Projects take longer. Collaboration is harder. And training new workers is a struggle. ‘This is not going to be sustainable.’
Four months ago, employees at many U.S. companies went home and did something incredible: They got their work done, seemingly without missing a beat. Executives were amazed at how well their workers performed remotely, even while juggling child care and the distractions of home. Twitter Inc. (TWTR -2.34%) and Facebook Inc., among others, quickly said they would embrace remote work long term. Some companies even vowed to give up their physical oﬃce spaces entirely.
Now, as the work-from-home experiment stretches on, some cracks are starting to emerge. Projects take longer. Training is tougher. Hiring and integrating new employees, more complicated. Some employers say their workers appear less connected and bosses fear that younger professionals aren’t developing at the same rate as they would in oﬃces, sitting next to colleagues and absorbing how they do their jobs.
Months into a pandemic that rapidly reshaped how companies operate, an increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.
“There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable,’” said Laszlo Bock, chief executive of human-resources startup Humu and the former HR chief at Google. No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked and leveled oﬀ, he adds, because workers left oﬃces in March armed with laptops and a sense of doom.
“It was people being terriﬁed of losing their jobs, and that fear-driven productivity is not sustainable,” Mr. Bock said. Few companies expect remote work to go away in the near term, though the evolving thinking among many CEOs reﬂects a signiﬁcant shift from the early days of the pandemic.
“You can tell people are getting fatigued,” said Peter P. Kowalczuk, president of Canon Solutions America, a division of copier and camera giant Canon Inc., which employs about 15,000 people across the country. Mr. Kowalczuk, who worked for months out of a bedroom in his home, went back to Canon’s U.S. headquarters in Melville, N.Y., in early July. Now, no more than 50% of the company’s employees are coming into work at the 52-acre oﬃce campus, which features two ponds and a walking trail, and typically includes more than 11,000 staﬀers in a single building.
Returning is voluntary, Mr. Kowalczuk said, and requires answering a series of health questions on an app the company created, called Check-In Online, before getting approval to drive in. The company has also blocked oﬀ desks to allow for greater distancing, stepped up cleaning and created a rotating schedule so that staﬀers come in on alternating weeks.
“We’re really a face-to-face business,” he said. “I don’t think oﬃces are dead.” The nature of what some companies do makes it tough, if not impossible, to function remotely. In San Francisco, startup Chef Robotics recently missed a key product deadline by a month, hampered by the challenges of integrating and testing software and hardware with its engineers scattered across the Bay Area. Pre-pandemic, they all collaborated in one space.
Problems that took an hour to solve in the oﬃce stretched out for a day when workers were remote, said Chief Executive Rajat Bhageria. “That’s just a logistical nightmare,” he said.
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By Chip Cutter | Photographs by Cayce Cliﬀord for The Wall Street Journal
July 24, 2020