It is the three year anniversary of the greatest work experiment ever conducted on a planetary scale. I will never forget my near empty flight home on March 10th, 2020 and making the decision that we were closing our offices the next day. Most people thought it was temporary. We gave notice indefinitely.
At least we were, relatively speaking, culturally ‘ready’. While we had an office all along, flexibility and a “work from anywhere” mentality were encouraged from day one and half our team was already remote. I felt for those leaders and those companies that weren’t prepared.
Now I feel for those leaders who really, really want things to go back to the way they were. For knowledge work, they just won’t, ever, be the same. Here are some of the stats:
- Only 6% of 70M workers polled by Gallup want a full-time, in person role. 34% want a full-time work from home role
- 54% of employees currently in a work-from-home role said they would likely look for another job if they were made to return to the office full-time
- 68% of Millennials and 54% of GenZ said hybrid workplace flexibility is a top priority for them
But some recent headlines in the startup world, questioning the impact of fully remote work, are gathering attention. Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the highly successful A16Z fund, lamented the shift in culture, particularly the impact on young people, at a conference recently. “There’s this whole model that an entire generation grew up with that has all of a sudden been detonated…I think the idea of sitting in an apartment in front of the screen with DoorDash and Tinder is not a good life."
A venture fund, Reach Capital, evaluated the revenue growth of their portfolio based on different work culture models. They found that startups at all levels with some form of in-person work culture generated higher revenues in 2022 compared with those that were fully remote. The results were most dramatic at the earliest stages - pre-seed and seed. Most intriguing (and less mentioned in the reporting of the research) is that the culture metrics - employee NPS and “regrettable attrition” - were essentially the same between no office and at least some office cohorts. So it’s something else besides “culture”. While you can’t extrapolate 37 companies to an entire ecosystem, it certainly begs for more funds to do this research. I’d also love to see the large private equity firms like Blackrock do it for larger companies as well.
If we learn that coming into an office, at least some, is important, then we must address what stands in the way. The data is overwhelmingly strong for the number one factor for employees: avoiding their commute. According to the American Time Use Survey, the shift to remote work during the pandemic gave Americans 60 million hours of time back that they would have spent driving to and from the office and much of that went back into work. Reducing commute times, through better shared transit and addressing high housing costs, requires a systemic, regional approach and investment. Even if the political will were there, it will take years to fix.
A second, less discussed culprit, is easier and faster to address. The rise of the open-office plan. They are cheaper. Silicon Valley made them “hipper”. But the research actually shows that workers hate them and they are terrible for productivity. This is particularly true for people like engineers, writers, and designers who need to do “deep thinking work”. But it’s also suboptimal for sales and service employees who can end up spending their entire day in a 3x3 call booth. Giving people more access to appropriate spaces for their work could make coming back more attractive and productive.
Finally, for employees with kids, there is an absolute mismatch between the school day and the traditional work day, and the aftercare system is bursting at the seams with 19M children in the US waiting for available spots. That mismatch costs an estimated $55B in productivity and disproportionately affects women in the workforce. Organizations like Moms First are encouraging employers to acknowledge this problem can’t be solved by individuals alone.
Over the next few years, the research will continue to tell us more about what is working, and what is not, about remote and hybrid work. As leaders, we owe it to our people and our other stakeholders to keep learning.
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