By Emma Goldberg, John Yoon, Jenny Gross, Hikari Hida and Melissa Eddy
The reporters collaborated from their locations in New York, Seoul, London, Tokyo and Berlin.
In London, a politician wrote not-so-subtle notes to remote workers last year, hoping to persuade them to spend more time in the office: “Sorry you were out when I visited,” Jacob Rees-Mogg, then a government minister, recalled writing in messages left on the desks of Cabinet Office staff members who were working from home.
In Seoul, Jem Kim, who started a new job at a private equity firm, hoped to ask for permission to work some days from home, but quickly learned she had to be in the office full time.
And in San Mateo, Calif., executives at Sequoia, a human resources technology company, said that though they had not mandated a return to office for most employees, they had tried to make the office environment so close-knit that people couldn’t help but feel “major FOMO” (fear of missing out) when they joined meetings by videoconference.
When the coronavirus pandemic took hold in 2020, many industries across the world shifted to remote or hybrid work. It was an immense experiment that yielded different results for different cities — with long-term standoffs between executives and workers in some cases, and a sweeping return to the office in others.
Levels of remote work have varied across regions based on factors like housing density, length of Covid lockdowns and cultural norms surrounding how much workers can fight for workplace autonomy, according to interviews with nearly two dozen workers and executives, as well as a study that included researchers at Stanford, Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and the Ifo Institute, who surveyed more than 42,000 workers in 34 countries.
Whether a person is more likely to do work at a cubicle in a big office tower or on the living room couch now depends on where in the world those cubicles and couches are. Many Asian countries have lower levels of remote work than countries in Europe and North America. Those with the highest levels are Britain, Canada and the United States.
In the United States and Britain, workers across industries spent five to six paid days a month this spring working from home, according to the study. Other European countries had slightly lower levels of remote work, with Germans at four days per month across industries. Asia’s work-from-home levels were the lowest, with South Koreans working less than two days per month remotely, Japan two and Taiwan under three.
The researchers think housing plays a role in return-to-office patterns. In suburban parts of the United States, where people have larger homes and sometimes home offices, workers have been slower to go back to the office. Densely populated cities, particularly in Asia, have tended to see higher return-to-office rates, often because people struggled to be productive in small apartments shared with many family members.
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“It’s really hard to work from home if you live with a partner and have a one-bedroom apartment,” said Jose Maria Barrero, an economist at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, or ITAM, who helped lead the global study. “Tokyo, for example, is a place where apartments are quite modest.”
Executives managing work forces that sprawl across continents have noticed the regional variability firsthand. Jeetu Patel, an executive vice president and general manager at the technology company Cisco, which has nearly 85,000 employees, traveled to Asia recently and found that his company’s offices there, as well as those of its customers, were more bustling than offices in other countries. Cisco has let its teams across the globe determine their own approach to hybrid work.
Mr. Patel, who lives in Los Altos, Calif., said he preferred to work from home when he did not have in-office meetings so he could spare himself an hour traveling to San Jose and back.
“I can take that 30 minutes going back and forth commuting and I can have more things I get done,” he said. “I like having dinner with my daughter.”
Daan van Rossum, chief executive of FlexOS, a company in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, that creates digital solutions for remote managers, thought extensively about employees’ home setups when considering his company’s approach to hybrid work.
“A lot of people here don’t have their own places,” he said. “Working from home at the kitchen table with three generations running around is not the best environment to be productive.”
This year, Mr. van Rossum asked his employees to begin working in the office at least two days a week. He tried to make the experience enjoyable by carving out time for levity. Every meeting starts with a nonwork-related icebreaker, like a game of telephone.
Beyond housing differences, researchers said, remote work levels are affected by the amount of time a region spent in Covid lockdowns. In areas of the world that lurched in and out of lockdowns repeatedly, like some American cities, workers and employers became more settled in remote work routines. People invested in comfortable setups at home, buying large computer monitors and ergonomic chairs. Companies set up management systems that ensured bosses would measure performance by employee output, not by the amount of time people spent at the office.
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That kind of long-term investment in hybrid work came in handy in 2021 and 2022, as many companies delayed return-to-office plans because of infectious coronavirus variants.
“People realized, ‘Hey, you know what, I can be just as productive and effective working remotely as I can being in the same location as the rest of my co-workers,’” said Dawn Klinghoffer, head of people analytics at Microsoft, which has required employees to return to the office 50 percent of the time, with more flexibility for those who need it.
In parts of Asia, remote work routines did not become as entrenched. “There were many countries in Asia that controlled early waves of Covid pretty well without extended lockdowns,” Mr. Barrero of ITAM said. “They didn’t have this experience where they had to hunker down for months on end working from home and get adapted to it.”
In South Korea, for example, many workers never left their offices. “We’ve never implemented work from home,” said Joori Roh, a spokeswoman for SK Hynix, a major chip maker, adding that the company did not like the idea of giving some workers a privilege that was not available to all.
In Japan, workers still routinely use fax machines, and sometimes a personal stamp known as a hanko, which requires someone to be in the office. Some corporate managers in Tokyo said being together in the same space helped them keep an eye on the people who reported to them.
“Sometimes, I get very worried about whether they are actually working,” said Ryuichi Takezawa, who manages some 30 employees at Astellas Pharma in Tokyo. In the office, he said, he can ask his team questions: “How are you feeling? What are you stressed about? What can I support you with?”
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The researchers of the remote-work study believe cultural norms are also at play in return-to-work levels. Plenty of American workers said they felt comfortable asking their managers for more flexibility, or even telling them that they would quit without it.
When Laura Zimm, a public defender in Duluth, Minn., was called back to the office last year, she immediately came down with Covid. She worked from home during and after her sickness, and eventually decided with her manager that she would stay permanently remote, which Ms. Zimm preferred and which gave her manager more flexibility with office space.
At Microsoft, the return-to-office process has often included “team agreements,” in which managers meet with employees to discuss hybrid work preferences.
In parts of Europe, unions and other worker associations have helped shape return-to-office policies. At many German firms, for example, employee-elected councils negotiated with managers on the details of hybrid work.
“We needed to find a solution that would work for all of our employees, whether in software development, finance or on the shop floor,” said Julia Bangerth, head of human resources at Datev, a software company in Nuremberg that allows every team to set its own return-to-office expectations.
And the choices that individual employers make are not isolated. In areas of the world where remote or hybrid work has become a norm, employers with strict return-to-office policies worry about retaining talent, said Mark Ein, chairman of the workplace security firm Kastle, which has tracked American office occupancy levels with its “Back to Work Barometer.”
“Business leaders as a group have wanted people to come back in much more profound ways,” Mr. Ein said. “It really is the labor market’s competitive pressures and some cultural norms that have prevented it.”
“The desire to get people back among business managers is nearly universal,” he added. “It’s the ability to do it that varies across countries.”
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