My colleague, Rick Pastore, wrote a thought-provoking blog post on the prospects for a return to the office. He foresees a slow and troublesome return and predicts most workers will be reluctant to risk their safety and trade the additional time they’ve gained working from home to again commute to an office.
He thinks there has been a permanent shift in attitudes and that many people will never return to the office. Anecdotal evidence is appearing daily to support his argument.
Google and Facebook have said they will allow staff to work from home for the remainder of the year. Twitter’s head of HR said, “If our employees are in a role and a situation where they want to work from home and they want to do so forever, we will make that happen.”
It’s not surprising to hear this from tech companies usually bullish about all trends enabled by the digital tools and services they offer.
What is astonishing however is the number of executives in industries that have long resisted large-scale working-from-home that now are doing an about face on the issue. For instance, the CEO of Barclays recently remarked, “The notion of putting 7000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.” The company is contemplating requiring some employees to show up at offices only on an as-needed basis.
Morgan Stanley’s CEO noted, “We’ve proven we can operate with no footprint….. Can I see a future where part of every week, certainly part of every month, a lot of our employees will be at home? Absolutely.”
Insurance giant, Nationwide, announced a permanent transition to a hybrid model, with working-from-office in four main corporate campuses and working-from-home in most other locations. Stated the CEO, “Our associates and our technology team have proven to us that we can serve our members and partners with extraordinary care with a large portion of our team working from home.”
Even some leaders in the real estate business are conceding the possibility of permanent change to office work. Asks the CEO of Halstead, a New-York based real estate firm, about the future of working in offices, “Is it really necessary? I’m thinking long and hard about it. Looking forward, are people going to want to crowd into offices?”
This sudden flip-flop in attitudes of corporate leaders is worrying. Before the coronavirus crisis, most white-collar workers were forced to commute to an office, whether they wanted, or needed to be there. Now, leaders newly enthralled with the benefits of working from home, seem eager to force everyone in a job that can be done remotely to do so.
The Office is Not Dead, but it Must Change
Do these trends point to a permanent shift away from the office to home working? I don’t think so, for four reasons. First, the pandemic will not last forever. Second, not every person who can, wants to work from home full time. Third, humans crave in-person interaction. This is as true in the workplace as anywhere else. Fourth, some activities are done more productively in-person. For example, collaboration, trust building and socialization among teams and serendipitous, informal interactions with colleagues and managers.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that the future of the office is a blended onsite and virtual workforce. The norm will become teams of people who are together in one site working with others in home locations. The main difference from the past is that far fewer will be working at office locations and many more from home.
With remote working no longer the exception, companies will need to adjust their work processes, tools and infrastructure, and norms and behaviors to the needs of a blended on-premises/remote workforce.
At least five key steps will need to be taken to successfully transition to a blended on-premises/remote workplace:
- Understand the drivers and obstacle to workforce productivity – Executives need to dig deeper into the actual results of the current mass work-from-home experiment. Are productivity levels truly high and sustainable if the shift is made permanent? They also need to consider the productivity effects of working in offices newly configured for social distancing. Leaders will need to broadly canvass workers and managers to get a picture of what’s really working and what needs to be fixed or changed.
- Invest in better collaboration platforms – Tools like video conferencing, chat, etc. are adequate but not ideal. Other newer technologies like augmented reality and merged reality should be explored. These tools are aimed at seamlessly melding digital and physical environments. For example, auto companies are using merged reality tools to enable geographically dispersed engineers to work on new model prototypes in a simulated common physical space.
- Rethink leadership competencies for the blended workplace – Leaders will need to be proficient in managing blended teams. This will require reassessing leadership styles and competencies and enhancements to existing training programs and approaches. Managers must become comfortable with giving staff high levels of work autonomy.
- Trust workers to decide where they work – The most beneficial thing managers can do is to allow people to decide when and where to work and to enlist their help to reconfigure work so that it can be done productively, regardless of where it is performed. This will require a big leap of faith and change in management practice. Managers that require staff to be present every day in the office often don’t trust their workers to be productive working from home. These trust issues will persist as many remain working from home. Resorting to unproductive surveillance and heavy-handed monitoring could erode employee morale and trust. Research studies show that the most productive remote workers are those afforded autonomy in deciding when and how they do their work.
- Adjust talent management strategies – Rethink talent management processes, especially performance management and employee engagement. Enterprise leaders need to reprogram how they measure and drive employee productivity. Pressure to do more with less is acute in the corona virus-battered business environment. Workers will need to sustain increased productivity levels without burning out.
Economic conditions are forcing companies to take extraordinary measures to reduce costs and drive up productivity. Engaged, creative and high-performing workers will be needed more than ever. Optimizing blended working modes and enabling staff to be productive, whether on-premises or virtual, will help companies to persist through difficult conditions longer, recover faster and thrive in the future digitally enhanced on-premises/remote working reality.