Work From Home Meets Labor Day, Cook’s Apple A Hard Sell

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go. Or not.

For Americans the last day of summer is and always has been Labor Day, the first Monday of the month, this year September 5th. The following Monday traditionally has been the first post-summer day in the office. That day is today. It is also the day many employers have drawn their red lines – return to the office, or find work elsewhere. That’s not as scary a threat these days as it once was. After all, when there are two job openings for every job seeker, and employers are paying applicants to show up for interviews.

Lots Of Interested Parties

Whether the return to workplaces is a stampede or a trickle will affect owners and developers of commercial properties, currently scrambling to convert empty commercial space into rental apartments and condos; apparel makers, groping to define the term “business casual” and avoid the fire sales of unsold apparel inventories that are wrecking retail profits; furniture designers, wondering whether their major market will be the traditional cubicles and the C-suites, or the odd bits of space in apartments occupied by working-from-home employees; city planners deciding  how to finance disused transit systems; owners of small businesses in downtown centers deciding whether to stock sandwiches for workers who might be making their own at home. To mention a few of the interested parties.

Unions Ready To Promise Workers WFH

It is not only the tight labor market that tempts many employers to take a lesson from our politicians and treat red lines as suggestions only. They must consider whether toughness will drive employees into the arms of union organizers, emboldened by Biden-appointed regulators who declare any election in which workers reject unions as legally unacceptable, and order new elections. They must also consider the costs of training under-skilled and often under-educated new hires who are contributing to the economy-wide drop in productivity.

Unionization no longer involves only the horny-handed sons of toil that President Biden frequently remembers being told about by his father decades ago. Unions are reeling in Starbucks baristas, sales staff at Apple stores, architects at design firms, graduate students working as teaching and research assistants, all seeking not only or even primarily higher pay but something called “a better work-life balance”.

Rather than being forced to choose between a good-paying job with prospects for advancement, or more time with partners, kids, pets and hobbies, these workers want both. They say that 9-to-5 and Dolly Parton’s “tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition” are so yesterday.

Red Lines Mean it, Maybe

Many employers nevertheless feel that today is the day to start getting workers back into the office. The timing is perfect: covid is under control; kids are back in school, except where teachers’ union can impose school closings; many workers, seeing scattered lay-offs and sensing a recession, prefer the job in the hand to the uncertainty of a change; polls are showing that about half of all workers are “quiet quitting”, which Work From Home makes it difficult to detect.

Elon Musk has told employees to be at those desks 40 hours per week. David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, has announced that he considers Work From Home “an aberration”, and leaves little to his staff’s imaginations by announcing that falling profits are forcing him to cull the bank’s work force, and that he is reintroducing annual performance reviews.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, has made it clear that he expects his top guns to be in their seats five days a week starting tomorrow unless they are visiting clients. He expects they will be regular attendees in the $3 billion, 2.5 million square foot office tower under construction on Park Avenue to be completed in 2025 to house 14,000 of the bank’s 37,000 New York-area based employees. Other employees will be allowed more flexibility, but with lay-offs imminent, the word at the bank is, “If someone’s not there, it makes it a pretty easy decision to fire them first.”

Surveys suggest that summer hires and interns disliked empty offices because of their inability to network and learn the firm culture, but the responsibility to transfer a firm culture to newbies is no longer a top priority for many workers.

Can Bosses Still Boss?

When Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that employees are expected to be at their desks Tuesdays, Thursdays and a day selected by their team managers in order to preserve the “in-person collaboration so essential to our culture”, 1,400 of its 165,000 workers objected in an open letter, “Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do.” It is difficult to imagine that these youngsters were ever in a school where they were told what to do.

Don’t Zoom To Miami

In the end, it will be different strokes for different folks working in different industries and for companies with different headquarters locations and CEOs with different views of the effect of WFH. Sometimes, it is best to look to markets to predict the shape of the future. Shares of Zoom, the enabler of WFH, the office killer, the destroyer of commercial property values and presentable clothes for bottoms as well as tops, have fallen 85 per cent from their peak. The rental price for long-term office space in Miami has zoomed above $50 per square foot for the first time in the city’s history. And Jamie Dimon is betting $3 billion (it will be more) that offices – inhabited offices – will be a necessity for a long time to come.