The conundrum facing executives nationwide these days is one familiar to anyone who has ever planned a birthday gathering: “It’s really hard to get anybody to come to a party if everybody R.S.V.P.s maybe,” said Zach Dunn, an expert on hybrid work and founder of the workplace management company Robin.
Now imagine that party involved paychecks, bottom lines and a 10-year lease. So when Mr. Dunn counsels executives on their return to office plans, he encounters inordinate stress over the question of whether to mandate that employees spend certain days in the office, or opt for flexibility while enticing people with activities and meals, relying on pure enthusiasm to fuel the great return.
Those decisions have grown more complex in recent weeks, as Covid cases surged and return to office plans lurched. Apple, for example, which has faced fierce internal opposition to its R.T.O. plan, told workers last week that the company was scaling its office requirement back from three days a week to an optional two days.
R.T.O. plans used to be held together with something like magic, or at least like math: Three days in the office — the bulk of the workweek — and two days at home. Three days for that mythic cafeteria banter, two days for pants that don’t button. Now? Forget it. The three-two weekday R.T.O. split, like so many other aspects of office reopening plans, has begun to seem less like gospel and more like gibberish.
To Mr. Dunn, the flux in R.T.O. plans is evidence of a mind-set shift underway, in which executives are abandoning rigid attendance rules and trying to make the office fit more seamlessly into workers’ lives: “People are way too fixated on number of days in office as a metric,” he said. “The office has to earn its place in the average person’s week.”
Covid cases are rising rapidly in nearly every U.S. state. Office occupancy has remained fairly flat, just above 40 percent, since late March. Many company leaders who have reopened their offices are struggling to fill them, as the persistent delays in R.T.O. plans undermined both deadlines and details, like the specific days of the week that workers are expected back.
Some companies, like Airbnb, have recently told their employees they never have to return to the office; others, like Goldman Sachs, where workers are back five days a week, remain zealous about the benefits of in-person work. But many businesses are in the fuzzy realm of hybrid work. BlackRock, for example, asks employees to come to the office three days, and Citigroup now asks for at least two. And plenty of hybrid workplaces are still trying to decide how many days employees should report back to their desks, while finding that attendance is something challenging to track or enforce.
“The word of the day is chaos,” said Becky Frankiewicz, U.S. president of ManpowerGroup, a global staffing agency with more than 4,500 offices. “I had a Canadian C.E.O. ask me probably three weeks ago — ‘Becky, we opened the offices and no one came back, what do we do now?’”
“The first step was, ‘Let’s open the doors and see who comes back,’” she added. “Then it became, ‘OK, now we need to clarify the expectation either by team, or by days of the week.’”
Unlike fully remote or in-person work arrangements, hybrid models have unfolded differently in every office, sometimes entailing two or three days a week of attendance and in other cases leaving employees to pick when they come in at will. A Robin survey of more than 10,000 offices globally found that nearly 20 percent of American office workers are back one day a week, about 10 percent are back two days a week, just five percent are back three days a week, even fewer are back four or five days a week and more than 50 percent do not use the office consistently every week. Wednesday is the most popular day for going into the office, according to data from the workplace security firm Kastle.
Then there are plenty of company leaders still scratching their heads: Nearly a third of employers surveyed haven’t decided on their return to office plans, according to data from ManpowerGroup. And those in the process of setting or tweaking expectations realize that there is a lot at stake, including how employees form relationships with one another and how they view their company leadership.
“Zillow has not said, and will not say, ‘Tuesdays and Thursdays you need to be in the office,’” said Meghan Reibstein, head of product management and flexible work at Zillow. “Our employees are adults. Call this a millennial type of thinking — I am a millennial — but we believe that if they are happy and fulfilled in their lives, that will help them show up at work.”
Many companies have held firm to their R.T.O. expectations even as Covid rates spike. BlackRock hasn’t made any changes to its protocols, nor has Meta, formerly Facebook, which opened its U.S. offices in late March but offered the option for many employees to keep working remotely. Some workplaces reinstated mask requirements and others have said they do not anticipate requiring attendance anytime soon. (The New York Times, which had told its employees that most should plan to be three days a week in the office by June 6, announced a pause on the expectation last week because of New York City’s high Covid levels.)
But company leaders are also wrestling with office attendance questions that go well beyond health and safety. Many entertainment and leisure activities have come roaring back in recent months. N.B.A. game attendance is at 95 percent of its prepandemic level, T.S.A. checkpoints are at 89 percent and Open Table dining is at 87 percent. Office attendance has lagged. And executives have realized that when attendance isn’t required, and workers aren’t guaranteed to see their teammates, managers have to be creative about articulating what benefit they see in a commute.
Jefferies, an investment bank in New York, has tried out various incentives to get employees more excited about the office, and asks managers to set expectations about how often employees go in. The head of the firm, Rich Handler, regularly posts on Instagram inviting employees who are in the office to direct message him for a chance to be invited out to dinner. Earlier this month, Mr. Handler and the firm’s president Brian Friedman sent out a memo urging employees to start improving their attendance levels for the sake of their junior colleagues craving community.
“For those who have not been in the office regularly yet, we understand that it might seem daunting combined with a sense of comfort that has set in for many to work primarily from home,” they wrote. “Yet, we strongly believe the negatives of these realities are far outweighed by the magic of being together in person.”
But not all employees have bought into the magic — or are willing to pretend they think it’s real. And many company leaders have tried to strike a balance, promoting the benefits of in-person collaboration without outright mandating that workers be part of it.
At Relay Payments, an online payments platform in Atlanta, the company’s leadership noticed that the small subset of employees coming in this spring seemed more energized about their work. They weren’t necessarily more productive, but they seemed happier. So last month the company told staff they were encouraged to come in two days a week, something reinforced with free lunches.
The average weekday now finds about half of the 90 local workers in the office, which the head of human resources, Amy Zimmerman, sees as a sign that they can encourage community without policing it.
“My challenge to the founders was, let’s be intentional,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “Let’s not just say, ‘Hey, everyone be in the office two days a week’ without saying what’s different, what can you do in the office that you can’t do at home.”