State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Back to the Office

Business mogul Elon Musk and NYC Mayor Erik Adams have one thing in common: they both want workers to come back to the office. Last week, reporter Hyunjoo Jin, in a Reuters analysis entitled “Analysis: Elon Musk opens door to a Tesla talent exodus,” observed that:

“Some of the nearly 100,000 people employed at the electric carmaker may already be considering their options after Musk issued them with a return-to-office ultimatum this week. In an email sent to staff Tuesday night, Musk threatened to fire anyone who did not work in the office 40 hours a week, a sharp contrast to flexibility offered by Big Tech companies that compete for the same talent pool.”

Of course, one could meet Musk’s requirement in three long workdays, and I assume most of his folks work more than 40 hours a week. Additionally, not everyone working for Musk is a “tech worker.” But clearly, he believes that effective organizational communication and management require live human contact and that three dimensions of interaction are better than two dimensions. For Musk, coming to the office facilitates management. Mayor Adams may feel the same way, but his agenda is different. He is trying to restore New York City’s economic dynamism and for that, he wants New York’s office towers filled with workers. But returning to the office may present New York and Tesla with similar challenges. According to Elizabeth Kim of the Gothamist:

Mayor Eric Adams continues to insist that municipal office employees work in person as the city continues its economic recovery — but he signaled for the first time that he may allow a limited amount of remote work once the pandemic ends…The mayor’s emphasis on in-person work — and his concession that a remote option may one day be a possibility — comes amid an ongoing clash with municipal workers who say the city’s inflexibility is driving many of them to quit. Since last September, most city employees have been working in person, although a small number have been granted accommodation requests to work from home. Bolstering their argument is the fact that attrition levels in the city’s workforce have been abnormally high, according to the Independent Budget Office. In early May, the IBO counted 282,000 full-time employees, a 6% drop compared to pre-pandemic days, when the city’s workforce stood at over 300,000.”

There are some jobs that require physical presence. There are others that are best performed in person. And there are some jobs and some parts of jobs that can be performed anywhere. In the days before the internet, I had to go to the library to conduct literature and document research and to the office to write on my typewriter. I had to go to a computer center to undertake data analysis. Today, I can do that work anywhere that has an internet connection and a place for me to plug in my laptop. On the other hand, while the pandemic taught us that we could educate students over Zoom, for many (although not all) forms of education, face-to-face contact is better.

As a manager, I think that physical presence is important for organizational communication. Casual contact by the coffee machine or in the hallway can allow a message to be conveyed or received in minutes. In a virtual environment, that communication might never happen or require a 30-minute meeting on Zoom. Body language is best conveyed in three dimensions and is important. The ability to drop in on a colleague whose office door is open or who is sitting in a conference room waiting for a meeting to start provides opportunities to engage that can facilitate brainstorming or creativity. I’ve learned to see if my colleagues are on a virtual call before “dropping in” on them without an appointment, but I can’t really tell if they are free to talk. But the issue of working in an office or working somewhere else is not straightforward, and good management should avoid inflexible edicts.

Even before COVID, work schedules were becoming more flexible, and the need for staff to deal with childcare or eldercare issues has required managers to be less rigid about the time and location of work. COVID resulted in a dramatic increase in “working from home,” and many people became attracted to the flexibility and absence of a commute. Lots of people prefer to work in sweatpants and hang out in their living rooms. But others miss the rhythm of the old-fashioned working day and the separation of work and home life.

There is also an economic class bias to this phenomenon. Jobs that require physical presence (except for physicians) tend to pay less. Delivery people, warehouse workers, factory workers, plumbers, electricians, restaurant workers, cashiers, nurses and people in construction and transportation and many other workers cannot work from home. The degree of flexibility in workplace that management can provide is far from uniform.

While powerful leaders like Musk and Adams may try to force the issue, I suspect the issue of workplace will not be settled by dictate but will become situationally determined. In some cases, the hierarchy in many organizations may informally motivate staff to simply imitate the boss. If the boss comes to the office and staff want to communicate with that boss and have that boss see them in action, then they will come to the office. Ambitious people will show up if organizational advancement requires physical presence.

However, in a brain-based economy, talented staff will make workplace flexibility a condition of employment. This is already taking place. That was the point of Jin’s piece about Tesla. Tech businesses that provide workplace flexibility will steal talent from an inflexible Tesla. In a tight labor market like the one we are in today, workers often have greater leverage to force workplace flexibility. That might change during a recession, with management having greater leverage to enforce its workplace preferences. Another factor is: Who pays for workspace in a hybrid model? If you work from home, you will use more energy to heat or cool your house, need more space to work, and may need a high-powered internet connection. All of that costs money. Meanwhile, your organization can reduce its workspace and bills for space, energy and even waste disposal. Some organizations see hybrid work environments as a method of shedding space and cutting costs.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see two different types of tech businesses emerge. One like Musk’s will attract people who want an in-person work environment. A second that is largely virtual. It will be interesting to see how these two models develop and how they fare in direct competition with each other.

I’m traditional enough to prefer an in-person work environment. But I also acknowledge that it’s easy for me to do this. I do not have childcare or elder care responsibilities any longer. My children are adults, my parents are deceased, and my employer rents me an apartment within a five-minute walk of my office. So, my personal preferences are irrelevant to this broader discussion. I believe we are entering a new world where place of work will be a variable, not a given. I do not think the traditional office or downtown will disappear, but workers will be afforded more flexibility to complete tasks away from the office. Places that deliver health care, wellness, education, food, and similar services will add online components, but will still require physical presence. In New York, just as our financial district now includes housing, we will see more apartment conversions and construction in the midtown business center. Our outer-borough neighborhoods are already seeing more offices popping up, and we’ll see less separation of work and residential spaces. Zoning restrictions will need to accommodate those changes.

Still, for some organizations, place is central to the value proposition they present. The French Quarter in New Orleans is a special spot in a special city. People can gamble on their phones, but Las Vegas has a gambler’s “strip,” actually: The Strip. I can watch the Yankees on TV, but there is no substitute for the rush I get when I’m at the stadium and the green of the outfield comes into view. And I work at a school called Columbia University in the City of New York. My students and faculty colleagues are here in part because they want to experience the dynamism of this incredible city. That simply can’t be phoned in or experienced on Zoom.

When place matters, people attracted to those organizations will show up in person because they want to be there. When place doesn’t matter, the work can be done from anywhere. Effective management now requires an understanding of the importance of place to organizational mission and strategy. Organizational management will continue to get more complicated, and now includes the issue of where work takes place.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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