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Peter Morici: Employers must embrace hybrid work to attract top talent

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Employers that insist workers return to the desk five or even four days a week are facing tough resistance.

When Goldman Sachs
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CEO David Solomon ordered his bankers to their desks full time, just 505 of his base employees showed up. Subsequently, young bankers were threatening to quit and otherwise complaining on message boards.

Other investment bankers have taken a hard line only to face blowback too.

The carrot and the stick

Google
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has softened the stick a bit by treating employees to rock concerts, but it’s cutting salaries for those who wish to permanently work remotely or transfer to offices at less costly locations.

The message is clear: Work away from the office to dead-end your career.

These firms offer exceptional pay and across all white-collar employers, policies appear to be more flexible. Hybrid work or work-from-home is important to prospective employees, and it’s a seller’s market.

According to Kastle, office occupancy has stalled and is a bit less than 45%. In New York where Eric Adams like other big-city mayors hoped for a revival in restaurant lunch trade, sales taxes and the like, the figure has flatlined below 50%.

For decades, commuters have had to put up with long drives, expensive parking and terribly crowded and often unsafe public transit. High rents and poor public schools make city dwelling an unattractive alternative.  

When the pandemic arrived, Zoom
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and its competitors were relatively new and awkward. However, innovations like Alphabet’s Starline offer prospects for simulating real presence and a more personable interactive experience.

Dinosaurs

Already, technology and a tight job market are threatening to make dinosaurs of bosses who must physically oversee their employees—as opposed to merely evaluating their work products.

The professional employee matchmaker Ladders reports over the past year the share of jobs that can be done remotely has risen from 18% to 25%. And the likes of Goldman Sachs and Google may need new CEOs more than threats, bread and circuses to attract and keep top talent.

Young people have been interacting remotely most of their lives. Videogames as social spaces, texting and before the pandemic, blended learning at universities that combined classroom and remote instruction were coming into play.

The shutdowns of 2020 and 2021 may have pushed distance learning to unproductive extremes but the positive trend line for relying more on instruction online as opposed to in classrooms has shifted upward.

It’s a natural extension of what faculty have been doing for decades—coming to school for classes, office hours and meetings and seminars but otherwise often working from home or further away.

Academics never bought into bonding at water coolers. Our most important colleagues are counterparts in the same subdisciplines at other universities and consulting clients, and we communicated quite effectively before email and zoom with telephones and conference calls.

Not all workplaces are universities—thankfully or the Chinese would surely own the country by now. But faculty are terribly productive—we are rewarded to publish and make good trouble and we do plenty of both.

And we are not managed by Luddites—ask any effective dean, faculty are influenced but never managed.

Two or three days

The facts are becoming plainer—the optimal average in office workweek is two or three days.

Studies at Harvard and Stanford parsed workers into groups according to how much time they spent at the company desk. They found that one or two days a week at the office yielded the highest productivity but those kinds of studies are inherently short run.

The pandemic was characterized by sprints where employers could rely on employee relationships and corporate cultures established during years of in office interactions before the shutdowns.

Bosses tend to have egos and too many like to see their workers under their dutiful control. But good ones also like to brainstorm with their juniors and encourage free-form collaboration. Those who elect to stay at home and out of sight are inherently disadvantaged for plum assignments and promotion.

To better level the playing field, employers should pick two or three days when everyone must come to the office—otherwise the employees will all fight over who gets to work away Mondays and Fridays—and shut the offices the rest of the time.

Instead of requiring a good reason to work from home, employers should require a good reason to take up space at the office on days designated for working away. And those obsessive young professionals who want to park their cars first in the lot to be noticed by their bosses will have to get ahead simply by being more productive and creative. 

Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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