The Remote Work Rethink is Underway

Recently a Boston tech CEO I admire immensely, David Cancel, announced to employees a shift to permanent remote work. In a twist, he added that they are holding onto office space, but turning them into conversation spaces. Almost at the same time, Spotify announced a work from anywhere policy. And REI announced permanent remote work and is selling it’s brand new, never occupied Bellevue campus. However, this week the Goldman Sachs CEO, who in April touted the benefits of a more flexible culture post-pandemic, declared remote work “an aberration.” He noted the importance for young new hires to have direct contact with their teams and mentors.

These are just a few results of extraordinary conversations that are occurring among leadership teams and boards around the world about where and how many employees will work post-pandemic.

One of the things that doesn’t make this an easy decision is that employees have varying perspectives. Research found that 25% never want to go back. 50% want to be remote part-time (on average 2 days a week) and 25% want to return full-time. Everything from commute times, quality of home office conditions, the challenges of working at home with younger children present, the desire for connection, and of course, the office experience influence what employees want.

I personally fall into the “want to return part-time” camp. Prior to the pandemic, if I wasn’t traveling, I would be in the office most days. But I truly hate my commute: a 45-minute trip each way on a cramped, slow subway. Getting that time back, particularly in the evening when I can walk downstairs and spend it with the kids, has been one of the gifts of the past year. Of course, that bonus is offset by the social isolation of working from home, something I feel deeply. And I know I’m not alone.

An article this week summed it up well: “Where have all the work friends gone?” WeSpire is also releasing research this week where we found that social isolation was a significant concern expressed by employees. Ironically, HR leaders who were asked to describe what they perceived employees were concerned about listed it very last, suggesting this concern may be underrepresented in these office decisions.

My great hope is that increased flexibility will be a universally embraced outcome. If an employee wants to be 100% remote and can work effectively remotely, it should be an option that has no impact on their career trajectory. That if someone wants to be in the office or a coworking space every day, awesome. But it should not be mandatory every day. And if a company decides to go fully remote, they will still find creative ways to encourage in person community and connection.

On the role of the office, we will need to reimagine what’s next. When asked to share their “top office needs,” employees indicated that they wanted the socialization space, followed by areas for focused work, and surprisingly, access to nature. JLL’s Chief Product Officer Cynthia Kantor underscores the need for reinvention. She shares: “Corporations that focus on a people-centric workplace that’s centered around flexibility of health, wellbeing, and experience, they’re the ones that are going to thrive.”

Leaders need to understand that there is no one-size fits all answer to the great office rethink. But there are important principles that can underpin the decisions. We must ensure flexibility, encourage community building and connection opportunities in real life and online, and support employee health and wellbeing . It is also imperative to keep listening. We are all participants in this giant, global remote work experiment and the lessons are still coming.

Quote of the Week: “People forge bonds in places that have healthy social infrastructures—not because they set out to build community, but because when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships inevitably grow.”

Eric Klinenberg

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