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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Zoom’s return to office shows hybrid work is the new norm
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Zoom’s return to office shows hybrid work is the new norm

Look past the irony of it for the business reasons that led to its call

Work flexibility is seen to boost employee morale and productivity. Premium
Work flexibility is seen to boost employee morale and productivity.

Even Zoom Is Making People Return to the Office." “End of an Era: Zoom Tells Employees to Return to Office for Work." “The Remote-Work Revolution Is Officially Dead." These have been recent news headlines.

It is easy to understand why Zoom Video Communications Inc’s decision to ask employees to spend more time collaborating in person would make such dramatic sounding headlines. At first blush, it sounds a bit like “McDonald’s Asks Employees to Go Vegan."

But even so, the drama over Zoom’s decision is overblown. “End of an era" and “Officially dead"? From reactions like that, you would never know that the videoconferencing company has asked workers to come in just two days a week. What Zoom’s decision really shows is that hybrid work—not fully remote work and not five-days-a-week in-person work—is the new normal post-pandemic.

Zoom’s two-days-a-week threshold is backed by data. A recent field experiment led by Harvard Business School Professor Raj Choudhury suggests that one to two days a week in the office is “plausibly the sweet spot, where workers enjoy flexibility and yet are not as isolated compared to peers who are predominantly working from home." In the study, workers who were randomly assigned to come in one to two days a week also seemed to show an increase in both the quality and quantity of their output, as measured by their emails and by their bosses’ ratings.

While surveys do consistently show that bosses would prefer that their staff show up in offices a little more frequently than that, most companies seem to have settled on a norm of two to three days a week. Office attendance patterns haven’t changed much over the past 12 months. And cellphone data, office badge swipes and building capacity all show that urban offices remain far emptier than before the covid outbreak.

Some firms dictate the specific days of the week that teams have to come in, but more companies simply let employees make their own hybrid-work schedules. Managers generally seem to be getting used to the new rhythm. In a survey conducted in July and commissioned by the Los Angeles Times, 27% of respondents said their companies had become more lenient about work-from-home (WFH) policies over the last year; just 15% said their employer had gotten stricter.

While headlines like “Zoom Employees Also Tired of Zoom Meetings" practically write themselves, the reality is that even when workers are in the office, a lot of video calls still take place. There never seem to be enough meeting rooms to go around, for one thing, and for another, even small companies today tend to have workers scattered across a few locations. Businesses where all the employees come into the office every day hire contractors or vendors located in other regions. And the market for videoconferencing is expected to keep growing.

Zoom’s dilemma is that its own growth has stalled. It has had to spend money just to retain market share. Videoconferencing software has quickly become a commodity, with one offering much like another. Zoom’s rivals, from Microsoft Teams to Google Meet and Cisco’s Webex, all have other streams of revenue and other ways of nudging people to use their videoconferencing software.

Even if I’ve grown attached to some of Zoom’s features—the ‘touch up my appearance’ option is way easier than either makeup or self-acceptance—the unfortunate reality for Zoom is that most people are probably happy to use whichever videoconferencing app they happen to have installed. That’s led to layoffs at Zoom (about 15% of staff earlier this year) and pay cuts for its executives.

Perhaps Zoom employees will resist the two-days-a-week mandate. According to a Wall Street Journal estimate, about 75% of its employees have been working fully remotely. It would be understandable if those employees felt betrayed by the change in policy, which applies to staff who live within 80km of the office. And as evidenced by the slew of headlines that greeted the new policy, a return-to-office mandate does create, if not a branding problem, then some cognitive dissonance around the company whose name has become a verb for remote work.

Nevertheless, Zoom is a company under pressure right now. Beating investor expectations is a tough game, especially when those expectations have gotten sky-high, as they did during the firm’s pandemic heyday. For its next trick, Zoom will have to figure out how to survive its own success. Getting together in person—just two days a week—seems like a pretty good way to do that. 

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor.





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Published: 09 Aug 2023, 10:13 PM IST
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