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The return-to-office industry is booming

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A computer scientist works in his home office in January, 2021.

Companies are spending millions for advice on bringing employees back to offices says Matthew Boyle, a senior reporter for Bloomberg. Ina Fassenbender/AFP via Getty Images

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As COVID-19 cases resurge in the United States, there’s a growing list of companies delaying return-to-office deadlines, including Apple, Uber and Ford. Many workplaces that sent employees home nearly two years ago still don’t have solid plans for bringing them back. Amid that chaos and uncertainty, there is opportunity. 

Matthew Boyle is a senior reporter for Bloomberg who recently wrote about the rise of return-to-office consulting. The following is an edited transcript of his conversation with Marketplace’s Reema Khrais. 

Reema Khrais: So, you’ve been reporting on how all this confusion and chaos about when and how to return to the office has, in effect, created a new industry. Can you tell me about it?

Matthew Boyle: Yeah. I saw that there’s sort of this cottage industry growing of advice and guidance from everyone from, you know, the sort of blue-chip management consultants over at McKinsey and Bain [Capital] to consultants who specialize in HR and the workforce, like Mercer, but even just sort of, you know, random etiquette experts, people who are experts in filtration and airflow. And you had all these people putting shingles out and saying, “Hey, trust me, I can lead you through your return to office.” And I said, “Well, can you if no one’s ever done this before?” So what do we really know, right?

Khrais: Like everyone’s smelling the opportunity and suddenly, everyone is a futurist. 

Boyle: Exactly. 

Khrais: You wrote that, if you just go on LinkedIn, you can find like — what — 17,000 online courses on how to return to the office?

Boyle: There’s about 17,000 courses in total. I discovered that there are tons of courses around how to return to the office and some of them are taught by like, you know, experts in holistic nutrition and some of them are taught by, you know, construction guys who know exactly what to do about, you know, your HVAC system. And you know, some of them are pretty helpful, because there are some valid questions like, “When you go back to the office? Are you shaking hands? How do you deal with co-workers? You know, what do you do at the water cooler?” Companies are spending millions, sometimes tens of millions [of dollars] for advice because, of course, corporate America has never done this before.

Khrais: So given how quickly the need for these consultants came about, do you feel like there are people with actual expertise to meet the demand?

Boyle: I mean, now that we’ve been doing this for almost two years, I think there certainly are people who have a decent sense of like, OK the first thing you have to do is just you have to take a look a close look at your workforce and segment it out to figure out who can be fully remote forever. But once you do that, then you might get a little of resentment for the people who are like, “Oh, wait a minute. Bob can be fully remote forever and I’ve got to go in Tuesday through Thursday? Why can’t I have Bob’s job?” Or “Why am I at this company to begin with?” So, even when you get a little bit of more knowledge, then you run the risk of worker resentment and people just saying, “Well, I’ll just go down the street to a company where I can be fully remote forever.”

Khrais: You cited one survey in your article that said more than half of workers would consider quitting if they’re asked to go back to the office before they’re ready — just wild.

Boyle: Yeah. Then the reasons are pretty, you know, kind of obvious. So one of the few clear things now is that people are used to working from home, they have a pretty nice setup. You know, I’m standing here at a nice standing desk.

Khrais: Are you wearing sweatpants?

Boyle: I’m wearing, well, let’s just call it “upscale sweatpants.” Yeah, you know, I’ve upgraded my looks, but yes, I’ve been in very casual clothes that I would not have worn to an office ever in 2019. And companies now say, “Well, now, you must be back three days a week. That’s our RTO plan.” And people are saying, “Well, why three? Why can’t I come back two?” Or, you know, “I still haven’t found daycare yet,” or “My daycare is having trouble staffing up.” And it’s just this sense of, you know, “I’m perfectly productive at home, why are you forcing me into a new arrangement at some downtown office that doesn’t need to be the center of work anymore?”

Khrais: Man. Hearing you say all this, it’s like, oh, it does make sense why there’s this crop of consultants that have sprouted up during the pandemic.

Boyle: Right. They’re always around. I mean, no matter the issue, you know, and what they’re doing now is this sort of what they call “transformation services.” So rather than just coming in and helping a company with like, you know, a big layoff or a merger, coming in for six weeks and then leaving. Transformation services, you know, it’s kind of like seeing your therapist, you know — it never ever ends. There’s always something else we can do. You could always have another step on this journey of transformation. So they might not be calling it RTO work. It might just get subsumed into the broader, workforce transformation, or what we’re now calling “future of work” engagements. There’s another wonderful buzzword — if you’re working on the “future of work,” you’re never going to be out of work.

Khrais: And that means you’re forever going to be on this beat.

Boyle: I don’t mind as long as I’m gainfully employed, yes.

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