Jul 28, 2020

Axios @Work

By Erica Pandey
Erica Pandey

Welcome back to @Work. Last week, I asked you about your companies' office reopening plans. Thanks to the many readers who got back to me!

  • Today's newsletter begins with a big picture look at the return to work, featuring some of those dispatches from @Work readers.

I've got 1,252 words for you — a 5-minute read. Let's get started...

1 big thing: The back-to-work puzzle

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

With an unending list of factors to consider — including the safety of air-conditioning systems, the risk of using public transportation, schools' reopening schedules and the needs of high-risk employees — the back-to-work puzzle is getting increasingly difficult to solve.

The big picture: At first, companies were pleasantly surprised at how well telecommuting worked, with many firms — including Twitter — saying they might go remote forever. Now, about four months in, remote work doesn't seem so great anymore.

  • Companies are saying that projects take longer, hiring and recruiting talent is tougher, and integrating new employees — especially younger ones without a ton of workforce experience — is difficult, the Wall Street Journal's Chip Cutter writes.
  • "While working from home may not be great, the office is also not a great option. Masks, temperature checks, hand-washing and distancing all make it a far less productive and pleasant experience than pre-COVID," Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford, says. "In the shorter run, working from home is really a lesser of two evils."

Around 82% of workers predict they'll return to work within 18 months, per a Xerox Future of Work survey of people in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Canada. Firms are trying out several different strategies to make that transition as smooth as they can.

Google set a precedent this week by saying it'll have employees work from home until July 2021.

  • That doesn't mean Google thinks the public health crisis won't have gotten any better by next summer. It's about giving employees the time to plan ahead, instead of giving them return dates that keep getting pushed back.
  • The remaining tech giants, along with companies in other industries, are likely to follow Google's lead.

"One of the ways to deal with this moving target is to remove as much uncertainty as possible" by extending work-from-home guidance for many months, says Manny Medina, CEO of the tech company Outreach. His company will be remote through the end of January at least.

Some companies tried to go back, but they ended up sending employees home once again due to local coronavirus flare-ups.

  • Sequoia Consulting Group welcomed workers back to its Tempe, Arizona, offices in mid-June when the state opened up. But less than two weeks later, they decided to close down again.
  • "We very much had an in-office culture," and the goal is to bring everyone back, Steve Kim, Sequoia's chief legal officer, tells Axios. "It just felt more comfortable to err on the side of safety."

The other side: While most companies are trying to figure out how to return, don't underestimate the extent to which the coronavirus will accelerate a move toward telecommuting.

  • Around 20% of workdays will be from home in the post-pandemic world, compared to 5% pre-pandemic and 40% during, according to a study by Stanford's Bloom.

Jill Bishop, who runs Multilingual Connections, a Chicago-based small business that offers translations and transcriptions, says, "No one wants to come back. They want to come in for the communication and the social side, but their ideal is to stay where they are for the majority of their workweeks."

  • Her company is trying to get out of its office lease.
Bonus: Big Tech's WFH plans
Data: Axios reporting, company officials; Table: Naema Ahmed/Axios
2. The virtual first day

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Pandemic-induced remote work has created a new phenomenon for many workers: starting a job from your home.

Why it matters: At most firms, office culture and team dynamics are established through in-person meetings. And there are a slew of challenges that come with welcoming someone to your company via Zoom.

By the numbers: 85% of HR teams across the country have conducted virtual onboardings for new hires since the start of the pandemic, according to survey data from the research firm Gartner.

  • There's additional work that comes with pulling that off, including training managers how to virtually onboard, setting up video calls for new hires to meet each other, and assigning mentors to make the remote transition easier on newbies.
  • 51% of HR professionals have developed whole new trainings to assist with the virtual first day, per Gartner's data.

It gets even more complicated when you're starting your first job ever from your childhood bedroom, as many college grads are doing.

  • Scores of grads had their job offers rescinded when the pandemic hit. And even those lucky enough to hold onto their jobs don't get to experience the freedom and responsibility that comes with entering the workforce.
  • Hannah Derleth, a Ball State University graduate, told the New York Times she's been working from the same desk that she used to do homework in middle school.
3. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

America's two coronavirus realities (Axios)

  • The coronavirus-driven recession is creating two parallel economic realities and they are growing further apart by the day. Many people with financial assets and white-collar jobs have actually benefited from the economic downturn, while the rest of the country is doing its best to stay afloat.

Pity the HR worker (Bloomberg)

  • The pandemic has created new burdens for human resource departments to bear. Today's HR workers are acting as IT support for remote workers, bad news bearers for laid off staff, and counselors for stressed or overwhelmed employees.

The pandemic is widening educational inequality (Economist)

  • There were already big differences of opportunity between rich students and poor students, and rich schools and poor schools, but pandemic-era remote learning is making everything worse.

The end of open-plan everything (The Atlantic)

  • Over the last couple of decades, our offices, and even our homes, have become more open. First offices turned to cubicles, then cubicles gave way to big, shared desks, as open-concept became the fashionable new thing. Now, with concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, walls are making a big comeback.
4. Slack vs. Microsoft heats up

As I've written, pandemic-induced telecommuting is spotlighting a new war in business: the fight to dominate the massive market for work-from-home technologies.

  • Slack and Microsoft Teams, both of which offer tech that allows workers to collaborate remotely, have emerged as the front-runners.
  • Now, the battle is intensifying.

What's happening: Last week, Slack filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft in the European Union, arguing it's anti-competitive that Microsoft ties its Teams workplace collaboration software to its Microsoft Office suite of products, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

“Microsoft is reverting to past behavior," Slack general counsel David Schellhase said in a statement. "They created a weak, copycat product and tied it to their dominant Office product, force installing it and blocking its removal, a carbon copy of their illegal behavior during the ‘browser wars.’"

The other side: "With COVID-19, the market has embraced Teams in record numbers while Slack suffered from its absence of video-conferencing. We’re committed to offering customers not only the best of new innovation, but a wide variety of choice in how they purchase and use the product," a Microsoft spokesperson said.

  • Worth noting: Slack does support video chat, but only within a subscribing organization, and only on desktop.

Go deeper: Fast Company's Mark Sullivan has a smart piece on the fight.

5. 1 fun thing: Work from Barbados

Harry Smith Beach in Barbados. Photo: Getty Images

With more and more companies extending their work-from-home guidance for months at a time, employees have the flexibility to try some things that might have seemed wild pre-pandemic.

  • Some have abandoned city apartments and fled to country homes by the sea. Others have rented Airbnbs by lakes or mountains for weeks at a time.
  • But you could take it even further and work from Barbados.

The island is accepting applications for foreign visitors who want to work from there for up to a year.

  • It costs $2,000 per person or $3,000 per family. And you need to make at least $50,000 a year and have health insurance to qualify, the BBC reports.
  • The offer is especially popular among workers from the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, per the BBC.

The bottom line: The "work-from-anywhere" trend is just another example of how the pandemic is revealing two realities for American workers. While closed workplaces could mean unlimited beach time for wealthier workers, the same thing is prompting layoffs and food insecurity for the rest of the county.

Erica Pandey

Thanks for reading!