Why are people staying away from the office even as they return to restaurants, movies and air travel?
“It’s not a COVID thing anymore,” said Anthony Goonetilleke, group president of Amdocs Inc., a software services company with over 1,000 employees in Plano. “Now it’s become a lifestyle.”
Two years ago when the pandemic hit, millions of workers were forced to do their jobs from home. And they did them pretty well, learning how to use online tools and often boosting productivity.
Today, as the pandemic starts to ease, companies want people to come back to the workplace again. Many are embracing hybrid models that let employees spend some days working remotely — a recognition that such flexibility has become a must-have benefit for many.
Last year, Amdocs adopted a typical hybrid plan, with employees spending three days a week in the office and two at home. It lasted just eight months, and then the company let each team decide when and how often to show up in person.
“That completely changed the discussion and people loved it,” Goonetilleke said, noting that Amdocs has made 50 hires locally this year. “This is about trusting your employees and saying collectively, ‘We have a job to do, and what’s the best way to do it?’”
But like many company leaders, he wants workers to come into the office at least some of the time. Face-to-face interactions create more collaboration and innovation, and they lead to stronger human connections and deeper loyalties.
The challenge is getting people to choose to come in — despite the extra time required for commuting, personal grooming and juggling family responsibilities. Amdocs took several steps to enhance its workplace: moving to a new location, gutting the interior and creating an open environment reminiscent of famous tech headquarters.
The office has pingpong and foosball tables, he said, and a kitchen with fridges stocked with snacks. Free lunches are offered a few times a week, and there’s an outside patio for dining. He’s trying to create an office where employees want to hang out.
“There’s something magical when you get several people in a room,” Goonetilleke said. “One plus one equals three, not two.”
The impulse to bring everyone together again is strong, especially among some executives. But they can underestimate the pushback, said Kim Curley, vice president and practice leader for workforce readiness at NTT Data.
She said a client company recently required all employees to return to the office, Monday through Friday.
“That mandate lasted about four days” because so many employees talked about quitting, she said. “If leaders are stuck — and I do mean stuck — in an old, now-defunct way of thinking, they ultimately won’t be successful.
“CEOs have to figure out they’re not in control,” Curley said. “And they can’t control everything about their employees going forward.”
NTT Data, which has about 3,000 employees in North Texas, had about 88% working remotely early in the pandemic. Those numbers are about the same today, she said, and that’s fine because employees have demonstrated they can produce — and sometimes produce more — without having managers hover over them in an office.
“The world has finally killed that particular myth, which is a great thing for humans everywhere,” Curley said.
There are still reasons to get together, she added, because in-person meetings can build trust much faster than virtual interactions. And teams that develop more trust tend to have higher productivity.
Face-to-face meetings are preferred when creating new teams or getting two teams to work together for the first time. “That type of thing is far more effective in person,” Curley said.
She recently went to lunch with a client, the first such encounter in two years, and “I was as excited as a golden retriever puppy,” she said.
The meeting led to more progress on work issues — and in their personal relationship — than multiple phone calls and Zoom meetings. “You just bond in a very different way,” she said.
The CEO of Bottle Rocket, a local firm best known for creating mobile apps and websites for dozens of well-known brands, has a similar take: “I don’t think people realize just how important it is to sometimes have that in-person contact,” said Rajesh Midha.
That’s notable coming from Bottle Rocket. It embraced remote work early, adopting the motto: “ Work from wherever.” It later added “forever” to the line and said people could work remotely on a permanent basis.
“It’s our promise that you should be able to work wherever to do the best work of your life,” said Midha, who was promoted to CEO last fall.
The approach has been a big success, both in boosting productivity and attracting talent. Bottle Rocket’s revenue grew nearly 30% each of the past two years, he said, and the company hired over 100 people — and now has about 300 employees.
Bottle Rocket has an attractive high-tech office in Addison, but only about 10% of employees show up on a given day, he said. During special events, such as monthly town hall meetings, maybe a quarter of employees come in.
He misses the random conversations that happen when people run into each other in the hallway or kitchen or around a foosball table. They form deeper connections organically.
“It’s harder to do that when you’re going from scheduled meeting to scheduled meeting” on Zoom, he said.
Employees at Bottle Rocket have worked hard to connect during the pandemic. They experimented with virtual events, such as scavenger hunts, cooking lessons and a whiskey club. They re-created the Addison office in the metaverse, where people could wander around and enjoy a kind of science fair. They tried something like speed dating in which employees would move between Zoom rooms every few minutes.
“Some of it was great, and some of it was totally awkward and not great,” Midha said. “But the important thing was that we were trying — and setting an intention to form these connections.”
He’s planning a formal gathering in the second half of the year. Bottle Rocket will invite all employees to Dallas for a day or two of meetings and parties with a heavy emphasis on socializing.
But the company won’t mandate the trip. “We’re leaving the choice totally up to our Rocketeers,” Midha said. “We may encourage them to visit in person, but the choice is theirs — and will always be theirs.”