In Defense of the Office

Remote work arrangements are here to stay. Not everybody agrees that this is a good thing.

In Defense of the Office

The COVID-19 crisis has generated a lot of enthusiasm around remote work. Months of office closures have revealed that allowing employees to work from home can have a positive impact on worker productivity and well-being. Big-name tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Slack have announced plans to make remote working permanent for a significant number of employees.

Yet the speed at which tech giants have turned 180 degrees on remote work versus “on campus” is puzzling. Just a few years ago, these companies were investing billions of dollars in sprawling campuses built to foster collaboration and spontaneous interaction, and to keep employees at the workplace until the wee hours. (No, doing laundry was no longer a reason for leaving the office early.)

This all begs the question: Have remote work converts really thought this one through?

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What If Working from Home Goes on…Forever?

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Polls conducted in the United States during the past few months suggest that a solid majority of workers continue to enjoy working from home. Many respondents also expressed the desire to keep working remotely past the pandemic – at least part of the time. But it should also be noted that a significant minority of workers does not. A Gallup poll in April 2020 put that number at 40%. A follow-up survey conducted by getAbstract in September had 17% of respondents express the desire to return to the office after the pandemic.

Have remote work converts really thought this one through?

Individual Preferences

Office workers who long to get back to their cubicles do so for a variety of reasons. Some people may live in small homes and are tired of tidying up their office clutter whenever they want to have a meal at their kitchen table. Others are living alone and depend on the office for socializing.

Others again feel they get too distracted at home and can focus better in an office setting. Still others miss the transition period between work and home life that their commute to the office used to provide – which also made it easier to establish a daily routine.

Interestingly, a significant portion of young tech workers are worried that their career advancement will suffer if they cannot return to the office. They feel deprived of the opportunity to network with managers, pick up new skills from co-workers or learn about other parts of the business.

These fears are not unfounded. One study conducted at a Chinese travel agency found that remote workers were less likely to be promoted than their office-based counterparts, even if their productivity was the same. Managers, it seems, are just more comfortable promoting people they interact with face-to-face. Plus, looking merely at productivity numbers won’t give a manager an accurate picture of employees’ accomplishments and contributions, especially if their primary role is supporting others.

Compounding worries about being stuck in a job role is the fear of potentially losing the job to someone else. As remote workers, employees are suddenly competing with people all around the world who will do their work, just as well, for much less money.

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Our Remote Work Future Is Going to Suck

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For those dreaming of a four-day workweek, the shift to remote work may also come as bad news. A survey conducted by Owl Labs found that during the pandemic, full-time employees were working 26 hours more per month than when they worked in the office. Although many survey participants reported a better work-life balance and higher levels of happiness working from home, working remotely is also making it more difficult to separate work and home life, and compress work hours.

Leadership Concerns

When the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission proposed to require big companies to have their employees work from home at least 60% of the time by 2035 to ease traffic congestion and cut greenhouse gas emissions, business leaders and lawmakers revolted. They expressed fears that such a law would make many Silicon Valley companies set up shop somewhere else.

This incident suggests that even leading-edge tech companies aren’t sold on the idea that physical workspaces won’t continue to form an integral part of their future work cultures.

“No. I don’t see any positives,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told The Wall Street Journal when asked whether he sees any benefits in having his employees work from home. Netflix’s model of corporate teamwork just cannot be replicated in a virtual setting.

Studies have shown that people working together in the same room solve problems more efficiently than remote collaborators. The same studies also suggest that remote work arrangements can erode team cohesion.

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Culture Counts

A strong corporate culture takes years to build. Understandably, some companies fear that they won’t be able to sustain the same corporate vibe under these radically changed circumstances. Let’s face it: The spontaneity and depth of connection of a physical workspace does not transfer 1-1 to an online environment.

An increase in productivity (which remote work seems to boost) is a good thing – but perhaps not at the price of seeing a company’s social capital erode.

Productivity is easy to measure – but that should not make it the only yardstick by which to judge how well a company is doing. Meanwhile, creativity and innovative thinking are harder to quantify but indispensable aspects of a company’s long-term success.

“Be on the lookout of what is lost,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella warned in an interview with The New York Times. He cautions leaders not to “replace one dogma with another” and to think deeply and carefully about what their goals and objectives in the new work environment are.

The spontaneity and depth of connection of a physical workspace does not transfer 1-1 to an online environment.

The notion that productivity can’t and shouldn’t be the end-all of a 21st-century business matches the sentiment expressed by an increasing number of business leaders. The 2019 Business Roundtable Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation is a case in point. In the pledge, the leaders of America’s largest corporations call upon organizations to “engage all […] stakeholders” and create value that benefits everyone – including employees and local communities.

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It’s high time for companies to adopt a stakeholder-centric business model.

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Sean Blanda thereby calls for a new emphasis on “localism”: a commitment by companies to sustain the amenities that make a community a good place to live. This also includes taking active steps to enable employees who want to work in a physical office setting to do so. A case in point is childcare: Offering childcare at their facilities or lobbying governments to offer childcare subsidies to working parents are ways in which companies can enable employees to make the choice between remote and office-based working a genuine one.

A company’s dedication to employee well-being and development, an inclusive and supportive work environment, and its commitment to corporate social responsibility are all aspects employees are looking for in a company. To attract the best talent, companies must check these boxes first. Whether these parameters can best be met in an all-virtual, in-office or hybrid work environment is for every company – and employee – to decide on their own. Yet some of the pushback against a remote work future comes from the fear that this choice may no longer be there for white-collar workers in certain job sectors. And this would negatively impact employee well-being and motivation over the long term – as well as jeopardize a company’s ability to sustain a lively and innovative work culture.

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