With a summer travel season set to break records, companies are rethinking strict return-to-office rules.
(Bloomberg) — Over 42 million Americans are expected to travel Memorial Day weekend, kicking off what’s set to be a record-breaking summer. This year, though, pricey airfare isn’t the only obstacle for those looking for a change of scene — stricter return-to-office rules have curbed the freedom many white-collar workers enjoyed before being called back to their desks.
One solution that’s cropped up: Hybrid work schedules, but with a set amount of time allotted — usually two to four weeks — for employees to enjoy the fully remote life.
So-called “work from anywhere” (WFA) weeks are still relatively uncommon, according to Rob Sadow, chief executive officer of Scoop Technologies Inc., a firm that tracks remote work policies at over 4,000 companies. But recently, a handful of big-name companies have so far adopted the policy, from top financial services firms like American Express Co., Visa Inc. and Mastercard Inc. and tech giants like Alphabet Inc.’s Google to small startups, progressive employers like Patagonia and even the government-sponsored mortgage lender Freddie Mac.
Employees typically have the option to use their WFA weeks when it’s most convenient for them throughout the year. Some firms take a more structured approach: While the bank hasn’t made it an official policy, Citigroup Inc. last year allowed its employees to work remotely the last two weeks of August and December. Some organizations, like Freddie Mac, specify that the weeks are to be used non-consecutively.
Read More: Citi’s Employees Can Work From Anywhere for Last Two Weeks of Year
“Anecdotally, the companies we have heard implement ‘work from anywhere’ weeks often do it at the same time as implementing increased requirements to be in the office” to reduce employee pushback, Sadow said.
These arrangements are meant to provide freedom of movement — especially around major holidays and the busy summer travel season — while maintaining broader return-to-office mandates. And in a labor market that’s remained surprisingly tight even as corporate budgets are slashed, employers see WFA weeks as a cost-effective way to attract and retain their best people.
“For workers with parents, family and friends in distant regions or distant countries, this could mean a whole month together,” said Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor who studies remote work. “I think it’s a great idea.”
For Mastercard, offering four WFA weeks emerged as a low-cost way — alongside other sweeteners like meeting-free days and flexible Fridays — for the company to differentiate itself as an employer.
“If it worked then, it works now,” said Mastercard’s Chief People Officer Michael Fraccaro of working remotely, sometimes from far-flung locales, during the pandemic. Fraccaro himself uses the benefit, which rolled out last year, combining two weeks of PTO with two weeks of WFA to spend more time with his elderly parents in Australia. “It’s part of a portfolio of benefits,” Fraccaro said. Beyond financial benefits like 401(k)s, “one of the things people are looking for is time.”
Of course, the perk comes with practical considerations: Employees need to adjust their hours to different time zones, and the company is clear that individuals are responsible for understanding the tax implications that may come with working outside their home country. And there’s an element of trust that’s implicit in the arrangement: “You could work from Bali for four weeks,” Fraccaro said. “But we still expect you to perform.”
For companies that have struggled with the transition to hybrid from fully remote, the policy may establish clear norms and permission structures for employees, said Caitlin Duffy, a research director in the human resources practice at consulting firm Gartner Inc. Many white-collar workers still aren’t sure how much latitude is allowed under hybrid policies, and compliance has been sketchy at best: Over 40% of HR leaders polled by Gartner said their employees aren’t meeting attendance requirements. Meanwhile, enforcement has remained lax, with few companies (or managers) willing to crack down too harshly.
Offering a set number of WFA weeks may allow companies to accommodate the desire for flexibility throughout the year without committing to a fully remote future as companies like Airbnb Inc. have. The demand for fully-remote work has ebbed and flowed with the seasons, according to recent data from job search site Flexa: Searches for fully-remote roles waned after summer ended last year, falling to an all-time low of about 25% of all searches in December, but has since rebounded to nearly 60% in March.
For Suzanne Rosnowski, founder and chief executive officer of public relations firm Relevance International, two WFA weeks alongside a three-day-a-week hybrid schedule emerged as a logical compromise with her team on how to transition back into the office after the pandemic. “We did kind of make it up,” she said, highlighting that the plan shows appreciation for workers and their time.
“We demonstrated work-from-home can be productive, but we also demonstrated too much work-from-home can be counterproductive, at least for our agency,” she said. “It’s accommodating of modern life.”
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