If you are a knowledge worker fortunate enough to have stayed employed during covid-19, then you probably experienced the rushed transition from office to remote working. After these odd months, governments are easing restrictions and telling us it’s time to “return” to work. Thing is, we never left work, just the office.
For years now companies have been taking advantage of the “always on” nature of their workforce and its connectivity. Knowledge workers are expected to be on call and available in a way that only doctors were 30 years ago. We take our emails on vacation. We slack while shopping for groceries. We dine with tomorrow’s powerpoint.
As some organizations jumped the gun and asked workers to return to their desks, commutes, and shared spaces; there has been a growing revolt. Companies like Epic System and Dyson both had to walk back plans to return employees to the office. After months of working remote, many knowledge workers see this as the new autonomy, the ability to determine the best environment for them to be productive.
In fairness, the scramble to remote work has been a mixed bag. While some saw a brave new world with benefits and new opportunities, plenty others struggled and are eager to get back to the way things were. No matter which side you come down on though, the question has already been settled.
In May, tech giants Google and Facebook announced that they would remain remote up through at least July 2021, both of which already had robust remote work policies. Twitter, and Square upped the anty by announcing their forever remote policies for all their employees.
These seismic shifts in office policy go beyond public health. They strike at the core of quality of life for most knowledge workers. It’s an open secret that open offices have been a failed experiment. Studies show the one-size-fit-all cyber-sweatshops reduce collaboration, impact productivity and quality, irritate employees, and yes, are a health hazard.
These problems aside, they remain popular because they provide high quality, dedicated collaboration space for when knowledge workers need to “get into a room together” and solve the problem. In general, employees appreciate being able to go into an office, having a work space separate from their personal life and its own distractions, having access to ergonomic setups and high-end equipment, being able to socialize and meet face to face, and just to get out of the house.
Knowledge workers are motivated by intrinsic drivers more than extrinsic. Studies of job motivators found workers placed almost 2x the emphasis on freedom than they did salary. On the negative side, inefficient use of time and lack of trust were listed as top demotivators.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Square have all come out granting their staffs the freedom and trust to determine the best environments to do their work in a fluid an autonomous way; how to balance their commute time against their work.
This is not to say that open offices are bad and remote is good. Quite the contrary, both are necessary. Each is a tool with their own trade-offs. Companies will need to provide both. Companies that let their employees choose which tool is best for which tasks will be more competitive in terms of employee satisfaction and motivation.
Companies that embrace hybrid offices will have to solve complex challenges. It’s hard enough to make an office work for everyone. Switching to full remote had its own challanges. Hybrid introduces another set. How do you create a unified culture when some people co-work and others remote work? How do you prevent teams and managers from undermining individuals and coercing them to conform? How can you prevent remote workers from being treated as second hand citizens? How do you keep the office from becoming a club house; or worse, the boy’s club of office politics?
Solving these problems will be difficult, but will bring outsized rewards. First, you won’t be left as a second tier company behind the ones that do solve it. Second, you will retain access to the more experienced knowledge workers who have traded long commutes and city center living costs for remote oppertunities. Third, you will build employee motivation and satisfaction that will power innovation, retention, and impact per person.
For employees that want the freedom to work in different locations, or the flexibility to be with family, or handle life or care needs; the safety of being remote and not ostracized would be a major anchor. Likewise, having access to an office is a major boon to workers with busy and distracting homes, people who cannot have a home office, or those times when team members want to get together and get into a room and solve a problem.
Either way, a large chunk of the employee market will look favorably at companies that make hybrid offices work. They have the potential to offer the best of both worlds and the trust and autonomy of the employees to work accordingly and be flexible as they need to be. With major players like Google, Facebook, and Twitter pushing this agenda; they will drag the employee market with their gravity.
Smaller firms will either have to follow suit, or risk swimming upstream and face stiffer competition for experienced and quality workers who are not willing to commute or locate by an office. Relocation, once a major hurdle to changing jobs, will evaporate for people who transition to hybrid companies.
Companies that solve this well will compete. Companies that do half measures or symbolic guestures will not. Things that undermine the autonomy of the employees to use their own judgement about the best way to work and to protect their health and the quality of the working time, will undermine the main incentive of autonomy. Companies that do this honestly, but stumble along the way, will probably enjoy the support of a motivated and innovative workforce to solve this problem. All challenges are opportunities. Companies that are trying to “get back to the way things were,” are ignoring the competition and missing their opportunity.