The ‘coordination tax’ at work is wearing us down

There is a name for all of the time we spend on the job puzzling out who’s on Zoom, who’s coming from down the hall and who’s messaging from three time zones away: the “coordination tax.” (Illustration: The Wall Street Journal, IStock)
There is a name for all of the time we spend on the job puzzling out who’s on Zoom, who’s coming from down the hall and who’s messaging from three time zones away: the “coordination tax.” (Illustration: The Wall Street Journal, IStock)


Mismatched schedules, wasted commutes and too many ways to communicate. Getting in sync with co-workers isn’t getting any easier.

Does getting hold of your co-workers ever feel like a scavenger hunt?

Do you commute in and drop by their desks, only to find they are working remotely?

Are some teammates only on email or Slack—or can you actually call them on the phone?

There is a name for all of the time we spend on the job puzzling out who’s on Zoom, who’s coming from down the hall and who’s messaging from three time zones away: the “coordination tax."

The term used to refer to the logistical challenges of a growing enterprise. Now it is gaining traction among executives and workplace consultants to describe the increasing amounts of time workers spend getting in sync since millions began toggling between work-from-home arrangements and the office.

“You show up, and nobody else from your team is there; then you’re on back-to-back Zoom meetings, which you could have done at home," says Brian Elliott, a leadership adviser and former Slack executive. He referenced the coordination tax of workers’ mismatched hybrid schedules in a LinkedIn post last month.

A few years into experimenting with hybrid work, more companies are acknowledging that it is here to stay and needs to be managed better. Some are adding more structure to remote- and hybrid-work policies. Others are deploying tools to help co-workers coordinate their in-office time.

Collaboration isn’t getting easier

As much as they relish the flexibility of hybrid work, many workers say the hassles of coordinating with co-workers aren’t easing with time. One reason is that while close to 40% of companies have hybrid-work models, only a fraction—8%—designate specific days for in-office work, according to data from Scoop Technologies, a software firm that tracks return-to-office policies. That’s down from 10% in early 2023.

Corporate teams are also now scattered across more locations in the wake of companies’ pandemic hiring sprees. Nearly one-third of workers at large firms didn’t work in the same metro area as their managers in 2023, up from about 23% in February 2020, according to data from payroll provider ADP.

At one of Nick Fratto’s previous jobs as a business-development representative, employees were encouraged to come into the office in Boston some of the time. But it was up to employees to decide which and how many days.

Keeping track of conversations with co-workers was a constant guessing game since everyone had their preferred way to communicate, Fratto recalls: “Did I send a text? Did I call them? Did I send an email? Did I send it on Slack?" He says all the back and forth and waiting for responses would throw off his work rhythm.

He has since left and is now in a fully remote role where everyone largely sticks to Microsoft Teams.

Assessing the costs

Lauren Miller Guerrero’s company moved to a voluntary hybrid-work setup in 2022. Yet for months, Miller Guerrero, an advertising associate creative director in New York, didn’t make the 40-minute train commute into the office since she and co-workers rarely found days that worked for everyone to come in simultaneously.

Even after her firm asked teams to settle on a specific in-office day each week, finding face time with each other remains a struggle. Much of the day they are in video meetings.

“I don’t find that more productive," says Miller Guerrero, who started a monthly office book club last fall to get more time with colleagues.

Bosses are trying to assess the productivity costs of their teams coordinating over multiple sites and communication channels. Among 37,000 workers surveyed by software firm Qualtrics last year, the share who said they collaborated effectively with other teams fell to 69% from 73% a year earlier.

In a recent Microsoft survey of 31,000 working adults, half said they often commuted to the office only to discover their manager or teammates hadn’t. Hybrid employees who said they struggled to connect with their teams in person were more likely to report challenges in advancing their careers, and were twice as likely to consider changing employers.

More productive in-office time

Since the pandemic, adhesives maker H.B. Fuller has let team managers decide how many days their reports work in the office. At first, some colleagues went weeks without seeing each other. Others complained the office felt dead. So the St. Paul, Minn., company asked employees assigned to its headquarters to come in Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday one or two designated weeks a month for collaborative work. The company says office attendance during those periods is 50% higher than other times.

Design-software company Autodesk still gives employees the choice of working from home or the office but has revamped its eight office hubs worldwide to look more like hotel conference spaces. Ben Thompson, a director of sustainable business, works mostly from home in San Rafael, Calif. He recently joined his boss and five other colleagues in San Francisco to pore over performance metrics and brainstorm a revised mission statement.

“That physicality lent just a little bit of energy," says Thompson, “You could see the body language in the room diffuse."

Other companies are deploying technology to make coordinating easier. In May, Microsoft launched an AI-powered app for employers that lets workers share location schedules.

Neiman Marcus set up a similar software tool after opening office hubs in several cities. To entice employees to use the scheduling tool, the company held raffles for designer handbags and other products. When that didn’t motivate people enough, the company asked managers to share their own office times in advance, says Eric Severson, chief people officer.

“If I say, ‘In three weeks I’m going to be there on Wednesday,’ now you can arrange your life," he says.

Write to Ray A. Smith at and Anne Marie Chaker at

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