By Claire Ballentine and Allison McNeely
It’s the 2022 return-to-office story: Figuring out childcare arrangements, digging work clothes out of storage, battling the morning commute — and then getting on a video call with colleagues sitting next to you.
With Covid cases relatively low, companies are increasingly calling their employees back to in-person work, at least for part of the week. Executives usually cite collaboration and work culture as reasons to return. But once in the office, workers are finding that Zoom meetings are still a central aspect of the day.
Even for those back in the office, it can be easier than corralling a group into a conference room, and in some cases, it’s a necessity for teams working across different cities or countries. For those who prefer working from home, but are now required to come into the office, it’s also a source of frustration.
“With my team, not all of us go into the office on the same days so if we have a meeting, it’s going to be on Zoom, which is annoying,” said Maddi Perkins, a 26-year-old who works in the finance industry in Dallas. “It’s pointless. Even when we are in the office, we’re not collaborating any more than we would just over Slack at home.”
One of her main annoyances is the echo when she’s seated next to a colleague on the same call as her. Sometimes, she can’t even understand what’s happening in the meeting because of it.
Plus, there’s the cost of the commute. Perkins has to drive an hour to her office in the downtown area, paying for gas and $16 a day to park.
“They’re trying to push for us to go back to the office, but it’s a financial and mental strain,” she said. “And there’s still no actual communication in person.”
Despite companies like JPMorgan Chase & Co., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple Inc. bringing employees back to the office, many Americans prefer remote work.
A recent survey from management consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates showed that only 3% of white-collar employees prefer to work in the office five days a week, and 86% want to work from home at least two days a week. U.S. office occupancy is currently at about 39.5%, according to Kastle Systems, which provides security services for commercial office spaces.
Read more: New Yorkers Plan to Cut Time Spent in the Office by Half
For Zoom Video Communications Inc. and its competitors, the continued reliance on video chat is undoubtedly a positive. But the company’s shares have suffered recently on concerns its growth will slow as more people return to offices. Projected sales missed Wall Street estimates in the most recent quarter, and the firm’s stock has fallen more than 35% since the beginning of the year.
Employees who want to return to the office are looking for “socialization and relationship-building more than anything else,” said Brian Elliott, executive leader of the Slack Future Forum, which studies the evolution of work. “When you ask executives, you’re more likely to get an answer around collaboration or worse yet productivity, when people have spent the last two years proving they can be productive working from home.”
To Dave Murphy, who works in IT management in Sacramento, California, it doesn’t make sense to force people into an office, especially if they’re working with colleagues in other geographic locations.
“Management is in another city so it will always be a Zoom call with my manager,” the 48-year-old said. “You’re trying to talk and you’ve got five or six people around you also talking. It’s a horrible experience.”
The rationale his employer is touting, that employees work better when they’re together in an office, rings hollow to him.
“There’s a gap in that conversation because collaboration is not the reason,” Murphy said. “In the office, we’re pretty much just focused on our work. It’s not like five of us get together around a computer and hash some problem out.”
For a hybrid strategy to work well, companies need to be intentional about how and why people are going back to in-person work, said Lauren Mason, senior consultant for the career business at Mercer, a management consulting firm. Right now, many firms are overlooking that in the rush to reopen offices.
“When people are coming back and they’re still focused on video calls, it further creates frustration and resentment toward having to return to offices,” she said.
Yet for all the hatred of video calls, there are also some perks compared to in-person meetings.
It’s easier to look at documents or notes on a screen alongside the call. The screen-sharing function means there’s no need to print out pages. And for those who aren’t that interested in the meeting, it’s convenient for multi-tasking.
Jonathan Richardson, a lawyer in Ottawa, often does Zoom meetings with clients so they don’t have to travel to his downtown office. That way, they don’t have to take time off work or pay for parking.
His office only has 11 employees and they’re allowed to work from home whenever they want. Many are coming into the office, but not all at the same time, which means their weekly Tuesday meeting is always a Zoom call.
“There are certain tasks much more easily done in person, but so much of what we do is capable of being done by Zoom,” he said.
The struggle now for companies is to figure out how best to continue using pandemic-era technology that’s made some aspects of work easier, while also encouraging real-life interactions.
“Everyone is still figuring it out,” Mason said. “Just as two years ago we were forced into this remote work, now we’re having the same challenges to move into hybrid. It’s going to be an adjustment period.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.