for working at home. For instance, at companies that have questioned the value of remote work policies, women—and parents generally—have resented needing to ask for the flexibility required to care for children, which calls attention to their specific needs and, in the worst cases, leaves them stigmatized.

Arguably any request that could invite scrutiny from an employer, whether it’s the ability to work from home or the right to re-enter the office, carries a similar risk.

Asked about the ways their decision making process could become fraught, Janet Van Huysse, head of people at Cloudflare, reiterated the company’s commitment to acting on what it’s hearing from its workers. “In talking with employees around the world, we’ve learned that some work-from-home situations are very challenging, and in some cases, unsafe. It has been important for us to take into account these situations and make sure that employees who need to work from an office are able to do so as quickly as possible,” she said.

How will companies make these decisions?

If there’s an ideal process for deciding who goes back when, it’s not obvious.

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

When employees are equally situated, he says, companies get into the realm of ethical decision making and best practices. What’s key, he says, is that organizations ask themselves: “What are the allocation rubrics that are going to be perceived as fair by employees?”

Like much of the new reality created by Covid-19, this is totally new territory for all parties, Colvin points out, and it’s complicated. There are intersecting concerns about keeping people safe, running the business, and still dealing with uncertainty about how the virus behaves or when another outbreak will occur.

Still, Colvin does name one possible sorting criterion that could come into play, almost by default: seniority.

Honoring tenure at a company is an old union tradition that’s more relevant to manufacturing plants than the average office setting, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful force in other contexts. “What we actually find is that in lots of workplaces—nonunion workplaces, too—seniority is often a factor that used in decision making as a fairness rule,” he says.

“Maybe somebody who’s been there longer gets first choice of parking spaces or office allocations. The incumbents get prioritized,” he says. “Even in startups that are five or 10 years old, you still might give certain priorities to people who were there from the start of the company.” In the case of returning to work, that privilege would be the first right of refusal.

Demand won’t be a problem for all companies

At this early stage in the reopening phase, it’s not known whether companies will find that more employees will want to return than reasonably can, or if employers will have the opposite problem: Can they lure enough folks back with the promise that it’s safe?

Although the odd survey will suggest that people are impatient to get back to the office, perhaps to gain more separation between home and work, to socialize, and you know, have a change of scenery, several other polls have found that people are not at all eager to give up the many perks of working from their living rooms.

Colvin imagines that the struggle to fill seats will be different for every company, depending, again, on the industry, but also company culture. If an organization had a strong remote-work culture before the stay-at-home orders, it may be hard to make the argument that it’s time to head back to the office. If, however, pre-pandemic company policies discouraged remote work, it’s conceivable that employees will express more interest in returning.

If the decision is left up to employees, it still will be up to leaders to ensure that people feel safe—that they believe their work environment is not a health hazard and that their jobs and likelihood of advancement are secure—no matter which decision they make.

It’s time to rethink old truisms

As it happens, Cloudflare did not have a flexible work-from-home policy before the lockdowns, Zatlyn says. In her tech-centered circles, she says, “there was the hypothesis that you either have to be an in-the-office company or a remote company, and it’s very hard to mix the two.”

This was an accepted truism at Cloudflare: the hybrid system was seen as the least efficient model, slowing down team work and communication. So in the past, she says, when employees would come to their manager and say, “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.

In the wake of Covid-19, however, Cloudflare briefly became a hybrid operation, allowing employees to choose where they worked—and then went all-remote almost overnight, as governments prohibited non-essential travel and business operations. The transition was almost seamless, Zatlyn reports, with few “bumps” even as demand for the company’s cloud-optimization and protection tools soared. Now the hybrid model is the only way the company can reopen its offices. It will take many months for capacity in the buildings to slowly expand 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 demonstrated that they can be productive from home—reexamining work-from-home policies is on the table.

To date, the number of employees asking to return to the office has not outpaced that of available seats, says Cloudflare’s Van Huysse. She tells Quartz that according to her rough estimates, around 20% of employees in the offices where staff has been surveyed have expressed interest in going back. (The company says it has talked to employees in Beijing, Munich, Lisbon, and Austin, Texas.) On average, Van Huysse expects there initially will be room for 25% to 30% of staff in the reopened buildings.

Tellingly, the number of people who want to head back to the workplace drops again by half when they hear the details of what the office will look like, says Van Huysse. “Sometimes the employee has it in their head that we’ll go back to the way it was before, that they’ll be sitting with the whole team, hanging out together and having snacks, and it’s not like that,” she says. Once employees are informed about how few people will be around, and all the routine health screenings that will be required, “there might be 10% who still raise their hand and say yes.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of offices Cloudflare has. The error has been corrected.