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Gallup Podcast
How Many Employees Will Return to the Office?
Gallup Podcast

How Many Employees Will Return to the Office?

How many people want to continue working remotely -- and why? Will things go back to normal at some point -- and will we be more productive when they do? Gallup CEO Jim Clifton joins the podcast to talk about the number of empty desks in U.S. offices.

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Mohamed Younis 00:07

I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we explore the future of showing up at the office and how leaders are grappling with managing their teams in this new dispersed workplace. Jim Clifton is chairman and CEO of Gallup. Jim, it's great to have you back on the podcast.

Mohamed Younis 00:25
Always a pleasure, Mohamed.

Mohamed Younis 00:26
You recently penned a piece, Jim, on what the workplace will look like in terms of office attendance in this post-COVID future that we're all aspiring to achieve and reach. What did you find out?

Jim Clifton 00:38
Well, one of the things, Mohamed, when, when I'm with other, the kind of, I'll refer to people my age as senior executives and old CEOs, is that when we do bring up the conversation, "Are they coming back or not?" you can't get the conversation to end. That's because we're all wondering about it. But I, I assigned our, some really good advanced statisticians and behavioral economist types in Gallup's R&D, I said, "I want you to think of yourself as bookies and give me the over/unders on how many, on how many people are coming back." And I said, "Don't -- you know, go back and close the doors and work and don't come out until you got it." And, and you know, "Well, it depends" -- "None of that; want a number.

Mohamed Younis 01:19
So you've really forced them to give you a hard sort of forecast on the future of how many people are coming.

Jim Clifton 01:25
Yeah. And it was really fun, Mohamed, because you know, they got a lot of fun facts that are real basic things you think everybody would know. But one of them is that there's a, there's 125 million full-time workers in America. And then if you say to them, "Can you do your job at home?" 55% of them say, "Yeah, I can do my job fully at home." I trust their number more than the ones I see in The Wall Street Journal because they tend to go by industry types. They'll say, well, construction jobs, those are all there. No, no, no. If you take a big construction company, they'll have 500 people in bookkeeping, and they can all do it at home. So the way my team did it was they said, "Can you do your job at home?" That's 55 -- let's just call it half. So you get around 65 million, 60 to 65 million people that can do it at home. So then they ask them, "OK, of you people that can do it at home, how many of you want to stay home every single day?" The answer is 30% of them. So 30% want to never come in again.

Mohamed Younis 02:18
Never. Home every day.

Jim Clifton 02:20
And then we said, "How many of you want to come in every day because you like the" -- I don't know, whatever? That answer is 10%. And then we asked the remaining 60%, and they said kind of 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 days, something like that.

Jim Clifton 02:34
For those folks, that 60% want some kind of mix between coming in and working from home.

Jim Clifton 02:38
But definitely, Mohamed, toward the, more toward the five-day type. Executives want them to come in more like 3 1/2 to 4 times, something like that. So we said to the people that, that want to stay home five days a week and come in, let's just say two days a week, "Why do you feel that way?" The No. 1 reason is this simple: "My commute."

Mohamed Younis 03:02
Wow, it's that direct.

Jim Clifton 03:04
That clear. No. 2: It's better for my wellbeing. No. 3 -- and there is no No. 4 -- no. 3 is: It works better for my family.

Mohamed Younis 03:14
Wait, Jim, I want to stop you here, because it's funny for me to have this conversation with you because we're talking about managers and people coming to the office. And you're my boss, and we work in the same office. I know, just for my own experience driving through, there's this overpass by my neighborhood. And when I go get lunch, when I'm working from home, I see this huge line of red brake lights that I drive over -- it's the freeway. It's crushing when you look at it from atop like that. I often think about this question when I drive over that road and think about you, because we've worked together for a long time, and this has been a huge shift for all of us. People can't see us now, but actually, Jim, you're in the office and I'm at home, which is a pretty different dynamic really than what we used to have just a few years back. I want to ask you, Jim, what has it been like for you leading teams in this new kind of digital world? What's, what's been the hardest part for you as a CEO?

Jim Clifton 04:16
I think the thing that happened that I didn't see coming is COVID forced us to get good at using Zoom or Teams. Almost like, imagine you and I trying to learn Japanese on, we're not gonna do it. But what about if some, something, phenomenon came in where the only way we could work is if we learned Japanese? You and I'd learn it pretty darn fast. That's what happened, that's what happened with Zoom. But what I've learned is that you know, like you and me just doing this, we don't lose much not being in person -- Mohamed, maybe nothing.

Mohamed Younis 04:47
Well, let me ask you, why do you think that's the case?

Jim Clifton 04:50
Because I think there are little things like if, if you and I don't know each other, we can't, we can't feel one another. In my job as CEO of a global consulting firm, your, you always are having Zooms with people you don't know, because I'm asked to. We open the door here; we go get to know this. We have a new client, and we don't know the chairman, and it's, "Well, you'll get to know him," whatever. When you have a first meeting, there's little things like this one -- humor doesn't work on Zoom. But here's the thing: If humor doesn't work, what other emotions don't work? But so where I really notice it, Mohammed, is when, when I'm meeting somebody via Zoom: It doesn't work. I mean, it doesn't work, as much as trying to teach first and second graders how to read, write and do math on Zoom. They work almost zero. But the thing is, internal meetings, they work pretty -- but see, you and I don't need any warm-up time.

Mohamed Younis 05:45
Yeah, exactly. It's like when you know the person, you can overcome the digital divide, I think, so much easier and effortlessly.

Jim Clifton 05:54
You can get wound -- but you and I were getting wound up before your show started about -- we, we were talking about the college football. And I could feel your emotion; I could, I could feel your producer's interest in it and all of that kind. But that's because I know, I know you both. Which has interesting implications, not only to how many people are coming into the office, but it also does in our company meetings. I mean, man, those things are gone. You know, when you get on a plane now that's really full, they're not, there aren't businesspeople on there. They're 85% full compared to where they were in 2019, but also fares are off almost a third. So you get all kinds of people, and you can head to the beach or go see grandma, go to the Ozarks or Estes Park or the mountainside or whatever. But it's changing a lot.

Mohamed Younis 06:34
What advice, Jim, are you giving leaders as we all grapple with the reality that really, the old way is not coming back? You talk to leaders from many, many different industries pretty regularly. And I know you've even, you've been leaning into that really since the lockdown. What is the best advice you're giving people these days?

Jim Clifton 06:54
Well, I watch pretty closely. JP Morgan Chase -- you know, Jamie Dimon, somebody everybody watches, and he basically told the employees to, you know, shut up and get back to work; everybody come in. I noticed that IBM -- I don't, I know one of the leaders over there, but they said, "Well, I moved during COVID. I moved out a ways and I can't drive in." And they go, "Well, then move again or you're fired." Now, I kind of admire strong leadership like that. But, but the logic is terrible. You know why? Because what you're up against is my commute, my wellbeing and my family. You shake those up in one martini mix and I'd say, Good luck to the tough guys at IBM and JP Morgan Chase. I like your attitude, but I'm gonna bet against it.

Jim Clifton 07:40
So what I tell them is that you gotta, you gotta figure out hybrid, and you got to figure out what works. And for you and I to meet this way -- you don't need to come in. I don't know what else you're doing today, but for this meeting, do this. And it makes your life better; I believe it's going to make this interview better. I believe you're gonna have more fun at your job as our editor in chief, and I also think that you might be able to talk to more people today. If there are people you've never met before, maybe it works on a, on a show, but most of your business isn't doing a show but where you can, where you can have a hell of a bunch of contacts. You and I live in a big city. If you live in one of the 25 biggest cities, commute's a big part of your day. And if there's a little drizzle or something, that takes all the fun out of work. It's just, but you don't command people through that because they'll come in, but they're gonna have less fun than ever.

Jim Clifton 08:28
But the prediction team said that of the people that were -- if you think of a big building in New York, and in 2019, you got to do a weekly [cumulative]. Because in these big cities, people weren't really coming in on Fridays anyway. But what's the [cumulative] for the number of people that were in a week in 2019 before COVID. And then I want to know in that same building when, when we kind of have everything under -- will be there. And they said 37% of the desks, cubicles or chairs will be vacant. That's either got to be an enemy of you as a leader, but I would recommend you make it a friend, and you figure out -- let's take you, Mohamed -- you figure out what work can you do from home that makes you more productive and makes you, makes your life experience better? Because if you and I sit down, I can help you figure that out. I am 100% confident. But how are you going to use the building? I think the building becomes an event center for you, and I think it becomes a collaboration center for you. Because if you've got something really hard you want to work on with me, you need to come and draw it on a board for me.

Mohamed Younis 09:37
And it's fascinating that you mention that, Jim, because in many cases, those are often are our most interesting, engaging, insightful meetings. It's when we're really brainstorming in a room full of people and getting those best ideas out there, challenging each other's thoughts. And it's just, it's such a different reality now. When we're not able to do that, how are you able to work in the coaching part of being a manager? How are you able to manage the fact that you have teams that are dealing with very high-risk situations, difficult clients? How do you know when to lean in as a leader in this more dispersed world?

Jim Clifton 10:16
I think that this world is so far away from micromanaging. I think that we're the opposite. I think we don't manage at all. Too many of these teams, you know, when I go to our clients, hell, they don't have problems being to bossy or anything; they have a problem in not talking at all. They're administrative managers; they run the damn things with spreadsheets. It's maddening, it's maddening to watch. But I asked our chief scientist and the stuff coming, that he and his team are coming up with. But I said to him, "Tell me what management is. Define it for me. I don't want words; you got to do it with math." And he said, "It's one meaningful conversation per week." Well, why didn't you tell me that 50 years ago? But that means --

Mohamed Younis 10:59
That's the most distinguishing variable.

Jim Clifton 11:02
You don't need two, but have one good one. And I kind of surprised my -- I said, "What should it be about?" He says, "Talk to them about their goals. Talk to them about their ideas." And he said, "You can always build a strategy around, you know, about how are you going to hit your goals? And what can you do better? But he said "If you have one a week," he said, "you're just way, you're like, you're like in the one percentile of, of, of man, of managers. But here's the positive, Mohamed: You can have more of them by Zoom than you can calling them into your office. Another thing too is that -- this is such a bad number that, that we came up with, but -- you know, most Americans don't, don't like their bosses. Well, and, at least, you want to take something off that, you could say, they don't like spending time with their bosses. And America is the best country for that. God, you go to China or Japan and stuff, in China, employees literally hate their bosses.

Jim Clifton 11:59
But just check in once a week. And remember, it doesn't even have to be on Zoom; it can be on email and all that. But, but you should have some Zoom time. But, but Zoom and Teams makes it, makes it so much easier. I do think there's a big benefit there, and it doesn't have to be an hour or two hours; I mean, it can even be 10 minutes. I can say, "Mohamed I heard that you interviewed Zakaria the other day. How did that, how did that go? Did he stay pretty neutral, or did you feel, you know -- ?" And then you tell me about it and all that. And I say, "How did you keep him on track blah blah blah --?" And then I go, "See you later." But you can see I was really interested in how that thing went. I think we could actually manage better with the blend than the other way, but I think there's a responsibility for you. If I say, here in our Washington D.C., office, I'm having a reception for a bunch of kids from Georgetown and G.W. that have -- are master's students; we want to recruit some of them and all of that. I would hope on your own, you would know that I need you here. But see, that's an event.

Mohamed Younis 13:00
And it's fascinating that you say it that way, Jim: "I would hope that on your own, you know that I need you here." Because so much of performance really is knowing those moments, right? So much of being a star employee or star manager or anything is really having a feel for, when do I really need to be there? When is it OK for me to step away a little bit? When is it absolutely not OK for me to be, you know, not at the wheel? It's more now on the employee really to figure out that balance for themselves. Whereas before it wasn't hard, because we were all down the hall. If we need to be in a room for an event, we just send an email, say, "Hey folks, come down for the event." Is there more responsibility now on me as an employee to find that balance?

Jim Clifton 13:51
There is, but I think that's where, that's where I think coaching, having a good manager, helps. Because why, why I think that IBM and JP Morgan Chase and some other companies better be careful what they wish for, I am not a believer that you should just let people go out and do whatever they want. Because I was, I used to chair this group of super psychologists. And it was so interesting to me what they'd get off on. But one of the things he said is why did leadership ever evolve? You know man and woman be on, been on earth about 200,000 years. Why did it even evolve as a thing -- leadership? There's only one reason: because people, left to make their own choices, make choices that aren't very good. I'm talking about good leadership, because good leadership will help you make choices that cause you to develop more and do things, even though uncomfortable, that are, that are good for you.

Jim Clifton 14:41
So I don't think we should have, just say, "Well anybody can do whatever they want." I think you've got to sit down with each individual and figure out how they can be most productive and exceed goals. But I think if we do that, I think we can emerge. I think if we don't, I think I'm open to the fact that all of America may go part time -- we're paying them full time but they're actually working part time. And if anybody hadn't considered that, they're high on something. You know, we got to write down honestly what we see and then, and then manage better.

Mohamed Younis 15:12
And also think about our business and our customers, right? No matter what you do -- whether you're a professor at a university or you run a consulting firm -- in the end, why am I here? And what do I create and who buys that, or who needs it? And can I still do that in this new reality? Jim, one of the things I've always admired about you and love working with you for is your kind of Futuristic viewpoint; you really lead with that strength.

Jim Clifton 15:37
I think I told them 2023 that the exact over/under was 37% of people that can work at home, which is half the full-time workforce will not be there.

Mohamed Younis 15:48
OK, my final question -- and I always love to ask impossible questions -- is that percent building emptier across cities in the developed economy -- economic world [unintelligible], is that a more or less productive economy?

Jim Clifton 16:03
I think without management really stepping up, I would bet everything I have -- less productive. I'd bet all my Gallup stock, I'd bet my car, my house, there's no question -- it's less productive, unless leadership and management thinks their way through it. And if they do, I believe it could be a more positive way to work -- and Gallup will figure that out, by the way.

Mohamed Younis 16:27
There couldn't be a better note for me to end on. That's Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup. Jim, thanks for being with us.

Jim Clifton 16:32
OK, man, see you later.

Mohamed Younis 16:35
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to or follow us on twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.

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