Sara Faatz has it pretty good.
For the second consecutive summer, Faatz, the director of technology community relations at Burlington-based Progress software company, and her husband spent her workdays bobbing up and down in the Atlantic Ocean near the Bahamas. “It was fantastic,” she says.
Faatz wasn’t playing hooky — quite the contrary, actually. With her employer’s blessing, Faatz worked two weeks on a boat, taking video calls and writing blog posts. Her unique situation allowed her to relax, think clearly, and produce her best work, she says. And that ultimately benefits Progress. “I was in such a good head space,” Faatz says. “A lot of the stress was gone.”
Faatz, who focuses on writing and communications, is grateful for the flexibility — ”I don’t take any of this for granted,” she says.
And she shouldn’t, especially since employers are increasingly leaning hard on employees to return to the office. From Amazon and Google to J.P. Morgan Chase and Tesla, companies are pressuring employees to abandon the fully-remote work mentality that has dominated US workplaces since the global pandemic began.
“Employers are getting a little bit of the upper hand right now,” says Stephan Meier, a professor at Columbia Business School who specializes in organizational behavior strategy. “Office policies are getting more restrictive.”
Many of the companies recognized in this year’s Top Places to Work, however, continue to offer quite a bit of flexibility. CarGurus in Cambridge lets employees add up to two weeks of remote work to any vacation with manager approval. Integrated Partners, a financial planning company in Waltham, lets employees take work-cations as long as they meet deadlines and communicate with their managers.
But the situation today is a far cry from the pandemic lockdowns, when some experts predicted that the need for physical offices had been permanently eliminated. Instead, companies and employees are constantly, uneasily maneuvering for power over where and when people should work.
“We are still in the midst of a tug of war here,” says Steve Cadigan, who served as LinkedIn’s first chief human resources officer. “To be fair, the experiment is still early for both parties. We are unable to know the long-term consequences of more remote work on two big things: teamwork and culture.”
“The debate is raging because we still have many organizations not used to anything but a one-size-fits-all work architecture,” adds Cadigan, author of Workquake: Embracing the Aftershocks of Covid-19 to Create a Better Model for Working. “Managing teams with diversity of where people are is harder if you have never done it — so some are reluctant to try it.”
Ironically, some large tech companies — those early adopters of open floor plans for collaboration and Foosball tables for bonding — have been most vocal about employees returning to the office.
Earlier this year, Amazon started to require people to work in the office at least three days a week. After employees resisted, Amazon adopted a tougher posture. “It’s past the time to disagree and commit,” Amazon CEO Andy Jassy reportedly told workers. “If you can’t disagree and commit...it’s probably not going to work out for you at Amazon.” Meanwhile, Google has started to track when employees swipe their badges at offices and factors in office attendance when evaluating performance, according to CNBC.
But executives also say they have a sincere belief that collaboration really depends on people interacting with each other face-to-face.
“We ran into two issues that I think a lot of companies did during the pandemic,” says Kate Alessi, managing director of YouTube and site leader at Google’s Kendall Square office in Cambridge. “One is that people felt really isolated. It was just hard to feel a connection with the broader purpose and the work that we were doing.
“And another one,” she continues, “is it was really hard to get help. It’s just harder to find people who can mentor you or unblock you as you’re dealing with issues. We built many digital tools to make that easier, but it is just simplified big time when you can be in person with people.”
Meier, the professor, believes that companies still have an opportunity to seize the moment and develop new workplace models that do not require employees to return to the old days of working in the office 9-6, Monday to Friday. “Enlightened employers should rethink the way managers manage employees,” he says. “It will require a mind-set shift. It will require trust” between employer and employee.
Indeed, that’s part of the reason why Faatz has worked at Progress for seven years now. When she requested her unusual work-cation in the Atlantic, her managers quickly said yes because they knew she would get her work done. “With any remote work, there has to be trust,” Faatz says. “There has to be transparency.”
Cadigan says the ongoing debate misses why many employees want to work remotely. It’s not simply about employees wanting to avoid the headaches of commuting or preferring to attend Zoom meetings in their pajamas. “The big misunderstanding is that many firms are saying their staff is more productive in the office but the staff believes they are more productive at home,” Cadigan says. “What the staff are really saying is that their lives are more productive when they work at home — not just their work. Isn’t that why we go to work in the first place — to live better lives?”
Linh Phan, a senior business analyst at CarGurus, hadn’t been able to visit her family and friends in Vietnam since before the pandemic. Phan worked out a deal with her employer last year to use two weeks for vacation and two weeks for remote work so she could stay in Vietnam for an entire month. “It was a huge benefit,” Phan says. “I got to enjoy my mom’s cooking.”
Several companies in the 2023 Top Places to Work have designed remote/hybrid work-friendly policies. MassMutual, headquartered in Springfield with an additional campus in Boston, offers workers remote Fridays, remote weeks around the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and four remote weeks a year of employees’ choosing. Good Shepherd Community Care in Newton allows employees to take occasional work-cations. Kymera Therapeutics in Watertown takes a personalized approach to finding ways for people to get a little more flexibility when they need it.
“Flexibility is now a job perk in itself. It has value,” says Sarah Foster, an analyst with Bankrate, which has studied employee attitudes. “Time is a precious economic resource too. It will be hard to put the genie back into the bottle after the pandemic.”
Explore the 2023 Top Places to Work (by company size) and more:
- Largest companies (1,000+ employees)
- Large companies (250-999 employees)
- Medium companies (100-249 employees)
- Small companies (50-99 employees)
- These companies are using AI to help their employees, not replace them
- Check out the full special issue
TO PARTICIPATE IN THE 2024 TOP PLACES TO WORK SURVEY: Visit bostonglobe.com/nominate
Thomas Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.