COVID-19 impact | Should a morning staff meeting feel like homeroom?

Some workplace experts said companies resorting to surveillance systems most likely had a workplace culture problem on their hands. They argue that companies worried about keeping such close tabs on their workers may want to question their approach to bringing teams back together (Representational image)

Some workplace experts said companies resorting to surveillance systems most likely had a workplace culture problem on their hands. They argue that companies worried about keeping such close tabs on their workers may want to question their approach to bringing teams back together (Representational image)

Emma Goldberg and Lauren Hirsch

Hybrid-work arrangements often sound like math equations. Three days a week in the office, two at home; 50 workers commuting into an office of 10,000 square feet and 10 pizzas. It all adds up to 40 hours somehow — and a logistical challenge for businesses trying to determine whether one part of the solution is keeping track of people’s comings and goings.

As they decide how to manage their return-to-office plans, executives are wrestling with more than how to keep people healthy from the coronavirus. They are considering whether to monitor attendance or keep trusting that employees will do their work.

When millions of Americans began working from home two years ago because of the pandemic — one-third of the workforce by May 2020 — they benefited from a new degree of autonomy. Their managers, in many cases, saw that tasks were completed, so the assumption was they were putting in full workdays.

Now, as businesses call employees back, pushing office occupancy across the country above 42%, they are deciding whether to let workers maintain those freedoms or to take measures to ensure that people are reporting to their desks.

Questions on attendance can be especially fraught for the large subset of businesses combining in-person and remote work; of 91 companies with return-to-office plans that Cushman & Wakefield is following, 86% have instituted hybrid policies, and the other 14% have allowed their staff to stay remote indefinitely.

Some managers at Goldman Sachs, which has roughly 20,000 New York-based employees and has called its staff back five days a week to offices nationwide, are maintaining spreadsheets tracking which team members have swiped their badges to enter the office. At Bloomberg, employees have long been able to see through an internal system when their colleagues entered the building. At SmartRecruiters, a software company, managers can use data from their desk reservation system to follow up with employees who do not show up.

“A piece of our human resources philosophy is that we’d like to be monitoring if people are showing up to work,” said Jenae Kaska, head of employee experience at SmartRecruiters, whose London employees are expected to come into the office on Thursdays.

But some workers, having experienced the flexibility of remote work and empowered by a tight labor market, have bristled at being monitored as they make the transition back to the office. They feel pressured to go in when they know their supervisors are collecting attendance data, even as rising COVID-19 levels cause concern. About one-third of workers surveyed by CCS Insight, a research firm, cited attendance pressure as one of their worries about hybrid-work arrangements.

Many managers are just as put off by the prospect of having to take attendance. “I’m a busy person, too, and the thought of being a monitor like we’re in junior high again is horrible,” said Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, a nutrition organization in Boston with a staff of 10.

Some workplace experts said companies resorting to surveillance systems most likely had a workplace culture problem on their hands. They argue that companies worried about keeping such close tabs on their workers may want to question their approach to bringing teams back together.

“It’s like hiring a soccer player and saying, ‘I don’t care how many goals you score; I only care how many hours you train,’” said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor and an expert on remote work. “If a company is monitoring what days you’re going in, there are red flags. Why aren’t you evaluating employees on outputs, what they achieve?”

Hard-line policies on attendance-taking are more prevalent in industries like financial services, where employers have tended to be rigid about their return-to-office plans.

“There’s a little bit of a veiled threat sometimes,” said Zach Dunn, a co-founder of Robin, a platform for companies to manage hybrid work. “I’ve been on the circuit with a bunch of HR professionals, and one of the questions they always ask is, ‘How can we confirm people are working when they’re not in the office?’

“It seems like it’s coming from some form of old-guard leadership asking an HR team to basically boost engagement,” he added. “Which is a coded word for get butts in seats.”

At Goldman Sachs, data on workers’ badge swipes has been discussed during the company’s weekly meeting of investment bank managers, according to two people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly. In one of the meetings, managers explored strategies to compel bankers to go into the office, such as by scheduling in-office appointments with colleagues on days those people are known to be working remotely or by scheduling meetings on Mondays and Fridays, when people are least likely to come in.

The fewer than 2,000 employees at JPMorgan Chase’s call centre in Columbus, Ohio, are required to work in the office three days a week. They are assigned which days to go in so the office can better manage capacity, according to two people familiar with the matter.

At Bloomberg, which is 21,000-strong globally, employees have for years been able to use an internal system to see when their colleagues swiped their badges to enter the building. Return-to-office requirements at the company differ by team. Most employees are expected to come in three days each week, though these expectations were relaxed during the surge caused by the omicron variant of the coronavirus. Data in the company’s internal system is not typically used to penalize people who do not show up, though of course every employee’s office attendance is easily visible to supervisors.

Some companies are collecting data on when employees come into the office but not looking at individual worker attendance patterns. DocuSign, for example, which in December scrapped its plan for a January return to the office and has more than 7,000 employees, evaluates information on desk and conference room reservations, as well as entry badge swipes, to see which days and hours teams are using the workplace. But the company does not examine what specific staffers are doing, said Joan Burke, the company’s head of human resources.

“We are not taking attendance,” Burke said in an email. “Our employees have proven they can be successful working from anywhere.”

A variety of new software systems provides employers with information on worker attendance. Eden Workplace, a software company, makes tools to help run hybrid offices, including by enabling workers to book desks and conference rooms.

At SmartRecruiters, a client of Eden Workplace, Kaska said managers might use data from the system to follow up with employees who reserved a desk and did not show up, specifically in the London office, where people are expected to come in once a week. Some London employees have commutes of more than two hours, though a number of them interviewed said they enjoyed the camaraderie of the office.

“We want to know if they’re OK if they’re not there,” Kaska said. “We assume they’re working from home, but we want to make sure that they’re OK.”

SmartRecruiters has so far relied on its operations team to check employee attendance in London, but the company is hiring a front-desk manager to handle the task. Kaska added that the company would most likely rely more heavily on Eden’s attendance data if its sites outside London rolled out return-to-office plans.

“We would have more of a policy following up with people on why they weren’t showing up,” she said.

But many workers, across industries, are resisting the prospect of having their office attendance tracked now that they have gotten used to the freedoms of deciding when and where they would do their best work. A study from Future Forum, a research group backed by the tech company Slack, found that 94% of knowledge workers wanted some flexibility in setting their schedules and that 79% wanted some flexibility in determining where they worked.

“I don’t have anyone checking up on me, and if I did, that would cause a lot of stress,” said Rose Worden, who works at a non-profit in Washington that expects that she come in two days per week. “Trust is important to any job.”

And many technology experts warn that surveillance software of any kind — often called “bossware” — can have a corrosive effect on company culture.

“The fact that any interaction you’ve done at work is potentially scrutinized by your boss tends to transform how you engage at work,” said Rob Reich, director of Stanford’s Center for Ethics in Society. “It treats the employees as akin to machines optimized for maximal performance rather than human beings.”

The pushback against surveillance tools may present an argument for more straightforward, carefully delineated return-to-office plans, according to workplace experts. If all workers on a team come to their desks on the same days, for example, rather than choosing any random three days to commute, there would be no need to take attendance — both because it would be obvious who was in and who was home and because more employees would willingly go back to the building.

“What’s the point of coming in if none of your co-workers are there?” said Bloom, who advises executives on hybrid work. “If you have to force employees to do something you think is in their benefit, it’s not in their benefit.

“Next thing, there’s going to be a teacher at the front of the office with a ruler throwing chalk at people who aren’t working,” he added. “It feels like you’re going back to eighth grade.”

c.2022 The New York Times Company

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