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Back to the Office: Tough Call for Workers, and for the Boss

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Jay Foreman, chief executive of the toymaker Basic Fun in Boca Raton, Fla., has a simple message for his employees: It’s time to come back to the office.

“Fear is not an appropriate reason for not being at work,” he said. “We have to get over our fears. We can’t operate remotely, and this is a collaborative work environment. I pay a hell of a lot of rent to have an office, and that’s a big investment.”

It may seem that Mr. Foreman is swimming against the tide. Corporate giants like Microsoft, Target and Ford Motor have extended remote working arrangements until next summer. But a recent survey by LinkedIn and Censuswide found that more than two-thirds of offices had reopened or never closed. Mr. Foreman is among the employers who don’t believe the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally reordered the way millions of Americans should work.

They are recalling their employees even as the coronavirus surges in parts of the country, arguing that a balance can be struck between safety and the need to reunite under one roof.

At Basic Fun, masks are mandatory, desks are spread out and there are stations with hand sanitizer throughout the 20,000-square-foot office in the four-story building that is headquarters.

Last week, the last of the Basic Fun workers who had been at home returned to the office full time.

Some employees have come back eagerly after the distractions of working from home. Others have done so reluctantly after asking for a bit more time. And at least one has found another job rather than face returning to the office.

The divergent feelings echo larger patterns in the American workplace, even as a resurgence of the coronavirus engulfs the country. At some companies, a new dynamic is unfolding between those who are staying home and those who are venturing in every day.

A June survey by the accounting and consulting firm PwC found that 72 percent of workers would like to be able to work from home at least two days a week. And a majority expected to be able to work from home one day a week even after the pandemic.

But at Basic Fun, there is no longer any choice.

Mr. Foreman is not a mask doubter or a coronavirus skeptic. Nor is he a fan of President Trump, who has questioned the efficacy of masks and criticized the lockdowns that have forced many employees to work from home, whether they like it or not. He backed Senator Kamala Harris in the Democratic presidential primary, and supported former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the general election.

But he believes the necessary steps have been taken to ensure his workers’ safety.

“People can’t enter our office unless they are wearing a mask, they can’t walk around the office without a mask, they don’t gather in small groups without a mask and work spaces are more than six feet apart,” Mr. Foreman said. “I think it’s as safe as your own home.”

What’s more, he believes there are benefits to working together and meeting face to face that can’t be replicated through conference calls or online get-togethers. That applies to the 65 employees at headquarters in Boca Raton, as well as a dozen or so in an office in Quakertown, Pa., and 60 in Hong Kong.

“In early October, we sent a note saying this is it and that if you’re not in a position to come back to work, you’re going to need to remain on furlough or we will terminate your position,” Mr. Foreman said. “I had to put my foot down.”

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Credit…Ysa Pérez for The New York Times
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Credit…Ysa Pérez for The New York Times
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Credit…Ysa Pérez for The New York Times
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Credit…Ysa Pérez for The New York Times

“The stuff we make needs collaboration,” he said, describing the process of developing Basic Fun products like Tonka trucks, Care Bears, Lincoln Logs and K’nex building toys. “You need to hold it in your hand. If you’re trying to connect through Zoom or sending samples via FedEx, it’s inefficient.”

By the time Florida’s lockdown was eased in late spring, Mr. Foreman had come to the conclusion that with the right safeguards in place, having his employees back in the office wasn’t going to endanger them. He said he had reviewed the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and consulted with health experts before reopening. Even so, it was not an easy decision.

“It was brutal — I had so many sleepless nights,” he said. “Was I doing the right thing or the wrong thing? It was a big internal battle.” Ultimately, he decided to begin urging workers to come back in June, while allowing people with extenuating circumstances like health problems or an ill relative stay home.

“We didn’t have to use undue pressure, but I didn’t want to be in a position to have people working from home for a year and a half,” Mr. Foreman said. “That wouldn’t be fair to the people working in the office. And I can’t manage the company through each employee’s individual fears and apprehensions.”

Steve Cantrell, director of creative services at Basic Fun, wasn’t ready to return. His daughter has Type 1 diabetes, and Mr. Cantrell and his wife were concerned he might catch the coronavirus from a colleague and expose his daughter to it. Mr. Cantrell was able to put off going back for five weeks.

“They bent for me, and I bent for them and eventually came back,” Mr. Cantrell said. “It was worse sitting home and thinking about it. If we’re wearing masks and not coming within five feet of each other, we’re safe. I didn’t want to come back, but it’s nice to get back to the routine and normalcy.”

A few employees were eager to come back and felt reassured by the steps the company took to protect them, like the barriers for cubicles and the rules mandating masks.

“If they hadn’t made it safe, I definitely would not have come back to the office,” said Karen Sullivan, sales coordinator at Basic Fun. “But I live in a small two-bedroom place, and it just wasn’t comfortable working from home. I was working off a card table.”

Like many workers, she missed face-to-face contact with colleagues, despite the risks. “I needed more of the office interaction,” Ms. Sullivan said. “Not everybody felt that way.”

One of the doubters was Meisha-Gaye Cobham, who had worked as a project manager at Basic Fun for three years. She was supposed to have gone back to the office in August, but after her husband was found to have prostate cancer in July, she felt it was safer for him if she continued to work from home.

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Credit…Ysa Pérez for The New York Times

The company gave her more time, but when she received calls in August and September asking when she was going to come back, Ms. Cobham knew she had a decision to make. The deadline of Nov. 2 to return only solidified her decision to look for another job where she could remain at home.

“It was a roller coaster for me,” she said. “I enjoyed my job, and I enjoyed the industry. But I had to put my family first. And when I found a company with a work-from-home policy that paid more money, it was a no-brainer.”

“I would have stayed if they’d let me continue to work from home,” she added. “But their policy is their policy, and I just had to accept they don’t believe in working from home.”

Despite the reluctance of employees like Ms. Cobham to return — and the rise in coronavirus cases — Mr. Foreman is confident he made the right decision. “Other than being alone in their car, I guarantee my employees there is no safer place than our office,” he said.

In the meantime, Mr. Foreman has allowed employees to work from home on Fridays, which he believes reduces stress. But there is no substitute for meeting in person the rest of the time, he said.

“When you think about making a toy, somebody has to present an idea, then somebody has to design the toy, another person creates the package and someone has to sell it then ship it,” he said. “That’s collaborative and how it’s always been done. Working from home is an experiment, and I’m not ready to risk my business on an experiment.”

“We’re back together working as a team,” he said. Mr. Foreman expects the effects of the coronavirus pandemic to continue for another year, at least, “but there is no way business will be able to be as efficient working from home as when employees are working together.”