Fifteen months after shutting down “out of an abundance of caution,” Quartz’s office in New York City reopened to employees on June 1 under new guidelines befitting our changed world, increasingly far-flung workforce, and rapidly evolving ideas about the future of work. We’ve learned a lot in our first month operating a hybrid office, and wanted to share those lessons for managers and executives thinking through similar questions right now.
Quartz is now a fully distributed company, which means all employees are allowed to work from anywhere we can legally employ people. Staff who live near our office are welcome to choose when to use it or shun the place entirely. Our job openings are now open to applications from anywhere, which has made us an even more distributed company over the course of the pandemic. Today, half of our staff is outside the New York area, compared to about a third in Before Times.
Still, we do have a beautiful office space in New York, with a year left on the lease, and certainly believe in the value of in-person interaction, even if the notion of serendipitous encounters at the water cooler are overhyped. So as the pandemic began to ease in New York this spring, we decided to swing open our doors again and see what “hybrid work” really means.
Of course, we couldn’t just swing open the doors. It’s a heavy door with finicky hinges. And also we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. So we did our research (i.e., read all of Quartz at Work’s great coverage) and surveyed our staff (we use Lattice for that) to develop our own guidelines.
The survey of New York-area staff found that most would be comfortable using the office, as long as we had clear and effective safety protocols. But absolutely no one (as in, 0%) planned to use the office full-time now or in the future. Asked to guess how often they would use the office when life gets back to normal, most said two to three days a week.
Based on all of that, we developed the following guidelines, which you are welcome to use for your own purposes, if any of the language or policies are useful to your company. Click here to download a PDF version. (Email me if you use any of it and tell me how it went!)
So that’s what we had going into the experiment. Here’s what we’ve learned in the month since reopening.
In the first month since the office reopened, 68% of employees who live in New York City or its surrounding suburbs came into the office at least once. Half worked there at least twice, but only a handful have made a regular habit of using the office. Of course, it’s a small sample size at the very beginning of this experiment, but we can already confirm that what you’re hearing on TikTok is true: Given the choice, most employees would much rather the flexibility of working from home, with occasional trips to the office, rather than the other way around. (And if not given the choice, they might just quit.)
Another trend that’s already clear is that our staff prefers to use the office in the middle of the week, particularly Wednesdays and Thursdays, which account for two-thirds of all visits so far. It’s important to note that we sometimes make end-of-day cocktails in the office on Thursdays, which can draw a crowd. We also have kept the office closed on Fridays this summer, but that’s because we saw immediately there was low demand. Still, it seems safe to assume that weekly attendance in a hybrid office looks like a bell curve.
Sure, we are cleaning the office daily, and “deep cleaning” it at the end of the every week. We upgraded the HVAC. We put up signs encouraging proper hygiene. But all of that is pandemic theater if you are also congregating indoors and unmasked with unprotected people who could be spreading a highly contagious, mostly airborne virus. Local laws and customs vary, of course, but I don’t understand why anyone would consider opening an office right now without a requirement that everyone is fully vaccinated for Covid-19.
So, yes, we mandated vaccination for anyone using the office, allowing exemptions only for legitimate medical or religious reasons. We’re using Bindle for staff to prove they are fully vaccinated. That’s a one-time process, and Bindle connects to Envoy, the app we’re using for daily health checks, signing into the office, and selecting a desk, so we can automatically enforce the rule.
Vaccine mandates in workplaces and schools have been portrayed as controversial in the US, where the very American notion of “personal liberty” has been wrapped up in conservative politics and skepticism of institutions, turning sound medical advice into a Potemkin debate. It’s apparently so controversial that the New York Times called me up to ask about our vaccine mandate, and the Japanese public broadcaster NHK came to our office to interview me. (Yes, we made them prove their vaccination status, too.)
But among our own staff, the vaccine mandate has not been controversial whatsoever. It was the number one request in our survey before reopening—more popular than free snacks!—and we’ve heard no complaints about it since. Certainly, employees of a news organization, living in one of the most progressive areas of the US, have a certain bias toward facts and science, but that’s the point: This is not actually a debate. With the delta variant of the coronavirus spreading rapidly around the world, including New York, there simply is no responsible way to open an office today without mandating that everyone is vaccinated.
Before reopening, we did our best to “reset” the office by clearing out all the desks, tidying up the place, and thoroughly cleaning everywhere. That was for safety reasons, to an extent, and also because our company had changed a lot while the office lay dormant: We had to lay off a lot of employees at the beginning of the pandemic, and lots of staff have joined Quartz since then. It seemed only right to reset the office for old and new employees alike.
In making that reset, even though we have plenty of desks for everyone, we switched from assigned seating for each employee to hot desks that staff can reserve. That lets people sit near colleagues, if they want, or find a quiet, sunny spot by the windows, if that is more their style. Hot desking is probably the only practical way to run a hybrid office, but we’ve already seen some downsides. Anne Quito put it well in her essay for Quartz at Work’s weekly email, The Memo:
It all sounds practical, but there’s a big part of me that misses having my own desk. Being assigned a small piece of real estate in the office used to be part of the thrill of being on staff. It provided a mooring point where one could safely dock for the workweek and keep all sorts of useful and idiosyncratic objects.
Working from home during the pandemic, most of us shifted our mooring point to a home office, kitchen table, spare bedroom, or similar location. In a hybrid work environment, do employees need two separate places that feel equally personal? Or is it OK to have a single room to call one’s own, while the office feels more like a rented desk? And is it possible to hot desk without evoking the feel of the business center at a Holiday Inn Express? We don’t know yet.
The most vibrant day in our office since reopening one Thursday when most of our sales team came in to see each other and drink together at the end of the day. We expect that more teams and groups of friends within the company will start picking common days to come in, as an excuse to see each other and liven up the office, even if most of the day is still spent staring at a computer with headphones on. One way we’re encouraging this is by letting staff see who else has registered to go into the office each day. In the fall, we also plan to encourage small groups in New York to choose common days for in-person work.
The pandemic has wrought all sorts of “hybrid” plans and protocols, and lately, the word has taken hold as the way to describe new office environments like ours. But it’s really a misnomer. Unless every employee lives in the same area, which isn’t true for us or most companies going “hybrid,” then what’s going on is really better described as plain-old remote work.
In fact, the greatest peril of reopening our office, we felt, was that we could revert back to old habits, like three people in a conference room talking over each other while their dialed-in colleagues struggled to hear through a crackling conference line. Or town hall meetings for all staff that are pitched primarily at the in-person audience, to the detriment of everyone else.
If we learned nothing else while working through this pandemic, it’s that everyone in a meeting needs to be on the same level, which generally means being dialed in separately on their own laptops, with their own mics and headphones. That’s true even if some people in the meeting happen to be located in the same place. The other day, Quartz editor-in-chief Katherine Bell and I were sitting in adjacent conference rooms at the office while meeting with colleagues working from home in New York and other cities. It was a little awkward to be social distancing from Katherine simply for the sake of good meeting hygiene, but way better than making our colleagues endure all the old pitfalls of hybrid meeting hell.
The point is there really is no such thing as “hybrid” work in a company that employs people in multiple locations, let alone one like ours with staff on five continents. Even when you’re in the office, the work itself is still best done with the assumption that everyone is remote. And since “remote” implies the office is the node, an even better word to use is “distributed.”
Post-pandemic office fashion is expected to retain many casual notes of working from home—”business comfort,” StitchFix calls it. That will surely extend to normalizing summer shorts in all but the stuffiest of hybrid offices. When it’s this hot, the sartorial suitability of shorts seems less relevant than, say, that New York City’s climate in 60 years will feel like Jonesboro, Arkansas, today. If employers don’t embrace shorts, workers should take inspiration from the French bus drivers who in 2017, after their request to don shorts on hot days was denied, hit the road in skirts, which of course already met the firm’s dress code.
Before the pandemic, our office had all the trappings of a modern workplace in a competitive industry: a wall of free snacks, cozy nooks, games, booze, etc. It was very much the home-away-from-home environment that many companies fostered at their offices in that era, whether for the comfort of employees or, more cynically, to keep everyone working longer.
For the reopening, we didn’t spend much on office amenities and mostly focused on pandemic-related items like masks and wipes. It was hard to predict what else people might need, and in what quantities, if the office wasn’t a full-time workspace for anyone. We also explicitly did not want to privilege working in the office against working from home.
But we quickly learned, through surveys and complaints, that the essential amenities for any office are plentiful water, coffee, and snacks. Everyone is very excited for the imminent return of a Bevi machine to dispense flavored seltzer. Our new coffee machine isn’t as fancy as before, but does the trick. And there are now some snacks, if not an entire wall. In retrospect, these upgrades should have been obvious because they are the exact same amenities we all require when working from home, too.
Working from home has its own challenges, but it certainly makes confidential work, like handling an employee complaint or secretly buying the company, a lot easier. You don’t really have to think about keeping things private because they just are. Now that some of us are alternating between private workspaces and a communal office, it can be disorienting when something confidential comes up. Of course, we can still hop into a conference room or phone booth, like the old days, but it’s surprisingly difficult to make that transition when necessary. I’ve slipped up a few times already.
In the shift to hybrid work, much has been made of the unspoken advantages of face-to-face time with your boss and the risk of neglecting employees who are rarely seen in person. Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, in announcing his company’s shift to a hybrid workplace, said he would only come into the office once a month to avoid fostering that dynamic.
Every company is different, but I can safely say that nobody at Quartz is choosing where to work based on my whereabouts. I’m in the office today as I write this, and all of my direct reports are at home. This particular concern with hybrid work strikes me as a deeper cultural question about how people are judged and how they advance at a company. If face time is a big factor, then it’s not really a hybrid workplace nor a particularly inclusive one. Symbolically working from home is not going to solve that.
You might expect that after more than a year at a home, Gen-Z employees would be running back to the office to socialize, or that parents would seek refuge from their children at a real desk. We’ve seen some of that, but what’s most notable so far is a lack of any generational pattern in who comes into the office and who works from home. It seems to divide much more along factors like personality, family circumstances, and how long it takes to commute into the office.
Of course, it’s way too early to draw any broad conclusions about hybrid work (except that we shouldn’t call it that). We’re still in a liminal phase of the pandemic, it’s summertime in New York, and people are just beginning to figure out their personal preferences about normal life, let alone normal work. September will bring the start of a new school year and, we hope, the start of a post-pandemic era here in the northeast US, where we are fortunate to be mostly vaccinated. Then we’ll start to learn what the new era of work really looks like at our office and everywhere else our employees may be.