2021 finds flexible work and the nature of working from home at a major crossroads. Far-reaching decisions are being made on the basis of outdated assumptions and sketchy data. Here’s why.
I began consulting on flexible and remote work in 1986. As part of the pioneering San Francisco-based think tank New Ways to Work, we recognized that a seismic shift was under way in the workplace and the workforce. America was well on the way from an industrial to an information-based economy, It was also moving from a largely passive, modestly educated hourly workforce to a more broadly educated base of employees who were used to self-directed accomplishment marked by measurable outcomes.
Average workers in the industrial era completed 10th to 12th grade, largely rote education. Their thinking was done for them at work and they were scheduled by others as labor inputs. By contrast, the post-World War II generations typically finished high school and increasingly completed advanced degrees. They were expected to self-manage and control their own time.
These entrepreneurial sorts experienced a profound shock when they were hired into organizations and offices where they were suddenly scheduled and supervised like potentially errant kindergartners. The newly diverse workforce sought increasingly to balance excellence at work with strong personal commitments to family, continuing education, and voluntarism. They wanted respect and flexibility, but encountered rigid supervision with face time as a metric.
Covid Drives Change
Knowledge workers pushed back against the rigid 40-hour week with its 5’ x 8’, full-time-in-the-office boxes. My firm worked over the last three decades with more than a hundred companies to introduce what became the flexible work menu of flextime, part-time, job sharing, compressed schedules, telecommuting, and fully remote work. The result was often modest and incremental change for a favored few and the proliferation of new boxes rather than the truly flexible self-management that people really wanted.
The industrial model still reigned.
It took a global pandemic to normalize work from home. Covid-19 forced companies to send their workforces home to simply survive this social and economic catastrophe. This sudden transition took place overnight under far less than ideal conditions. Most companies dove into this new way of working with zero planning; a universal mandate, children underfoot; and forced use of substandard offices, equipment, and untested online tools.
Despite these challenges, a range of post-mortems — from hastily launched surveys to other forms of feedback — showed that employees and managers rose to the occasion and achieved high levels of productivity and satisfaction. To most people’s relief and delight, remote work worked. Tasks got done, customers were served, and businesses survived. The majority of employees found it a superior way to get their jobs done, avoid stultifying and wasteful commutes, as well as finding time for exercise, better diets, and family relationships.
Conflict at the Crossroads
As the first waves of Covid receded and returned, business decision-makers began to confront a profound choice: to embrace the more flexible workplace suggested by the success of working from home or rein in the now proven power of flexibility by championing some form of “return to the office.”
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The CEO of Alphabet/Google, Silicon Valley’s largest landlord and a company long opposed to all forms of remote work, declared that after 12 to 18 months of its global workforce being fully remote, its future model would be the “hybrid office.”
Other senior leaders around the world rushed to stake out similar positions. Citing limited internal and public surveys, the conventional wisdom emerged that the ideal future workplace would be some variant of 50/50: two to three days in the office and two-to three days working from home. The basis for this notion seems to be a combination of some people missing the social aspects of the office and a set of practical challenges posed by an all-remote approach, including integrating new hires, developing talent, and better enabling some team development processes.
There are many examples of successful all-remote organizations that have managed these issues without pricey central offices. Still, the core of pushback against extensive remote work may be largely a matter of the habits and comfort of older senior leaders who rarely work remotely. There may be simply a resurgence of the old standby of managing by face time.
But the dominant theme emerging in these conversations, certainly one central in the Google messaging, is the unique and powerful role attributed to the “magic of co-location” in fueling innovation, productivity, and cultural cohesion. While these assertions are widespread, they are rarely supported by any compelling data. Simply saying it’s true repeatedly does not make it so.
What Global Focus Groups Said
Much of the feedback available in company and business journalism sources relies on surveys of mixed quality and various forms of listening sessions. In marked contrast, our firm has been conducting in-depth employee and manager focus groups on flexible work for major corporations for three decades. In the Fall of 2020, we conducted a set of such groups on the work from home experience for a range of businesses in several countries in financial services. The key findings were:
- “The office” needs to be fully re-distributed. To maximize remote work, over-investment in large central offices needs to be offset with substantial upgrades of home offices.
- “Yes” becomes the new default for flex requests. Prior to Covid, employee requests for remote work met “no” as the default. A provisional “yes” to creative proposals is in order.
- Purpose of being in the office needs clarification. It is wisest to determine the goals of being in the office before creating arbitrary formulas and vague “collaborative” offices.
- Remote work issues need to be identified and fixed. Zoom fatigue calls for strong protocols. Spotty WiFi requires investment. Socialization can be planned. Childcare and other challenges are support opportunities. And mental health issues deserve counseling.
The consensus of both managers and employees in these groups was that work from home had been successful, enabling productive work, superior engagement, and better work-life integration. While preferences varied for time at home versus time in the office, virtually no one thought that one-size-fits-all formulas for a return to the office made sense. Their interest was in fixing the obvious problems and exploring opportunities for greater flexibility in scheduling. Going forward, companies need to be much more deliberate in addressing the true needs of their people.