There’s no COVID-19 vaccine yet, but some CEOs seem to be itching to have employees within their sights again. According to Bloomberg, in a recent meeting, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and analysts discussed their concern over slipping employee productivity while working from home during the pandemic. In particular, a note sent to clients on September 13th included the finding that “the WFH lifestyle seems to have impacted younger employees” — though a JPMorgan spokesperson told Bloomberg in a later statement that the productivity hit has affected all employees. The spokesperson added, however, that working remotely could lead younger workers to be “disadvantaged by missed learning opportunities.” JPMorgan’s analysis also determined that Mondays and Fridays were particularly unproductive. Many of the big bank’s traders are required to return to the office starting September 21st. Refinery29 has reached out to JPMorgan for comment on this, and will update this story if we hear back.
This concern for learning opportunities lends itself to skepticism coming from a top executive citing productivity metrics. It sounds a little too close to someone complaining that “kids these days” don’t know the value of hard work. And it leads to questions of how productivity is being measured, versus how it should be measured — especially during COVID-19. How do you tell whether someone’s productivity downturn is due to feeling like they can goof off without their manager breathing down their neck, or due to anxiety and stress related to the virus, or the many other crises Americans continue to reckon with this year?
There’s an obvious reason why remote work wasn't widespread until COVID-19 forced a large-scale experiment on it. Many managers have a (pretty unfounded) fear that being out-of-sight means slacking off. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2017-2018, about a quarter of the U.S. workforce worked from home at least some of the time. As of late June, about 42% of the workforce were working from home full-time.
Dimon’s concerns are just the latest volley in the debate over the myriad pros and cons of remote work, in what could ultimately set the new precedent for white-collar jobs. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings also expressed a desire to have employees back in the office, though the company plans on waiting until a vaccine is available. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Hastings said there is no advantage to employees working from home, calling it only a “pure negative.” The streaming giant is known for a company culture that’s, according to a 2018 WSJ feature interviewing former and current employees, at times “cutthroat.” Netflix allegedly encourages managers to apply a test to their employees — if you wouldn’t fight to keep them, fire them. According to the article, “some managers say they feel pressure to fire people or risk looking soft.” Refinery29 has reached out to Netflix for comment, and will update this story if we hear back.
On the other side of the aisle, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told employees in an email sent in May that they could work from home permanently. In a February earnings call with analysts, Dorsey said, “I don’t fear any slowness as we work to distribute our workforce now, and I do think we have to build a company that’s not entirely dependent on San Francisco.” Business communication platform Slack also announced in June that it would offer permanent flexible work for most of its employees moving forward. Other tech CEOs have gone on record saying that productivity has actually increased since many employees started working from home.
For some companies, though, it’s not productivity that’s the worry (though most report that it has gone up), but employee burnout and mental health. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella expressed wariness over the negative effects of working from home too long, even if he acknowledged that productivity had gone up. Perhaps surprisingly, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan advised against fully working from home, also citing adverse impact to mental health.
Of course, the ability to be productive from home varies by industry. But overall, the whole idea of “productivity” may be overdue for a reinvention. Support for working less has been gaining ground in recent years, with countries like New Zealand and Sweden testing out four-day workweeks. A 2016 survey of almost 2,000 U.K. office workers, for example, showed that on average they were productive for three hours of an eight-hour workday. There have been a lot of arguments for why those eight hours should be shortened in the past few years.
One thing is clear. The old argument that companies can’t offer flexible work because it puts productivity at risk has lost a lot of power, despite what some CEOs may believe. Many office workers have seen over the past several months that, although imperfect, work-from-home can work just fine. More importantly, workers who need accommodations (such as those who have disabilities) have the precedence of a massive work-from-home test on their side when they ask if they can work from home — an accommodation that they have often been denied in the past.