The Office was already one of the most popular shows on Netflix. Then, viewings multiplied during Covid-19 as millions of Americans wistfully remembered the personal interactions with co-workers that previously filled their days. Joe Fuca isn’t surprised at all.
“Employees crave the kind of live interaction that only an office can provide,” says Fuca, CEO of Reputation.com, customer-experience consultants based in Redwood City, California. “They miss the routine, sense of community and opportunities for intersection outside their core group that come from working in an office. The spontaneous conversation, the informal transference of knowledge, the collegiality—much of that just can’t be replicated virtually.”
A craving for cubicles? He’s hardly alone in thinking so. For all the talk of transformed virtual workplaces and a “new normal,” with employees permanently Zoom-meeting from orbit like astronauts on the International Space Station, many CEOs we talked to say they’re not convinced that telework is the future—just the opposite. When it comes to getting things done, and creating the kind of innovative, fast-moving organization they need to compete, there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction, they say. Giving up their seats on the living room couch couldn’t come soon enough— and they think their employees feel the same way, too.
“I don’t see telecommuting becoming the norm or the culture for our company, says Arnav Dalmia, CEO of Cubii, an exercise-equipment maker with about two dozen people working in its headquarters office in Chicago. “Our culture has very much been focused on hanging out and little side conversations that you have at work. People draw energy from that physical team environment.”
Jim Hallett, CEO of used-car auctioning company KAR Global, invested $80 million in a new headquarters building in Carmel, Indiana, last year, outfitting it with a health clinic, gym and a cafe that serves Starbucks. “I don’t believe anyone has the same productivity working from home that they have working in the office,” says Hallett. “We can have our culture in the building and still continue to respect social distancing.”
Not every employee has a choice, either. Some 63% of U.S. jobs can’t plausibly be done from home, according to a new study by the University of Chicago. Many CEOs must prioritize making their factories, stores and warehouses Covid-19 safe while still functioning essentially as they did. That may be far more important than ensuring their white-collar staffs can stay out of the office.
“You’ve got to be very intentional about the cultural messages you send,” says Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, a Bellevue, Washington-based provider of human-resources software. “Not everyone has the privilege of working remotely.”
Mahe Bayireddi prefers to view his company’s remote-working episode during the pandemic more as a testament to the importance of its employees than as a prelude to how things will be now. “Once it’s time to come back together in the office, employees will have a renewed dedication to the employer who worked tirelessly to maintain consistency during uncertainty,” says the co-founder and CEO of Phenom People, an HR technology company in Ambler, Pennsylvania. “The world is telecommuting but only to remain resilient during this period.”
But while some of the more painful business conventions of the coronavirus crisis— think virtual “happy hours”—may thankfully run their course, the truth is that social distance mandates will require many companies to find new ways of operating out of position—for a while, at least.
“These kinds of interruptions in business continuity are probably going to become more frequent for a variety of reasons, so we’re thinking even more about how to do things remotely,” says Sean George, CEO of Invitae, a genetic-testing company based in San Francisco.
Allowing remote work has plenty of other benefits, too. Access to a national or global talent pool, increased work-life balance for employees, recaptured commute times and potentially wiping millions of dollars of office leases off your P&L.
James Goodnow, CEO of the Fennemore Craig law firm based in Phoenix, says well-run businesses will integrate remote working and its associated benefits into the workplace fabric in more meaningful ways. Doing so, he says, “will force leaders to think about whether the large brick-and-mortar footprints are as necessary as many once believed.”
Even before the crisis, more work—at least white-collar work—was shifting to “virtual,” propelled by advances in technology. For most CEOs, particularly those with operations disposed to allowing work-from-home options, the best strategy will likely follow a model that blends the two styles, taking advantage of the resiliency and flexibility of telework, while not losing the productivity gains and culture investments they’ve made building their offices over the past decade.
Besides, thanks to Covid-19, you may not have a choice for a while. “Workforce interactions and the definition of ‘together’ have changed forever,” says John Mullen, president of Capgemini North America. “And you can look at the pandemic as the kick in the pants that CEOs needed.”
Some ideas for creating and leading this new hybrid workforce:
• Take a clean-sheet approach: Rather than accept workarounds forced by the crisis, don’t look at makeshift arrangements made during the teleworking imperative as a beginning point for the future of your workplace. Start from scratch. CEOs must decide whether to promote vast telework as a “new normal” or an interim arrangement—or a mix of inside and outside work. This will help dictate whether they actually reconfigure existing workspaces or just “X-off” some desks, chairs and vending machines with black tape for a while.
“What is the problem you’re trying to solve?” says Stan Vlasimsky, vice president at consultancy Pariveda Solutions. “Work backwards from there to figure out the remote-work parameters that will help your organization be the most effective over the long term.”
• Rework your capacity: Existing bandwidth, work-sharing software and other capabilities pressed into service during the pandemic proved inadequate for many companies to support a dramatic expansion of teleworking.
“Everyone being home worldwide stressed our telecom infrastructure,” says Behrooz Abdi, CEO of a San Jose, California-based maker of tracking sensors that struggled to conduct all-hands webcasts for 600 employees around the world. “So we’ve got to improve that.”
• Prioritize the culture: Entire industries have been shaken by vaporization of demand, idling of operations and atomization of workforces. But while Covid-19 has disrupted it, retaining their culture will remain important for companies in the long term. Virtual connectedness based on videoconferencing and online communication tools, such as Slack and Microsoft’s Teams, will probably not prove adequate—at least not without some extra effort.
That’s the experience of Eugenio Pace, CEO of Bellevue, Washington-based Auth0, a security-software company that built its culture on remote work performed by about 60 percent of its 650 employees around the world. “You’ve got to supplement that as a company by using that platform for notification of employees about important events,” he says. “We’ve closed a deal, we have a new feature, or a new employee has joined.”
Beware of creating haves and have-nots: Allowing or establishing work from home post-pandemic can create yet another divide in white-collar workforces that already may be cleft by factors such as compensation and functions. You’ll need to be careful about how it is perceived in the company. Don’t allow telecommuting options to be seen as perks. Add incentives for in-facility work to compensate and avoid problems.
“Zoom is great, and everyone is getting along well, but that’s working because everyone is in crisis mode,” says Tom Gimbel, CEO of LaSalle Network consultants, based in Chicago. “But if we were in non-crisis mode and some people were at home and others in the corporate office, there would be resentment.”
Figure out your ideal mix: Americans’ desire for communal experiences will combine with corporate requirements for physical co-location to ensure that many workplace environments swing back toward normalcy.
“Forcibly working from home was a great experiment for companies,” says Jordan Buckner, the CEO and founder of Chicago-based TeaSquares, which was building out distribution of its caffeinated energy bars when Covid-19 hit. “But the nature of a lot of work and jobs encourage people to be there in person. So, I’m expecting a more flexible model rather than a big jump in people working from home permanently.”
“Zoom is great and everyone is getting along well, but that’s working because everyone is in crisis mode.”