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Offices Are Still Empty on Fridays, So What Are Companies to Do?

If you feel like you’re seeing more tumbleweeds than co-workers in the office on Fridays, you’re not alone. Data from access control provider Kastle Systems confirms that the last day of the work week is consistently the most unpopular day to be in the office. It doesn’t take a workplace design expert to figure out why. After a work week, employees are already starting to anticipate their Friday evenings or get a jump on their weekend trips. No matter what the reason, hybrid work is leaving offices largely empty on Friday, and that’s putting some occupiers in a tight spot. 

The Friday desertions we are seeing were brushed off last summer as the trend of “Summer Fridays,” a concept that reportedly took off in the 1960s when advertising agencies in Manhattan realized that employee productivity on Fridays during the summer months fell completely flat. Since then, many NYC offices allow their employees either a partial or full day off between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Gartner, a Connecticut-based technological research and consulting firm, found that 55 percent of organizations in North America were gearing up to offer “Summer Fridays” in 2019, a nine percent increase from the previous year. But now, of course, we’re in November, and Friday occupancy levels have barely picked up from the summer season.

Even the biggest tech giants are noticing empty offices at the end of the workweek. In a recent interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Cook defended the return-to-work mandate (that Apple had rolled out back in September) with the argument that since Apple develops physical products, in-person collaboration is key for Apple’s success. “That takes the serendipity of running into people, and bouncing ideas off, and caring enough to advance your idea through somebody else because you know that’ll make it a bigger idea,” he said. However, Apple only mandated that employees come back three days a week, and there’s an apparent emptiness in Apple’s offices every Friday. “If you were here on a Friday, it would be a ghost town,” Cook added. 

Companies may not be totally thrilled with low Friday turnout, but there’s a bigger impact to be felt. The first is purely economic since offices are an integral part of many downtown business districts, spurring activity for nearby businesses. Fewer people coming to work means less activity for surrounding retailers, parking garages, coffee shops, restaurants, and so on. The second is that companies have found themselves in a Catch-22. Companies know that trying to force employees to come back to the physical 5-day workweek could cause them to lose talent, as office workers have made it abundantly clear that they’re more likely to abandon ship should their employer make office attendance mandatory. At the same time, the casual, social air that office workers feel on Friday is the perfect fuel for the very serendipitous idea-bouncing that Cook was talking about. So what are companies to do? 

Companies have tried wagging perks like gym vouchers, travel reimbursements, and social events to lull staff back into the office, but one popular solution companies are leaning towards is calling a caterer. After all, what’s a better motivator than free food? SportingSmiles, a company that makes custom dental products, found that offering their employees food was a great way to get them to socialize, so it rolled out smoothie-and-bagel breakfasts on Tuesdays, reportedly bringing Tuesday attendance to near-perfect levels. Using that same logic, SportingSmiles rolled out a free bi-weekly lunch program, which is usually held on, you guessed it, Fridays. 

SportingSmiles certainly isn’t the only company using food as a means to up office occupancy levels, just ask Google, Goldman Sachs, or Twitter (at least until Musk decided to nix that perk). The corporate catering sector is buzzing, but offering to feed your employees just seems to be the means, more so the end. In essence, free food is the low-hanging fruit that allows companies to reap what they really want out of their employees: camaraderie and collaboration. 

Joe Du Bey, CEO and co-founder of workplace management platform Eden, sees dozens of occupiers using free food as a social tool to fill their offices on days with lower headcounts, but the reason free food is so effective has more to do with meaning than taste. “People show up when there’s free food because they know other people will be there too,” he said. “People want to come for other people.”

The fact that offices are known to be emptier on Friday contributes to something of a vicious cycle that has nothing to do with the end-of-the-week euphoria; when employees know that their offices will be vacant on a certain day, they’re more likely to avoid it. As Du Bey puts it,  “no one wants to come into an empty office.”

Companies have already been seeking technology solutions like desk hoteling, augmented reality (AR), and the Internet of Things (IoT) in an effort to “activate” the workplace.  Space activation might sound a bit like empty corporate-speak, but in the era of hybrid work, it is crucial to how an office is able to draw its workforce in. “Technology is a passive form of coordination,” Du Bey explained, “and no matter what tools you use, passive coordination is extremely helpful in getting people back in the office.”

As Du Bey puts it, the activation doesn’t happen without people, and technology is creating a way for people to know who will be in the office in advance. Du Bey has had a front-row seat to this phenomenon. He has noticed that when offices use booking software, it can cause a snowball effect on occupancy levels because employees are able to see who else will be checking into the office that day. We all have that one friend at the office who we giggle with when the boss isn’t looking, a coworker who feels like family, or a gaggle of “office besties” that we’d be happy to see when we show up to the office. So it often is less about how many people will be there but which ones, that will make workers more likely to come in. Bonus points, apparently, if that co-worker has a dog. “In dog-friendly offices,” Du Bey explained, “the people who bring their dogs in seem to have an oversized effect on attendance. Who doesn’t want to pet a dog from time to time?!”

Offices have traditionally boasted a lax atmosphere on Fridays. After all, “Casual Fridays” have been in the zeitgeist for a reason. But most offices in the U.S. are hearing crickets instead of capitalizing on Friday’s mental makeup, and that means that companies are missing out. As long as companies realize that their most effective lure to get their employees back is the employees themselves, then whether it’s free food, technology, or even the office puppy, offices don’t have to be “ghost towns” every Friday afternoon.

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