by Ray Keating
January 11, 2023
Perhaps some of those Disney employees who didn’t like Bob Chapek are now less than thrilled with the return of Bob Iger as CEO. Why? On January 9, 2023, Iger sent out a companywide memo saying that hybrid employees – that is, a work mix of in the office and at home – must be in the office four days a week.
Advancements and innovations in computer, digital and telecommunications technologies combined with the 2020 pandemic and related shutdowns caused an upheaval in how many Americans work. Suddenly, people were working from home offices and meeting via Zoom, for example. Depending on one’s perspective, the pandemic as it pertained to the workplace either was a perfect storm, or it had a way of accelerating positive trends in worker mobility.
Consider some key points on where Americans worked in 2021 that was reported in U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual American Time Use Survey.
First, again, the impact of the pandemic meant that Americans were working at home in 2021 to a far greater extent than was the case pre-pandemic. On days worked, 38.1 percent of employed individuals (full or part-time) did all or part of their work at home, with 68.4 percent working at a workplace. That compared to 24 percent working at home in 2019 and 82 percent in the workplace.
Second, a difference existed among men and women in 2021. Among men, 36.7 percent worked fully or partially from home, compared to 41.5 percent among women.
Third, education mattered a great deal. Among individuals without a high school degree, 5.9 percent worked fully or partially from home. That climbed to 18.8 percent for high school graduates with no college; 30.6 percent for individuals with some college or an associate degree; and 59.8 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher (54.7 percent with a bachelor’s and 66.9 percent with an advanced degree).
Fourth, entrepreneurship also came into play. When looking at the main job of individuals, 36.6 percent of wage and salary workers in 2021 worked fully or partially from home, and that compared to 45.3 percent of the self-employed.
Fifth, occupations were relevant as well. Regarding main jobs, 59.0 percent of those in “management, business and financial operations” worked at home, and 56.5 percent of those in “professional and related” work did the same. That dropped to 34.6 percent for those in sales and related work, and 34.4 percent for those in “office and administrative support.” Among the major occupation areas presented in the report, the next highest area – “installation, maintenance and repair” – saw a drop in the level of those working at home to 13.6 percent.
For me, the work-at-home shift meant that I was welcoming people into my world. I was an early adopter, with a home office since 1991. The home office as my base of operations has been a natural fit, as the bulk of my work is rooted in researching and writing. Plus, I tend to be a more independent worker. But as the above data make clear, it’s not necessarily for everybody, and it’s not only about the kind of work people do, but also their preferences, temperament, commitment and responsibility to their work, and ability to work independently.
There are other questions as well, and Iger hit on big ones in his memo. He wrote:
“I also wanted to let you know that, as I’ve been meeting with teams throughout the Company over the past few months, I’ve been reminded of the tremendous value in being together with the people you work with. As you’ve heard me say many times, creativity is the heart and soul of who we are and what we do at Disney. And in a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors. It is my belief that working together more in-person will benefit the Company’s creativity, culture, and our employees’ careers. Starting March 1, employees currently working in a hybrid fashion will be asked to spend four days a week on-site, targeting Monday through Thursday as in-person workdays.”
Iger made this move based on an apparent belief that creativity best flourishes in a collaborative, in-person setting. And for certain kinds of creativity, he’s right, but for others – for example, I can speak to this as a novelist – greater independence works better.
Iger also noted that the ability to learn, to be mentored and to advance one’s career are enhanced being together physically. That not only depends upon the industry, but also on the individual preferences and abilities of those involved. For example, what’s the right balance between networking and output?
And Iger also mentioned company culture – that is, the formal and informal ways or systems for how things get done in a business – and that might be his strongest point. While the formal aspects of a company’s culture can be learned at a conference room table or via Zoom, distance certainly creates challenges in terms of instilling the more informal, but still important, aspects of culture. And Disney always has had a major emphasis on its culture.
One can see how Bob Iger, given his own background and the work that Disney does, comes down on the side on more work getting done in the office.
However, there are differences even among some leading U.S. companies. In September 2022, Apple ordered staff back into the office for three days a week, and Twitter, under Elon Musk in November 2022, ordered nearly all employees back to the office, but then Musk softened his demands given a staff backlash. And in a September 2020 Wall Street Journal interview, Netflix’s Reed Hastings said the following when asked about the benefits of remote work: “I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.”
In contrast, in June 2021, Meta (or Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that fulltime employees can work from home if their tasks can be accomplished remotely.
Not surprisingly, a survey reported by the Harvard Business Review in January 2023 found sharp disagreement between employees and managers regarding the productivity of remote work. That is, “Managers and employees disagree profoundly about key aspects of work-from-home, according to surveys we’ve conducted. For instance, managers believe that work-from-home reduces productivity while employees think it massively increases it.”
Unfortunately, experts and academics have little to offer in terms of helping with decisions on working remotely versus in the office. The results of various analyses of worker productivity vary markedly, thus far, with some claiming remote work boosts productivity and others finding the exact opposite.
What advice do the authors of the HBR article offer?
“The best available approach for most companies is organized hybrid. Employers should choose two or three ‘anchor’ days a week that all employees come into the office — typically between Tuesday and Thursday because Monday and Friday are the most popular work-from-home days. These in-office days should include the bulk of meetings, group activities, trainings, and lunches so that employees see the value of coming together. And attendance should be enforced the same way it was pre-pandemic: Not coming to work on anchor days is not acceptable, except in the case of emergencies, like a sick child or a burst water pipe. Finally, managers should actively encourage working from home on non-anchor days, so employees can enjoy the benefits without fear that they’re missing out on something at the office.”
There’s some basic common sense there, and companies might consider this as a starting point and make changes based on their circumstances.
In the end, of course, entrepreneurs, businesses and workers in the marketplace will work things out, with employees seeking greater independence for a variety of reasons gravitating to firms more fully embracing mobility, and those seeking the benefits of a more structured workplace moving in that direction. What there is little doubt about is that technology has changed and will continue to change the way we work, and the entrepreneurs and CEOs who best grasp and manage these changes will see their companies and employees prosper as a result.
Time, and worker reactions, will tell us how this decision by Bob Iger plays out.
Ray Keating is the editor, publisher and economist for DisneyBizJournal.com; and author of the Pastor Stephen Grant thrillers and mysteries, and the Alliance of Saint Michael novels; and assorted nonfiction books. Have Ray Keating speak your group, business, school, church, or organization. Email him at email@example.com.
The views expressed here are his own – after all, no one else should be held responsible for this stuff, right?
Consider books by Ray Keating…
• The Lutheran Planner: The TO DO List Solution combines a simple, powerful system for getting things done with encouragement, inspiration and consolation from the Christian faith.
• Free Trade Rocks! 10 Points on International Trade Everyone Should Know is available at Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle edition, and signed books at www.raykeatingonline.com.