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Even a 10-percent option to work from home makes a difference in employee retention, according to Dr. Gustavo Grodnitzky. Photo by Joe Giddens / AP Images
Business

How Should Denver Companies Handle Returning to the Office?

Two Denver tech leaders and a workplace expert weigh in on hybrid work, flexibility, and the change in office culture.

Nationally, the debate over returning to work has been playing out in a public way. CEOs of large tech companies remain divided. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey announced a fully remote workplace back in October. Yet, Reed Hastings of Netflix pushed for return to work, calling remote “a pure negative.” Apple landed somewhere in the middle; CEO Tim Cook announced that most teams will log three days a week in the office.

Now that upwards of 70 percent of Denverites are vaccinated, tech employers in the Mile High City are starting to ask when people will come back to the office and what they can require. Even before the pandemic, millennials across the U.S. had already been on board with taking a pay cut to have more options with their schedule. CBS4 recently reported that a growing number of Coloradans are now seeking a career change in service of a better work-life balance.

The tension is that the promise of the creative class was largely about flexibility. When workers were sent home for COVID-19 concerns, they were able to—despite the challenges—make good on the promise of a results-based work culture. While Zoom fatigue is real, and maybe some people missed snacks in the break room, productivity actually increased by about 5 percent nationally for industries that were able to pivot to work-from-home.

Many executives, like Cook and Hastings, are citing “culture” as the reason to get back into the office full time. But Denver-based workplace consultant Dr. Gustavo Grodnitzky pushes back on this idea. “If you think, as a CEO, you are going to compel your workers to return to their 40-plus hours at their desks, you might save some money by losing 10 to 20 percent of your workforce,” he says. “You might lose some money too, since those lost employees will be your top performers who have the most options.”

Indeed, 39 percent of workers across all categories reported in a recent Bloomberg survey that they would consider leaving a job instead of going back to the office. And the the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ June jobs report shows that many workers are taking action: The number of people who voluntarily left employment increased by 474 percent. Grodnitzky counsels companies to define their culture in a way that minimizes gaps between what on-the-ground employees feel, and what management thinks.

“Don’t kid yourself that the passive watercooler talk and drive-by chats in the cubicles is a real culture,” he says. “How are you being active in defining what this concept means for your organization? What are the company traditions you are committed to maintaining, and what are you really doing to foster connections?”

Tortuga AgTech, located in Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood, has met this issue head-on. As a technology company focusing on farm automation in food production, they did not have the luxury of going fully remote.

“The automation that serves our farming partners is built and tested here in Denver, where there are so many talented engineers,” says Tortuga CEO Eric Adamson. “But the work often does require being in-person because of the nature of the equipment.”

Still, before the pandemic, Adamson had already created ways to communicate across locations and time zones without being face-to-face—a necessity when reaching farmers in the field. It simultaneously helped communicating with office workers on days where they couldn’t be in the office. So, as the company upgraded some of its digital infrastructure and security policies during the pandemic lockdown, the groundwork for remote work had already been laid.

“This was an easier transition for us than it might have been if we hadn’t considered what our employees need to be successful,” Adamson says. “Now, we have even better tools to support everyone.”

At the intersection of climate change and COVID-19, Adamson felt that his company could have done more to keep farms running if Tortuga was fully scaled up, and while that’s his primary motivation for now wanting more face time with employees, he’s not pushing it.

According to Grodnitzky, this is the correct approach, noting that as little as a 10-percent option to work from home can make a significant difference in employee retention. Even in location-bound industries like manufacturing, allowing shift flexibility can contribute to worker happiness, Grodnitzky says.

Druva, a global data protection company with an office in Denver’s downtown Central Business District, had no formal work-from-home policy prior to the pandemic. Kelly Sweeney, a sales recruiter for the company, saw the need to pivot. Now, the company supports hybrid work across its Denver and Sunnyvale, California, offices.

“In a Zoom survey, 65 percent of employees who have been working from home over the past year indicated that a hybrid work environment is their ideal situation,” she says. “We are moving toward employees selecting their one to two ideal days in the office, with the remainder of the week being spent where [it] works best for them.”

Druva looked at employee survey responses and industry trends to inform their approach. Adds Sweeney: “We believe there is a way to achieve connection without taking away the comfort that [work-from-home] has offered our team over the last 18 months.”

Grodnitzky said his broadest advice is to research hybrid models, because whether or not companies take Seemingly, mushy definitions of culture and office happy hours won’t be enough to compel employees back to their desks, when they could be doing the same work at home—all without a honk-riddled commute up and down I-25.

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