Fridays in the office: Empty


Haley LaFoure bought a couple of dozen donuts on her way to work.

She forgot it was Friday.

The surprise she had planned for her colleagues arrived: the office was empty. Everyone else at the St. Louis investment firm where she works had decided to complete the week from home, meaning LaFloure was stuck at her desk with enough sugary fried dough to last a month.

“I don’t like donuts at all,” says the 25-year-old. “I sat down and thought: what should I do with this?”

As employees across the country settle into hybrid work routines, one thing is becoming clear: nobody wants to be in the office on Fridays.

The last day of the work week, once synonymous with long lunch breaks and early departures, has increasingly become a day of skipping the office altogether. The trend, which was already apparent before the pandemic, has become widespread, even entrenched, in recent months, posing new challenges for employers.

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According to Kastle Systems, which provides building security services for 2,600 buildings nationwide, just 30 percent of office workers wiped their way to work on Fridays in June, the lowest every weekday. This compares to 41 percent on Monday, the second-lowest turnout day, and 50 percent on Tuesday, when most workers are in the office.

“It’s becoming a little bit of a cultural norm: you know nobody else is going into the office on Fridays, so maybe you’re working from home, too,” said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania at the Wharton School. “Even before the pandemic, people thought of Friday as a kind of blowoff day. And now there is a growing expectation that you can work from home to get a good start to the weekend.”

So far, employers seem to be at odds over whether to assume a distant end of the week or try to lure employees into the office. There are taco trucks and wine carts, costume contests and karaoke sing-offs, all designed to get workers to give up their couches for cubicles.

Even tight-lipped employers learn to let go. Citigroup has labeled Fridays as “zoom-free,” while accounting giant KPMG promises “camera-free Fridays” and has employees clocked out at 3pm for the weekend in the summer.

“We want to make sure people get a break so they can recharge their batteries,” said Paul Knopp, chief executive of KPMG US. “We’re giving them a lot more control over how they work — and where they work.”

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Some startups and tech companies have started doing away with Fridays altogether. Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and online consignment store ThredUp are among a small but growing number of companies transitioning to a four-day Monday-Thursday workweek.

Executives at Bolt, a San Francisco POS technology company, began experimenting with non-working Fridays last summer and quickly found they had hit a recipe for success. Employees were more productive than before and returned to work on Mondays with renewed enthusiasm. In January, there was a final switch to a four-day week.

“There was no hesitation: everyone said, ‘Sign me up,'” said Angela Bagley, the company’s head of employee experience. “And it was amazing: we always got the job done. Managers were on board, people were achieving their goals. And they come back on Mondays energized and more engaged.”

But other companies have had a harder time finding the right balance.

“Employers know it’s harder to get employees to come back, so they ask, ‘What can we do?’ said Julie Schweber, a consultant at the Society of Human Resource Management. “Basically, the answer is, if you feed them, they will come. Food trucks, special catering events, ice cream socials, that’s very popular right now.”

Online Optimism, a digital marketing company with offices in New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington, DC, has a Friday routine of free lunches and free-flowing happy hours starting sharp at 4 p.m. The only rule: no shots.

Though the company has dropped all office work requirements, up to 80 percent of its 25 employees show up on free food days, Chief Executive Flynn Zaiger said.

“Honestly, the best socializing happens on Fridays,” he said. “Why not have a beer or two? If people are going to be a little less productive one day of the week, I’d rather it be Friday than Monday.”

These shifting norms are affecting the economy, changing business patterns for commercial real estate firms, parking garage operators, and the many restaurants that serve workers during the week. The decline in office work, particularly on Fridays, has prompted coffee shops to reduce hours, delis to reconsider staffing schedules and bars like Pat’s Tap in Minneapolis to start happy hour earlier than ever – starting at 2 p.m

“Being out of the office, people come early to fiddle with their laptops while sipping a cocktail or two,” said general manager Dave Robinson. “On Fridays at 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. we are completely full.”

But lunchtime venues that once saw large crowds on Friday say they are struggling. Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen in Chicago declined particularly sharply. Friday business is down 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s painful,” said owner Dan Raskin. “Before the pandemic, Friday was the busiest day of the week – people had an easier day at work and went out to lunch with their friends – but now it’s one of the slowest.”

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This is also the case with LAZ Parking, which operates more than 3,000 garages nationwide. Monday and Friday demand is much lower — about 20 percent — than midweek, said Leo Villafana, the company’s vice president for the Mid-Atlantic region. Wednesdays are the busiest days, but even when people come in, they tend to stay shorter.

The desire to work from home on Fridays is nearly universal, said Johnny Taylor, executive director of the Society for Human Resource Management, an industry lobby group.

“If you ask employees what time they want to work from home, everyone wants Fridays,” he said.

Taylor began playing with hybrid schedules in 2015, well before the pandemic forced businesses of all types to adapt. But his early experiments with remote Fridays were a disaster. Employees dropped their jobs and began dismantling after lunch on Thursday. Productivity fell off a cliff.

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But now, as the pandemic enters its third year, the norms have changed. People are more used to teleworking, Taylor said. He now allows remote work on both Mondays and Fridays.

“Fridays from home are institutionalized,” he said. “There really is no turning back.”

As employers confront this new reality, they are looking for more adaptable offices with more common spaces and gathering areas instead of traditional cubicles. Imagine more comfortable sofas, coffee bars, libraries and patio workspaces.

“What people don’t want is to work remotely together in the office,” says Lenny Beaudoin, global head of workplace and design at commercial real estate services company CBRE. “Why make the trip when I just log on to Zoom like I do at home? It’s up to organizations to have better conversations and choreograph their schedules. It can’t be random.”

Perhaps most importantly – even more important than free food – according to Beaudoin, is the prospect of interacting with colleagues. To that end, some companies are developing apps that give employees a quick snapshot of who will be in the office on any given day, along with scheduled events and other perks, so they can decide if it’s worth getting dressed and commuting to work .

“Just like nobody likes to eat in an empty restaurant, nobody wants to go to an empty office,” he said. “When people come to work, they want a real social connection.”

Such is the case at MasterControl, a software company in Salt Lake City, where employees have reconfigured their weekly cadence to account for delays at the end of the week. The company’s fitness groups, including the running and cycling clubs, have moved Friday meetings to earlier in the week. Most meetings and training sessions now take place on Mondays and Tuesdays when most of the staff is in the office.

“There’s definitely a lot lower turnout on Fridays — you can see that if you come into the office and look around,” said Alicia Garcia, the company’s chief culture officer. “We’re finding that people really appreciate that flexibility.”

On any given day, about 50 people – out of 1,500 – are employed at Overstock’s Utah headquarters. But on Fridays? Hardly anyone.

The online retailer advises against gatherings of any kind on Friday. Most corporate employees choose to work longer hours during the week so they can take every other Friday off. But even for those who don’t, the last day of the workweek has become a much-needed break from endless meetings and messages, Chief Executive Jonathan Johnson said.

“Fridays are the emptiest days,” said Johnson, who also works from home that day. “The office is open if people want to come, but we’re not rushing.”

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Johnson limits himself to a Zoom meeting on Fridays, then catches up on emails, writes a weekly letter to the company’s board, and plans for the week ahead.

Sometimes, though, he makes room for more personal errands.

“I admit that I drove out at 4 a.m. last Friday to get my hair cut,” he said.

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