Much has been written about the impending “return to the office” with ways-of-working enthusiasts on all sides of the spectrum singing the praises of or decrying the deficiencies against their presence mode of choice, whether that’s in-office, hybrid or remote. Often it’s referred to as “the new normal”, “the future of work” or “the destruction of cities” (again depending on what side of the fence you’ve decided to perch on and usually depending on how much office retail space you own). What is less frequently referenced however is this one fact, that many office based workers is that we were already working through a combination of in-office-hybrid-remote during any given week, and occasionally experiencing all three modes in a single day.
...was always here for companies at scale (those with multiple offices, traveling employees, work-from-home days, and regular offsites), but the pandemic has made it clear that, in the future, every company will be remote (at least sometimes).
What the pandemic has done is create a distinct and ubiquitous vocabulary defining ways of working. For decades, teams of people at tech companies, banks and other global companies in San Francisco would commute into offices to conduct conference calls with their counterparts in Dublin, Paris, Tokyo etc, who had also commuted into their offices. In pre-pandemic times we would’ve just called this a meeting with HQ or meeting with the international teams (depending on what side of the pond you’re on). However, as soon as we all entered lockdown, and removed commuting from the equation it became referred to as a “remote meeting”. It was always remote, and as long as there is international trade, we will always have a need to work with people remotely. Hybrid-remote variations aren’t “the new normal”. They have for many of us always been “the normal”.
So what has happened? Covid-induced changes have:
Shattered the illusion that you need to be in an office to get a specific type of work done, especially when your primary tool of choice is a laptop
Accelerated the adoption of remote as default
Very thankfully have ended the conversation that “employees just don’t work when they work from home” (to be fair that was often not an totally inaccurate assumption given the correlation between an uptake in remote working days and timings of office parties in the 5-day-office-attendance-of-yore)
Placed a heightened emphasis on the physical environments we work in
Caused an on-mass re-evaluation of the role of work in our lives.
The Office Illusion
A friend of mine worked at an “old school” electric company at the start of the pandemic and was absolutely convinced she was going to be furloughed as it would not be possible to do her job from home. Why? Because nobody was ever “allowed” (yes this company employs 1000s of adults but just forgot to treat them as such) to work from home. Her day-to-day job involved calling field workers on a telephone to give them updates that were sent to her work laptop by email as she sat at a desk miles away from her team. It might seem laughable now that this type of work that doesn’t require any type of specialist equipment or in-person collaboration was perceived as not being able to be carried out anywhere except for the office but this was the default belief for many companies and management teams (unsurprisingly her workplace was a low trust environment that had a whole series of workplace problems that I won’t get into…)
Many companies have shifted from we-can’t-be-remote to ya-sure-let’s-at-least-do-some-remote, as they’ve realised that “you won’t be able to effectively work from home” is no longer a valid excuse when we have 18 months of evidence that proves the contrary. Now the conversation has moved on to “there are certain types of work that are less effectively done from home”. Even as a remote-advocate I will admit that is true. One of the hardest things to replicate in a virtual environment is energy, and specifically infusing a sense of purpose, a fact backed by research recently published in MIT Sloan Management Review.
Personally, I think the bonding that comes from completing a task in-person together (something that is surprisingly rare in many roles, as often we focus on our own work with occasional input from others, rather than requiring constant collaboration), is also difficult to replicate in a fully remote environment, which is why there will always be some work effectiveness benefits to in-person collaboration.
What I found most interesting was how little uplift there was in having in-person ideation/thought leadership sessions vs virtual, although that is possibly more of a reflection of how new ideas are often expected to be incubated in office environments e.g. teams of people locked in one room with unpleasant artificial lightening for 8 hours where the person who speaks first and/or loudest wins the “let’s take this idea to the next phase” prize…
Covid-19 has changed where we work and for some more traditional companies it has accelerated their “digital transformation” efforts. However, for many companies I’d argue that it hasn’t for the most part changed how we work. It’s caused us to make the physical, virtual. It hasn’t required us to make the virtual, more efficient. Many day-to-day office tasks from logging expenses to scheduling calls are still painfully manual and while tools like Zapier and Calendly can help reduce manual interventions required in tasks, many companies' default position is to hire rather than automate. That, however, is a conversation for another time.
Remote as Default
Now that the majority have accepted that we don’t need to be in an office to complete most types of computer-based work, I think we will continue to see the rise of remote positions even in hybrid companies. Reduced costs and greater access to talent will be key drivers of this, and while I do think there is a significant risk of remote workers being treated as second-class citizens compared to their office-based counterparts (there have been countless articles written on this so I won’t rehash the points here), on balance I buy into the belief that an increase in remote working will enable a broader spectrum of people to enter the workforce, and thrive in it. Groups who were historically marginalised either due to socio-economic status (couldn’t afford to move to and/or live in specific city where there was employment), disabled people (who didn’t have access to adequate transport) or those who require a lot of flexibility (parents, carers, people who for various reasons don’t want to live in a specific locale) can now more readily access decently paid jobs that were previously out of reach. It’s also worth mentioning that not everyone wants a rocketship career (which is completely fine) and that for many who view work as a means to an end, or a lesser part of their life, being a “second class citizen” when it comes to career progression opportunities is likely a price they are willing to pay to be able to prioritise other aspects of their life. I don’t believe that being a remote employee in a mostly hybrid environment should hinder anyone’s career, as it doesn’t hinder productivity, output or impact, however, how remote employees are viewed will always largely be dependent on how remote is perceived in the company culture at large. If you want rapid career progression in a traditionally office based role and live on the Cornish coast, make sure you pick a company that preferably is remote-first or at the very least values people not presence.
Fears of low productivity were often cited as reasons why office-based workers shouldn’t work from home pre-pandemic. It would often be said in such a way that you would swear that office based employees were the pinnacle of work ethic with stratospheric levels of output, rather than ,you know, spending just 3.7 days our of 5 a week on work related activities. Offices are hives of distraction. They at times have their merits when it comes to getting work done. For many people however they were places to go to create the perception of doing work in order to continue getting a monthly pay-check, scheduling many a meeting that should’ve been an email (or better yet a 30 second one person decision) or to fill in multiple documents about the work that may or may not be being completed. (I’m a huge fan of Asana’s phrase - the work about work - and also a huge fan of trying to eliminate it).
Covid-19 has proven that most people can be trusted to work from home. Hopefully that will forever end the “employees can’t be trusted to work from home” rhetoric in most workplaces.
Emphasis on Physical Workspaces
If you work for a large tech company or investment bank, the office itself is often a perk. Commuting is a small price to pay for free meals, massages and onsite gyms. However, most people don’t have access to these types of benefits. For every office based employee working in an aesthetically pleasing temperature controlled building, there are ten who are crammed into cold, fluorescently lit, soulless rooms where the only decoration is a semi-dead plant occasionally watered on someone’s desk. As mentioned earlier, the pandemic has given us a new vocabulary to describe our work environments (in-office, hybrid, remote) but it’s also provided a heightened emphasis on these physical environments both in terms of the quality expected of them and the purpose they serve. The office used to be an unremarked upon building where you went to complete work. It is now, in many cases, a defining way-of-working trend, a place where you might attend either ad-hoc or on set days and is being marketed (accurately and inaccurately) as a collaboration hub and social centre for relationship building. Offices are certainly having their 15-minutes-of-fame, and are unlikely to be as frequently referenced or written about again, regardless of where the majority settles on in-office vs hybrid vs remote.
The Role of Work
Tragic events have a tendency to lead to reflection and Covid-19 has certainly been a prolonged tragic event. While some positives have come out of it (timelines for vaccine developments have hopefully been accelerated forever), most people were negatively impacted by the pandemic for at least some period of time. For some work became their whole lives, sometimes being the only activity readily available that also acted as a social outlet. Others couldn’t work for reasons not of their choosing. Now with light at the end of the tunnel and many having reflected on the role of work in our lives ,the great resignation has begun. While it will always be a privilege to be able to choose and refuse the type of work you do, I think (perhaps naively) that we are starting to see a rebalance towards more people quitting jobs they hate and beginning to do work that is more engaging/meaningful/rewarding to them. Levels of employee engagement trended upwards during the pandemic to a record 37%.
That is still depressingly low but hopefully more people having more readily available access to more types of work in an increasingly location-agnostic world where they can more readily balance work with other priorities will help increase that percentage.
The Right Solution
Personally, I view enforced set day hybrid models as the worst of both worlds. They limit the flexibility that comes with remote working especially in a work-for-anywhere model, and also limit the benefits that come with working in an office (everyone likes free snacks, endless access to printers and jokes around the coffee-machine). Even as a remote enthusiast I don’t think there is a right solution in the in office vs hybrid vs remote debate, because, what is the best solution for any individual is dependent on so many personal factors that will vary over time. The degree to which you are an introvert vs extrovert, and extent that your work-life is your social life factor into preferences. Stage of career, preferred location and lifestyle, company culture and it’s remote readiness and friendliness, priorities and commitments outside of work, access to safe and pleasant working spaces, income, access to mentors and support networks, type of role, working style and how much you actually like spending time with your colleagues all factor into what the best working environment is for anyone at any given time. I value flexibility, autonomy and career opportunities, so working in a remote-first environment is the best approach for me. There is no one size fits all solution, however now, optimistically appears to be the time where more people have more choices to define their own solution, which can only ever be a good thing.