Atlanta employers say ‘Back to the office.’ Workers say, ‘Not so fast’

Companies grapple with return-to-office mandates after years of widespread remote work prompted by pandemic

Atlanta employers want their workers back in the office, but those workers say, ‘Not so fast.’.After years of working remotely, brought on by the pandemic, few want to return to an office.What really surprises me is the fury. I mean, it’s almost at the level of team blue or team red, Jon VanderMeer, CEO of Kiosk & Display, who requires his workers to come into the office every workday.There have been cases where we have seen people just say no. , Dan Erling, chief executive of Accountants One, an Atlanta-based recruiting and staffing firm.Some employees cited their commute as a hindrance. One study found workers lose an average of 65 minutes each office day

Two days a week, Nick Dowdy drops his son at school and heads for the office.

He is a network engineer, driving to a construction products company in Alpharetta, 28 miles away from his home in Buford.

“Some days it takes me 45 minutes and some days it takes an hour and a half,” he said.

Two days back and forth are annoying. The old-fashioned, five-day-in-the-office schedule would be a deal-breaker, he said. “I’d look for another job. I have two teenage kids. I couldn’t afford to be in a vehicle three or four hours a day.”

So three days a week, he works from home where there is no collegial schmoozing, no water cooler insights, but also no wasted conversation, he said. “I really feel I get more done at home. With my kind of job in IT, we can do pretty much everything remotely.”

The workplace flexibility many workers continue to enjoy, which was borne out of pandemic danger, is meeting renewed resistance from employers who want their people back in the office. One survey showed 90% of employers had return-to-office plans in the pipeline by the end of next year and many employers already have office mandates, with some even tracking their employees’ movements.

Even the new director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said recently she wants more of the agency’s workers back on campus.

Employers don’t yet have the upper-hand, and some are hesitant to push too hard lest they drive away talent that’s grown accustomed to newfound freedom.

“What really surprises me is the fury. I mean, it’s almost at the level of team blue or team red,” said Jon VanderMeer, the CEO of Kiosk & Display, who requires his workers to come into the office every work day. “It’s really fascinating to see this polarization.”

In the early days of the pandemic, millions of workers used laptop connections, cell phones and video chat to get their work done, using technology that was unavailable just a few years ago.

Frontline workers never had that option, but remote work was also key to the corporate economy’s rebound. Faced with an existential crisis, many employers that had long resisted the idea of remote work embraced it.

And prospered.

But in recent months, the tide has turned and a growing number of companies have moved to get workers back in the office. Sometimes with a compromise, a hybrid model that calls for a few days in-office, a few days out.

A view of The Hub at Peachtree Center in Atlanta on Monday, September 25, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The change comes in various forms: Nudging, cajoling, incentivizing. And sometimes through an unyielding demand that workers return. Every day. All day.

That call has sparked pushback. With low unemployment and a shortage of skilled workers in many sectors, many employees resist going back to the pre-pandemic, back-to-office status quo. Some reject it because of continued health concerns.

“There have been cases where we have seen people just say no,” said Dan Erling, chief executive of Accountants One, an Atlanta-based recruiting and staffing firm. “One of our clients said, ‘We want everybody to come back to the office.’ And they saw a lot of people leave.”

That pushback is common.

TikTok employees recently complained about the company using tracking technology to see whether workers are back in the office.

But with the economy decelerating under the weight of higher interest rates, the balance has shifted modestly, Erling said.

Office mandates

Prior to the pandemic, remote jobs made up a mere 4% of Atlanta’s total job postings, according to real estate services firm JLL. It peaked in October 2022 at 14.6%, but it has trended downward since then.

“Very few companies are demanding 100% in the office,” Erling said, “but there are some and their number is increasing.”

Those policies are having an effect on the housing market, according to Redfin: Return-to-work policies are motivating one of every 10 home sellers to relocate. That’s not the most common reason to move, but as a share, it has grown rapidly, the national brokerage said.

Some big financial companies have led the charge. Goldman Sachs recently reminded workers that in-office is required. Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase & Co. are taking attendance, according to Fortune. Google is reportedly using in-office attendance as part of employee performance reviews.

There aren’t definitive data on whether work in the office is more productive than remote work. Proponents of in-office work argue that interactions — often unplanned — produce innovation and spin-off benefits.

“You forget about the social aspect and the mentoring aspect and those little serendipitous conversations that you have when you’re in an office environment,” said Jeff Shaw, CEO of Atlanta-based Bridge Commercial Real Estate. “When you’re separated from that, it’s very hard to kind of build that culture.”

Skeptics say a video chat can do the same, though it can’t happen without some planning.

Whatever the data, many managers simply want people to show up where they can be seen.

Terrance Bennett, support technician at  Kiosk & Display, works at the company’s office in Peachtree Center in Atlanta on Monday, September 25, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

It’s a debate that raging overseas, too. Australian real estate executive Tim Gurner seemed to speak for that attitude recently when he said workers had too much power.

Gurner told the Financial Review Property Summit that he wanted unemployment to rise dramatically.

“Where employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them as opposed to the other way around, it’s a dynamic that has to change,” he said. “We’ve got to kill that attitude.”

Even Zoom — whose technology has been crucial to remote work — has required their own employees to return.

Tracking employees

Many of those requiring in-office attendance are not yet saying it must be five-days-a-week.

A survey of more than 200 corporations earlier this year by real estate services firm CBRE found nearly two-thirds required their employees to come into the office, with more than half tracking attendance.

Some 90% of companies plan to implement return-to-office policies by the end of next year, according to a ResumeBuilder survey, and one-third of them say they will at least threaten to fire workers who who don’t comply.

“We’ve heard of employees that have come in, swipe their card at the door and then go home,” said Shaw, the real estate executive. “There’s always folks who are going to try to game the system.”

In a talk at the Atlanta Press Club, Dr. Mandy Cohen, the new director of the CDC said that “relationships and trust” are crucial, and while “you can do it sometimes over Zoom,” in-person work is preferable.

Jon VanderMeer, CEO of Kiosk & Display, works at the company’s office in Peachtree Center in Atlanta on Monday, September 25, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Still, just having a workforce separated into cubicles isn’t good for the agency’s mission, she said. “It really important to deliver folks back to campus, but we have to do it with intentionality.”

Emily Botello, CBRE’s managing director of Americas Consulting, said employees have lost leverage from the early days of the pandemic, but that employers still have to be careful with rigid transitions and transparency.

“I think employers are still realizing that they need to have open communication around what their policy is in order to attract the right people who are going to be OK within that policy,” she said.

Smaller firms have the highest rate of office work, roughly two-thirds of employees commuting every work day, according to a study by three professors published by the University of Chicago.

Among companies of more than 500, only half go into the office each day, they found.

Bargaining chips

Overall, despite the growing pressure from companies, far more employees are working remotely than before the pandemic, the University of Chicago research showed: Full days worked at home were 21% higher in June than four years earlier.

It costs workers time and money to commute — an average of 65 minutes for each work-at-home day, the study found. Those costs are largely invisible to their employers, but they explain why so many workers resist a full-time return to the office.

On the flip side, office leases are often long-term and inflexible. Fewer on-site employees have prompted an unprecedented amount of empty workspace to hit the market, according to CBRE. More than 30% of all office space in metro Atlanta was either vacant or available for sublease at the end of September.

Emptier office buildings are worth less than fuller ones, potentially impacting tax collections. The business ecosystems around office buildings have also undergone upheaval from fewer office workers as customers.

“It’s not good for anybody,” said Tim Perry, a managing partner at North American Properties, which owns and operates large mixed-use districts, such as Colony Square and Avalon. “Taxes go down. There’s an impact on services. Everyone’s got a problem, not just office building owners.”

Because many employers find little or no productivity loss from remote work, a compromise is emerging, said Amy Mangan, area director in Atlanta for Robert Half, a global staffing company.

About six months ago, a survey of clients showed fewer than one-third with hybrid arrangements. A recent survey showed 51% had a combination of remote and in-office workers.

Smart employers understand that not all jobs are equal, she said.

“There’s more reason to be in an office, if you are on a team, if your work is collaborative,” Mangan said. “But if you’re a coder, say, it doesn’t make sense to drive that person into an office where they are going to face more distractions.”

Moreover, workers value flexibility and convenience more than ever, and many will gladly take less money to get them, she said: “Pay is a bargaining chip. ‘They need me to go on site? Fine, I need them to bump up the pay 10%.’”