Actually, Zoom’s In-Office Policy Shows the Power of Hybrid Work
A two-day-a-week office mandate hardly spells the end of the work-from-home era.
“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.”
It's easy to understand why Zoom Video Communications Inc.'s decision to ask employees to spend more time collaborating in person would make headlines. At first blush, it sounds a bit like “McDonald's Asks Employees to Go Vegan.” But even so, the drama 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.
Zoom's two-days-a-week threshold is backed by some data. A 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 a little more 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 pandemic.
Some firms dictate the days teams have to come in, but more simply let employees make their own 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 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 50 miles of the office. And as evidenced by the slew of headlines that greeted the new policy, an RTO mandate does create, if not a branding problem, then a little bit of cognitive dissonance around the company whose name has become a verb for remote work.
Nevertheless, Zoom is a company under pressure. 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. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron's and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”