At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote an article titled "The Silver Lining," where I called out the positives in the COVID-19 crisis. One of them was that it forced us to accept work from home as the new normal. It looked like I was right, until the Tech Recession of 2022 rolled in, and more and more companies started to ask their employees to return to the office. Yesterday, even Zoom, the company that revolutionized remote work, has asked its employees to come back to the office. Wow, this is like Microsoft asking employees to use Google Docs on Apple iPads…
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Yet, there has been a notable amount of resistance, and even though companies tried anything from threats to incentives, most have been struggling to get their people come back. Most skilled job openings - and there are not that many out there right now - are still advertised as remote. So, what’s going on? The debate requires answering three main questions:
1. Why do employers want people back?
Despite all the positive rhetoric throughout the pandemic, working exclusively from home has many benefits but also some major drawbacks. While focused, concentrated work can be very productive at home, collaboration suffers. In a remote-only world, every interaction must be scheduled. That means too many scheduled calls and no unscheduled, impromptu communication.
Similarly, brainstorming and team creativity are impacted. On Zoom, it’s very difficult to jump in, especially for the introverts. The highest-ranking person typically dominates the conversation and others are often struggling to speak up. Most employees’ inherent politeness makes them listeners, rather than participants, and multi-tasking is too easy!
Finally, in a company where many employees have been hired remotely and hardly ever met any of their co-workers in person, the company culture suffers. Where we used to develop interpersonal relationships and trust, we replaced it with reports, dashboards, and checklists. That leads to a culture of mistrust because people simply don’t know each other well enough. What used to be an ongoing communication and constructive collaboration between employees and their managers has often deteriorated into a weekly performance review.
2. Why do employees not want to come back?
It’s not a surprise that most employees love working from home. Most quoted reasons include no commute and better work-life balance. Absolutely, not spending two hours a day in a car or on a train improves anyone’s day. Similarly, working from home makes it easy to sign for a delivery, let the plumber in, walk the dog between calls, or pick up the kids from school. These things were a major headache before, and they must be recognized as major, major pro arguments for working from home.
There are other reasons why people are dreading to come back. One of them is the modern office itself. After decades of workspace optimization, it has evolved from a closed-door office to a cubicle farm, to be later transformed into an open-plan office and eventually into hotel desks, which is basically any free desk you are lucky to grab for the day, hoping you will be close enough to the people you work with.
While these open designs supposedly foster communication, most employees absolutely hate the lack of privacy and personalization. They end up hiding out in conference rooms to get any work done, an approach usually spearheaded by the executives who ceremoniously have an open-plan desk but really spend the entire day in a private conference room.
There have been people working remotely even before the pandemic. That already meant that every meeting included a conference call. Now, it’s just more likely that you will be in the conference room all by yourself while everyone else is remotely on Zoom. It’s very frustrating to come to the office only to spend the day alone on Zoom. That’s the present reality unless we find a way to get everyone to come in.
Funny enough, the people most often working from home part-time prior to the pandemic were the executives. A recent McKinsey research shows that they continue to be the holdouts against full-time office work. Unless they lead by example and start showing up in the office every day and for the entire day, they shouldn’t expect their underlings to do so. A company culture is defined from the top.
Finally, there is the lack of travel. In the old days, employees used to frequently travel to visit their colleagues in other offices. Not just the CEO and CRO, who are still doing it today. Many employees did that. Certainly, every director and above. Those trips involved taking co-workers out to lunch or dinner. Building relationships was part of the job and sometimes we complained about too much travel. Today, those budgets have been slashed (and re-directed to Zoom and Slack) and people don’t travel. That’s the reason we got Zoom, right?
3. What will happen next?
It’s becoming clear that hybrid work is the way of the future. Coming to the office once a week offers the opportunity to collaborate and build relationships. Working from home 3-4 days a week preserves some of the focused work time and the benefits of working from home. The right balance is to be determined, but hybrid work looks like the right solution.
That still raises some interesting questions. What do we do with people who live too far for coming in once a week? Will companies force them to move or quit? Will they get a budget to travel to the office once a week? Not likely.
Will companies go back to more private and personalized workplaces to entice employees to come in more often? Will the executives and managers lead by example? I wouldn’t count on that.
How will we best coordinate the employees to come to the office and meet the right people there? It’s pointless coming in and spending the day alone on Zoom calls. Perhaps there is a new software opportunity in here - we need a way to coordinate our presence.
Finally, what will happen to the offices? Most companies are not using anywhere near the capacity they are renting and cutting it down by 50% or more makes a lot of economic sense. What will happen to all that vacant office space? Commercial real estate is going to be a tumultuous market for a while.
The pandemic has disrupted the world in many ways. In the workplace, things are not going to stay the way they were for the last three years. But we are not going back to where we were before either. Figuring out the right way to tackle the physical workplace will take some experimenting and tweaking. I'm hopeful that we will figure it out!