On September 7, Melissa Cameron stepped out of her south London home and into a pre-booked black cab. It was her first day back at the office since late March when her employer, private equity firm Advent International, asked everyone to work from home.
A private ride to work is a luxury for Cameron, who has cycled in the past but normally commutes by train. When Advent started discussions on reopening its London office, Cameron found herself in a predicament: while she craved the human interactions of the office, she was unwilling to ride public transport for fear of catching the virus. She was also wary of becoming infected in the workplace. Along with many of her colleagues, she decided it was safer to stay home.
This month, she changed her mind when the company sent an email to all 102 employees at the London office offering to cover the cost of taxis for them to attend the office for team meetings but not the regular day-to-day commute. Advent also provides fortnightly home-testing kits, and requires employees to have tested negative within the past two weeks to be eligible for entry.
“We’re trying to get people back to work as much as possible,” says James Brocklebank, a managing partner at Advent. “We’re an investment business and it’s always better to meet people in person, but apart from this it’s important for employee morale and mental health.” There is absolutely no requirement for people to come in if they don’t want to, he adds.
Advent is not alone in the battle to repopulate offices. Government guidance actively promotes returning to the workplace but there are concerns that it’s happening too slowly. Despite a small uptick in London after the August bank holiday, many still work from home. Passenger numbers on the London Underground before 10am on September 1 were down 69 per cent year-on-year. Datasuggests that around 54 per cent of UK workers are reluctant to make the transition, and that the commuting is their biggest concern. The last week of August was the first time more than half of the UK workforce – at a rate that’s slower than France, Germany, Italy, and Spain.
Employers can try to compel employees back to work, provided it’s safe and they have carried out (and where appropriate, published) their risk assessments. But most are giving employees the choice while also trying to make the office more appealing through incentives. It’s a means of minimising risk, says Richard Fox, a senior partner within the employment team with Kingsley Napley. Forcing workers to return leaves employers open to liability, and they must be extra cautious with a second wave seemingly on the way.
Financial technology, media, and data company Bloomberg is offering its 20,000 global employees a daily allowance of $75 (£55) to cover out-of-pocket transportation costs when commuting, whether for car services, tolls, parking, or public transportation.
The aim is worker welfare, says Ken Cooper, the global head of human resources. Executives took action when employees began to cite mental health concerns. They were getting cooped up in their apartments and sought a comfortable environment to work from, and a means arriving there safely. “I was sleeping, working, eating, socialising, and relaxing in the same small space, and I needed some routine in my life,” says one 25-year-old Bloomberg employee. She began to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression.
After reviewing the costs of taxis and parking across the cities in which the company operates, Bloomberg determined $75 to be enough to alleviate the “financial burden of safe travel,” Cooper says, giving most employees the freedom to make the commuting choice they’re comfortable with.
Other companies are seeking more overt means of incentivisation. Goldman Sachs, for example, is offering ten days of care per dependent, in addition to 20 days that’s normally available annually. The company even offers bankers free takeaway breakfast and lunch. Besides providing testing kits for employees, Blackstone is covering taxis for employees in London and New York to attend the office. JPMorgan uses JPM Park, a smartphone application that allows directors to donate parking spots at its Canary Wharf HQ to juniors who are driving in. The company has opened new changing rooms for those who opt to cycle.
Maciej Markowski, an expert in the corporate workplace, is concerned about policies that fail to address basic employee needs. “The biggest mistake that companies are making is thinking that you can win people over with positive incentives.” He describes offers of free coffee and extra money as shortcuts that fail to address the deeper safety concern. To bring employees back, Markowski says, companies must focus on “removing the fear,” and this extends beyond the provision of private transport. Forty-five per cent of American employees expressed concerns that their bosses will bring them back to work before it’s safe.
Markowski gives the example of companies like Price Waterhouse Cooper, which adopted a desk-booking system to assign employees workstations in a socially distanced checkerboard setup. A similar system exists at Bloomberg, where an internal system manages desk allocation according to social distancing requirements in each city. Employees will be notified if a desk move is required. He also points to myhive buildings in Vienna, where turnstiles and elevators are controlled using his spaceOS smartphone application, eliminating the need to touch anything or speak with anyone. “I think a lot of things can be done with technology at a small cost,” Markowski says.
These incentives are likely the beginning of a stronger push. Even though attendance at the office remains mostly optional, some companies, particularly financial institutions, are becoming more agitated about having people return. Executives at Citigroup Inc. are applying subtle pressure on subordinates by hosting meetings from the office, and Blackstone is believed to be encouraging investment professionals back. We’re going to see more companies paying for private transport, Markowski believes, because it’s a simple solution that improves safety.
Even so, psychologists believe these strategies can only go so far. Because incentives assume that people are staying at home for a certain reason, they will only motivate people where they have tapped into the underlying cause, says occupational psychologist Rachel Lewis. Just as paying for taxis will tempt those afraid of public transport, free food will appeal to those staying home to save money. The problem is that there’s a huge variety of motivations for people staying home, and these transcend safety and finances. “If we are going to offer incentives, they need to be individualised and based on having had a proper return-to-work conversation with individuals,” Lewis continues. “Having a blanket incentive is a gimmick and won’t work.”
Instead of asking how to tempt employees back, Lewis believes companies should be asking whether this is really in their best interests. Research shows that two-fifths of jobs in the US (37 per cent), UK (43 per cent), and Wales (40 per cent) could be carried out at home without significant economic disruption. If it’s not, they should begin reviewing how they can revise their operational setups; if it is, then they might have to consider sterner policies. Half of JP Morgan’s London investment bankers have been mandated to return to Canary Wharf, on a “week-on, week-off” schedule.
If companies do begin demanding a full-time return to the office, there could be a sharp increase in formal requests for flexible working, says Harriet Calver, a senior associate at law firm Winckworth Sherwood. Under flexible working laws, employees with a qualifying service of 26 weeks have the right to request flexible working, and an employer can only reject a request based on one of eight statutory business reasons. Where employees have proven they can work from home effectively during the pandemic and there has been no detrimental impact on their performance, it’s going to be difficult for employers to reject a request asking for some degree of home-working and to force employees back on a full-time office schedule, Calver explains.
The office could become a place to address the gaps of home working, used for client meetings and training, with fewer desks and predominantly team spaces. They could become dominated by junior employees, who attend because they don’t have space at home to work. The idea of a single central office could one day be replaced with various local hubs.
Home-working was on an upward trajectory even before the lockdown, Lewis says, and it’s time to recognise that the world has changed.
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