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Disney to employees: Work in the office four days a week

The company is the latest big name to shift hybrid policies as the battle over offices continues

Disney CEO Bob Iger, seen in 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

The Walt Disney Co. is asking its employees to spend more time in the office, becoming one of the biggest media companies to join employers who are growing impatient with pandemic work norms.

On Monday, Disney chief executive Bob Iger told employees working hybrid schedules that they would be required to start coming in four days a week after March 1, citing the company’s need for in-person collaboration. Most employees were required to come in three days a week under the hybrid program, similar to arrangements at other media giants such as NBCUniversal and Warner Bros.

“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,” Iger said in a message sent to employees and shared with The Washington Post. “It is my belief that working together more in-person will benefit the Company’s creativity, culture, and our employees’ careers.”

Disney declined to elaborate on the matter beyond what was stated in Iger’s message.

Disney joins companies such as Snap and Vanguard in asking employees to spend more time in offices in 2023. While some firms took tough stances on returning to the office as the coronavirus pandemic receded, others treaded lightly for fear of losing employees over mandates in a white-hot labor market. But as layoffs have mounted, especially among tech companies that have historically been bullish on remote work, the balance of power has been shifting back toward employers, and some are using it to try to get people back together in person.

“You’ve seen lots of companies and CEOs saying they want people back more than they are,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president at Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “I think a lot of companies have been waiting to make these moves.”

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Offices across 10 of the country’s top metropolitan areas remained less than half as full as they were pre-pandemic as of late December, according to swipe data tracked by Kastle Systems.

Many employers have had hybrid policies in place but have started threatening to enforce them only recently, Challenger said, with some arguing that being lax is unfair to the employees who have been coming in consistently.

Over the next year, a more accurate picture will emerge of what “equilibrium” in the work landscape will look like, he said.

It’s not just companies pushing for fuller returns to offices — there is also pressure from cities whose downtowns have suffered from the shift to remote work. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) called on President Biden to bring federal workers back to offices more frequently or else reconsider how that real estate is used. As of October, commercial office vacancies in D.C. were at 15.1 percent, up from 11.8 percent in 2020.

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At her swearing-in ceremony earlier this month, Bowser urged the Biden administration “to either get most federal workers back to the office, most of the time, or to realign their vast property holdings for use by the local government, by nonprofits, by businesses and by any user willing to revitalize it,” according to ABC.

While some firms such as Goldman Sachs have had employees back in offices full time since 2021, others have taken a more gradual approach in response to widespread employee demands for continued flexibility.

General Motors is planning to bring salaried employees back to the office three days a week at the end of January after about two years of remote work. The company tried to bring employees back last year but held off in the face of internal backlash.

“While we have maintained a highly collaborative culture over the past two years during a very challenging time, the intangible benefits of in person collaboration are going to be a critical success factor as we move into a period of rapid launches,” GM chief executive Mary Barra said in a note to employees last year, according to CNBC. “This evolution is about being ready for the next phase of our transformation.”

Companies pulling employees back to offices now are generally concerned about struggles with collaboration or productivity, according to Stefanie Camfield, human resources consultant and assistant general counsel with Engage PEO.

But as she explains to her clients, which are primarily small and medium-size businesses, employees have demonstrated that they won’t take kindly to hard mandates or shifts that don’t take their well-being into account.

“The ‘just because we’ve always done it this way’ does not seem to be cutting it with employees at this point,” Camfield said. “You’re going to have a solid reason why. You don’t want the employees to think that it’s a trust issue.”

Even for companies that went all-in on remote work earlier in the pandemic, the office still has some pull, according to Benjamin Blumenthal, principal broker at Noah & Co., an office-space expert in Manhattan. He said the clients he’s seeing these days are looking to get more for their money. In some cases, they’re even willing to increase their budgets if it means they’ll get “an outsize benefit.”

“Ultimately there seems to be a consensus from executives that an office is a critical part of an organization,” Blumenthal said. “But what that means — three days, five days, who, what, how, where and when — still remains to be seen.”

Remote job postings have been gradually declining, according to data from the jobs site LinkedIn, but they remain elevated compared with pre-pandemic levels. Remote listings peaked in March 2022, when they accounted for more than 20 percent of all paid postings, compared with less than 10 percent in January 2021, according to LinkedIn data.

By November 2022, just 14 percent of paid postings on the site invited remote applicants, despite widespread desire for flexible work among jobseekers.

“Candidates’ appetite for such positions is so keen that remote jobs in recent months have been getting as much as 50% of all job applications tracked by LinkedIn — even though such positions are barely 15% of the total jobs pool,” the company said in an analysis published last week.

Lee, who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his middle name to speak freely about his employer, is an environmental consultant in Oregon. He returned to working full time in the office last week for the first time since the pandemic forced the shift to remote work.

“The dream is over,” he said.

Now that he’s back under fluorescent lights and surrounded by co-workers eight hours a day, he’s feeling tempted to pursue other opportunities. The job offers that have crept into his LinkedIn account suddenly seem a whole lot more appealing.

“I don’t mind coming in a few days a week,” he said. “But there’s got to be some flex in there.”