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Companies' New Back-to-Work Dilemma: Who Comes First?

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09/18/2020 | 10:15pm EDT

By Chip Cutter | Photographs by Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

Companies reopening their workplaces are wrestling with a thorny problem: who should come back soonest.

International Business Machines Corp. prioritized scientists working in quantum computer labs when it reopened a New York research hub earlier this summer, figuring they had the hardest time doing their jobs from home. Payroll processor Automatic Data Processing Inc. has relied upon a dashboard that offers a regularly updated view of who's willing to come in and who'd prefer to stay home.

Such a mix of technology, local regulations and subjective factors like employee sentiment is guiding reopening decisions at several companies.

Real-estate startup SquareFoot Inc. gave about half its initial seats to brokers after an internal survey determined they needed the physical space more than, say, engineers. Seniority has factored into other decisions. CenterPoint Energy Inc., a Houston-based company that delivers electricity in the state of Texas and elsewhere, has asked officers and director-level employees who had been working remotely to return in recent weeks.

But deciding who comes back can get complicated, fast. Some employers remain wary of potential legal liabilities if workers get sick on the job, while others worry about opening themselves to discrimination claims by excluding certain groups. Companies also want to avoid pressuring employees to return before they're ready. But they are mindful of "people's feelings being bruised when you're told you're not an essential person" and should remain remote, says SquareFoot President Michael Colacino.

The risks of bringing people back came into sharper focus this week when JPMorgan Chase & Co. had one employee test positive and then had to send home a group that had come in close contact with the individual, according to a person close to the finance giant. The company, which has been gradually bringing people back since June, had just announced plans to increase capacity. It is continuing with that effort despite the setback, a spokesman said.

"We haven't seen any meaningful increases in cases," the spokesman said.

As they navigate the complexities, companies are considering a mix of measures including employee preferences and the technical and social aspects of their jobs. Where possible, they are automating the decision-making process to take the emotion out of it.

In planning for a return to SquareFoot's Midtown Manhattan office, Mr. Colacino and his colleagues knew not all employees could come back at once while maintaining proper distancing. So executives at the 67-person company asked teams to complete self-assessments about why they might need to use the 8,000-square-foot space. Managers ranked how often their teams required face-to-face collaboration, how employees got to work and whether they would benefit from in-office amenities such as shared whiteboards.

The company's real-estate brokers, who often visit properties around the city but need a home base during the day, got about half of the 27 available seats. Engineering staffers got fewer spots.

"We're not overloading the space," Mr. Colacino says.

SquareFoot is developing a reservation system backed by an algorithm that evaluates requests to use office space. Being able to point to a dispassionate arbiter should help defuse frustrations about having to stay home, Mr. Colacino says.

"It takes the emotion out of the whole thing," he says. "That's the benefit of doing it in an automated way, because what a nightmare to be the person that has to kind of do a Sophie's Choice on your employees."

IBM developed tools, used both internally and by clients, that incorporate local health data and other signals to help bosses decide whether they can safely reopen a site. An app assigns workers staggered arrival times and points them to desks or conference rooms that have been recently cleaned. IBM has about 1,000 office locations globally; about 140 of those have either reopened or will be soon for a limited number of employees, the company said.

The quantum-computing scientists were among the first 10% of staffers to return to a facility in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., in June, due to the need for lab equipment and other limitations of remote work, says Joanne Wright, an IBM vice president who has been helping to oversee the company's return-to-work efforts. In other locations, staffers working on mainframe computers or servers used by clients returned first.

"We're really trying to take more of a role-based discussion" in reopening, she says, noting the vast majority of IBM employees can continue to work remotely through at least the end of the year.

One of the difficulties in bringing people back is scheduling employees on the same team to work in an office without creating undue risk, says Don Weinstein, a vice president who leads product and technology teams at ADP, which reopened its New Jersey headquarters to a small number of workers this summer.

Many companies, including ADP, ask some staffers to come in on alternating days. "I want to be able to split teams up so that if we have something that happens on a Monday, and it has a potential spreader effect, I don't knock out a whole team," Mr. Weinstein says.

ADP developed a tool for its clients to regularly ask employees how they feel about returning. Employees can designate in an app if they are able to return in person. If they answer no, they can elaborate with reasons such as "health concerns" or "lack of child/family member care." More than 200 companies are now using the product.

Other companies say they will operate on a strictly voluntary basis once they deem it safe to bring some employees back. The online doctor-appointments service Zocdoc Inc. says it will not require any employees to return to its New York office until at least after Labor Day 2021, even if its office reopens before then.

"It is one of the challenges of this virus: No matter how much we want to be done with it, we need to wait to return to normalcy until it's done with us," says Oliver Kharraz, the company's CEO, who is also a physician. "If you're not manufacturing anything, and you are set up to work remotely, you don't need to add to the burden of the overall risk that we're taking as a society by bringing your employees back in just because that's how you operated before the pandemic."

Being among the first back in an office can be jarring, employees say. Cafeterias may serve nothing but pre-packaged food. Parking lots sit empty. Just a few employees may be spread across an entire floor of a building.

"What they were looking for was that social interaction, and their memories of that was a full building," says Bruno Vanhaelst, chief sales and marketing officer at Sodexo SA, the food-service and facilities company, who notes details such as the greeting at the door or the positioning of desks can make a return more enjoyable.

"It's actually not fun to be alone on the floor," he says. "I'd rather be home."

-- David Benoit contributed to this article.


Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
AUTOMATIC DATA PROCESSING, INC. 0.24% 149.2 Delayed Quote.-12.49%
CENTERPOINT ENERGY, INC. 0.72% 22.23 Delayed Quote.-18.48%
JPMORGAN CHASE & CO. 0.90% 103.81 Delayed Quote.-25.53%
SODEXO 1.58% 61.68 Real-time Quote.-41.62%
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Financials (USD)
Sales 2020 73 944 M - -
Net income 2020 6 699 M - -
Net Debt 2020 50 627 M - -
P/E ratio 2020 16,2x
Yield 2020 5,56%
Capitalization 103 B 103 B -
EV / Sales 2020 2,08x
EV / Sales 2021 2,02x
Nbr of Employees 352 600
Free-Float 39,7%
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Income Statement Evolution
Mean consensus HOLD
Number of Analysts 16
Average target price 137,86 $
Last Close Price 116,00 $
Spread / Highest target 37,9%
Spread / Average Target 18,8%
Spread / Lowest Target 0,86%
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