Partial Return to Office Misses The Point
To have an office or to not have an office, that is the question. For New York City, the media capital of the world, an office to call home was the dream. Mic used to pay $2 million to be on the 82nd floor of 1WTC. In 2014, Condé Nast rattled the world by leaving Time Square to take a solid chunk of the same building.
If you wanted to be in media—magazines, The Times, the digital upstarts, you name it—you were probably in New York City. And the data supports it. According to a 2019 survey by Pew Research:
Long known as the media capital of the world, New York, at 12%, has the greatest share of all U.S. newsroom employees – those who work as reporters, editors, photographers and videographers in the newspaper, broadcasting and internet publishing industries. This is more than twice the share living in the Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., metro areas, which are each home to 5% of the nation’s newsroom employees.
Then Covid hit and we had a diaspora of talent. People that worked in New York offices returned to the rest of the country where things are cheaper and there’s actually a decent cost of living. For some media companies, this was a great thing. Leases expired and these massive fixed costs were suddenly removed from the books.
Life went on. We found that we were able to do our jobs from home—albeit with less work/life balance—and amazing work was accomplished.
But now media companies are preparing for the return to office. According to a Digiday briefing:
As publishers begin to re-open their offices, an interesting trend is developing: in-person work days are falling between Tuesdays and Thursdays, with more flexibility on Mondays and Fridays.
TheSkimm will implement its hybrid work policy on Jan. 11, when full-time employees will be required to come into its New York City headquarters three times per month. The office will be closed on Mondays and Fridays, for at least six months.
Tom Florio, founder & CEO of ENTtech Media Group LLC, decided in September when he reopened the offices at Paper magazine, which ENTtech owns, that staff could work remotely on Mondays and Fridays but had to be in the office Tuesday through Thursday.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that 20% of managers would like employees back in the office most/all of the time with 64% wanting employees in the office some of the time. Only 11% said employees could choose.
And if we think about what TheSkimm, ENTech Media Group, and that 64% of managers want, it’s actually quite fair, right? Give employees the ability to work hybrid. Have them sit in the office a few days a week and then work from home others. How lovely!
Except it really misses the point for so many reasons.
I’ve already alluded to one. If one of the benefits of working remote was that we no longer needed to pay these egregious commercial real estate rents any longer, how does mandating everyone come in three days a week help save money? The landlord isn’t going to give a 40% reduction in rent since you’re only using it 3/5 business days a week.
But maybe your attitude is, “I don’t care about the rent. We’ve already got it, so might as well force people to use it at least a few days a week.” That’s fair, except for one problem. You’re now saying to the entire employee pool, “I only want people that are going to sit in a company-assigned seat three days a week.”
The real benefit of remote work wasn’t that we saved money on rent (though some of us did). The benefit was that the pool of people who could work for us suddenly expanded. You didn’t need to live in New York City anymore. I’ve hired people in Georgia, Washington D.C., and Texas. I’ve got colleagues in Wyoming, Minnesota, California, Florida, and many other states.
Once the pandemic hit, we changed our approach to hiring. It was no longer a requirement that people sit in the office. Instead, the primary requirement was, “are you good enough for the job?”
In 2017, the New York metropolitan area had a population of approximately 20 million people. That was about 6% of the entire population. Prior to the pandemic, most media companies only allowed a pool of applicants that accounted for 6% of our nation’s population (and don’t get me started on the world). How is that helpful to us?
Instead, why not allow people to live anywhere and work from anywhere? I’m going to be hiring like 15 additional business reporters next year. Trying to find them all exclusively in New York City means I miss out on hiring from every other media company across the country. Why should I limit myself?
Just as importantly, why would we want to force people to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world? Media historically doesn’t pay all that well for a variety of reasons that I won’t jump into. But then forcing these underpaid employees to live here is just ridiculous.
By operating a hybrid work environment, employees are stuck living where they work. Yes, not having to commute twice a week is nice, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s limiting your pool of possible talent and forcing people to live in a place they might not want to.
Does this mean I think none of us should have an office? Of course not. I am dying to go back to the office. I rented a tiny office just so I could get out of the apartment a few days a week. Additionally, we’ll have a robust HQ sometime next year, which I am very excited about. I can assure you, I’ll be there often.
I’m also not discounting the fact that there is benefit to having people in the office from time to time for meetings. There is something lost when you’re not able to have spontaneous conversation with colleagues. It’s just not the same trying to schedule a Zoom.
And then in some cases, requiring someone to be in the office is necessary. If you’re doing a lot of multimedia work where onsite is a requirement, then that’s just what needs to be done. As much as we might like recording in our closets, studios really are better.
But does the average employee really need to be in the office? I don’t think so. Instead, spend the money on bringing people to HQ a few times a year so that camaraderie can be built. People do want to be around each other, but it should be done from a position of wanting rather than requiring.
We’ve proven we can mostly do our jobs from home. Having employees come in a few days a week is just lipstick on a pig. It misses the bigger benefit of offering remote options. Rather than forcing this, let employees choose. You’d be surprised how many still opt to come in while also benefiting from the broader talent pool.
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