This pandemic has been significant for humanity. Just not necessarily for the creative workforce. Sure we proved that we can collaborate and deliver from home when necessary. But no big change has happened… yet.
The future of work will be decided in how we head back — or not — to the office over the next year. From remote-first to the hybrid model to so-called business as usual, this transition is key to not only how we work but how the tech industry will be able to recruit and retain employees for the foreseeable future.
In this piece, let’s look at what a “hybrid model” even implies and how it’s being planned and practiced.
Suddenly, today, I panicked about life inching back toward “normal.”
I don’t want to travel endlessly for work. I don’t want my weekends to be over-committed with activities. I don’t want to miss bedtime with my kid. I don’t want to wear blazers — or, hell, even shoes.
— Emily Ramshaw (@eramshaw) March 6, 2021
There Will Be No Standard Hybrid Working Model
Work from home. Head into work. These are clear mandates. The 2021 transition back to the office will happen in shades of flexibility.
It most likely will arise in what’s called the hybrid model — where you either have the same people working both from home and in-office or you have a distributed team where some are remote and some are in-person. Or a mix anywhere on that intersection of time and space.
A logical place to look to see how the hybrid transition is going is somewhere that wasn’t hit so hard by COVID-19. Australia, which has seen less than 1,000 deaths in a population of 25 million, is now allowing up to 50% office occupancy in the private sector and 25% in the public sector.
Dr. John Hopkins, associate professor at Swinburne University in Melbourne, has run a remote work study for seven years now. In the first six years, he saw an increase in interest in flexible work but not an increase in actual participation. Prior to COVID-19, only a quarter of respondents worked from home “regularly,” defined as at least once a week, while three-quarters never did it or only with explicit reasoning and permission, like someone coming to fix something or family illness.
Of course the 2020 study saw suddenly, like much of the world, non-essential workers went from zero to 100% work from home.
“Fast forward to a year, a lot of people, myself included, haven’t set foot in the office since,” Hopkins said.
Now that they are allowed to phase back in, he said, “Some are: ‘Everybody back yesterday.’ And some say: ‘This is fantastic, productivity is up, and we want to sell the office because it’s expensive’.”
The main consideration? How long an organization has left on their current lease. If there’s six months or less left, they are looking to downscale quickly. If it’s five years, they’re pushing to bring folks back soon.
Of the knowledge workers who responded to this year’s survey, 95% couldn’t see themselves going back into the office five days a week.
“Even if some people were keen to return to the office, they still wanted to retain some sort of flexibility,” Hopkins said.
Pre-2020, he said particularly larger orgs would appear progressive and tout flexible work from the outside, but, while HR said one thing, the policy or implementation came from elsewhere.
Hopkins said, “It was left to the manager’s interpretation or just their own personal experience: ‘I don’t like work from home so you can’t’.”
Either way, for the short-term, if orgs want employees back in the office at all, it’ll be in a blended manner. What will that look like?
The State of Work Status Quo… for Now
A lot of tech workers have proven their jobs could’ve always been done remotely, so many won’t want to head back without a good reason. Nearly a third of workers don’t want to return to the office at all. That falls in line with the 30% of tech companies going 100% remote — though who’s to say how big the center of that Venn diagram crossover is.
Pandemic and childcare pressures aside, little has changed for workers at companies like Gitlab and Automattic, which were built from the ground up with remote work in mind.
Some companies, like Twitter, have said just stay home, moving to a fully remote workforce. Facebook has said the same but also commits to expanding its presence in more cities to create smaller employee hubs. Others have gone remote-only through the first half or end of this year, and then they’ll figure it out. Some like the BP oil company is shifting to a flexible working model which sees 25,000 office staff working from home twice a week. Microsoft is offering a 50/50 split to employees, with an option of going permanently remote, but notably with manager approval.
Mozilla has always followed a hybrid model, where you either get a home office or a desk in one of 13 global shared office spaces. If you choose the first, they equip your home, paying for everything — including workspace and a high-speed connection. For the latter, you just need to come in three days a week and they’ll make sure you have everything you need to work and eat there when you want. Now, after a year just at home, they are researching what their future of work looks like.
The Moo online design and print company is focusing on asynchronous work to eliminate the need for a lot of meetings and on downsizing its wide London open floor plan.
“We are thinking through a planned approach to hybrid. Assuming folks will be in the office one to two days a week, but can experience work in lots of other ways too,” Moo Vice President of Engineering Claire Donald said.
But it won’t be about scheduling for space, but rather she said they are “making workplaces, more like resorts, focused on collaboration and social interaction, to enhance planned serendipity.”
While the British government is focusing all strategy on getting people back to the office as soon as possible, UK insurance group Aviva found that 95% of its staff would choose either full-time remote or a flexible home-office split post lockdown. Aviva will close some of its offices and give everyone the ability to work from home when they want.
After talking to over 2,000 digital companies over this last crazy year, CEO of Firstbase work-from-home infrastructure tool Chris Herd says companies are looking to at least halve their commercial office space, which will allow workers to work from home two to three days a week.
Herd said, “The first reason they are going remote-first is simple — it lets them hire more talented people. Rather than hiring the best person in a 30-mile radius of the office, they can hire the best person in the world for every role.”
Perhaps more compelling for most companies is the cost savings. Herd says it’s a change from about $20,000 a year per in-office employee versus setting them up at home for about a tenth of that. Bonus is the argument for the environment, dramatically cutting down the daily commuter carbon footprint.
After surveying employees, Salesforce, which just built San Francisco’s tallest skyscraper in 2018, found 80% of employees wanted some connection to a physical workplace. That’s why the CRM behemoth and new owner of Slack offer three options once it’s safe to return:
- Fully remote
- Flex — the biggest group, mostly remote but one to three days a week in office “for team collaboration, customer meetings and presentations”
- Office-based — the smallest group, four to five days a week in office, when their roles require
But that doesn’t mean every company is so forward-thinking. The CEO of Goldman Sachs, which, for most of last year, only saw 10% of staff in office, refuses to call work-from-home the new normal. Instead, to David Solomon, it’s an “aberration” they’re going to correct as soon as possible. He’s certainly at odds with three-quarters of investment banks that intend to keep employees working from home permanently.
Goldman Sachs seems to fall in the minority. According to the ongoing Work Autonomy, Flexibility and Work-Life Balance (WAF Project) from the University of Kent, overall managers are reporting that “working from home increases productivity, concentration, and motivation due to their experiences in lockdown.”
The project found continued demand for some sort of flexible working, as well as a call from managers — who cite little support or guidance over the last year — to finally get training for how best to manage distributed teams.
On the other hand, PWC surveyed 133 executives and 1,200 office workers in the U.S. in November and December 2020, and found a huge chasm between the two groups. Sure, 83% of employers agreed the shift to remote work has been successful. But 87% of them still find the office essential for collaborating with team members and building relationships. In fact, most executives expect their workforce to be back in-person by summer. More than half of employees would like to work from home at least three days a week indefinitely versus 68% of employers said they should be in the office at least three days a week.
As you can see, what hybrid and flexible work even means varies company to company, country to country. This plethora of options, particularly in technology where talent is always in demand, can create recruitment and retention problems — or perhaps be a draw for those that really thrive in in-person working environments.
And everyone wants something different. Some tech workers don’t feel the need to ever go back while others live alone and are desperate for company. One thing’s for sure, the vast majority don’t want to return to five days a week in shoes, bras and non-elasticated trousers — god forbid heels and neckties — commuting an hour each way, just to see people in 3D. We need valid reasons for that. Some form of flexible work will be demanded by just about everyone.
What Is Flexible Work, Anyway?
Office timeshares will see a boost. Maybe Monday and Tuesday Company X will occupy a space. Wednesday will be for deep cleaning. Then Thursday and Friday Office Y will take over. This may be teams for organizations that are looking to leverage the hybrid model to save on rent costs, or to shut down the office for permanent three-day weekends to save on utilities.
Of course, this may be the result of laws that limit capacity. This will see a new administrative job — or SaaS tool — emerging to handle this scheduling, which may include track and tracing for future outbreaks. This may involve rapid testing at the door for COVID-19, the flu or the next thing.
This will of course see a change in real estate and cities. People will flee the over-priced hotspots like Silicon Valley and there will be hubs and co-working spaces that crop up in so-called second-tier cities and towns, where techies will still want to connect with the like-minded. They won’t necessarily need to build their community around a shared employer, but perhaps around a shared language or industry. Post-Brexit, we’re already seeing this happen around Europe where the tech and finance are no longer centered just in London.
Some organizations will create core days when everyone should be in. But maybe those all-hands days could be at a hotel or conference center.
A lot of companies were already offering semi-flex hours before the pandemic. This may be 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. three days a week. This means all internal meetings should be during these core hours and employees are expected to be connected during those hours. Irrespective of in-office or not.
In an effort to minimize some Zoom fatigue, some companies are creating No Internal Meeting Days, which turns into a logical day to work from home.
And don’t forget, even for organizations that go remote-for-good, that doesn’t mean they won’t have optional or required in-person activities. They will just be a few retreats or workcations a year that aim to solidify team collaboration not company-wide extravaganzas.
Herd said that 60% of the organizations he interviewed were specifically looking for in-person team time as a way to improve team culture, which is a great way to focus your “back to normal.”
Why Organizations Should Be Looking at Flexible Work
Beyond real estate savings, there are plenty of reasons organizations will want to give this careful consideration. Flexible working has always been seen as a conduit for diversity and inclusion, which we know is directly tied to innovation and profits.
Plus if you can hire anywhere in the world, you are able to hire the best person for the job in the place they feel most comfortable working from. Quality of life will always be a big motivator.
And when you have an inherently global workforce then you can access and support a wider customer base, without having everyone on-call at odd hours of the night.
It’s important to remember the tech skills gap is wider than ever. This gives tech workers a louder voice. Let’s use that power to advocate for flexible working arrangements that not only help ourselves, but those more marginalized in our communities.
It’s the job of organizations to find the hybrid blend that allows the most workers to thrive. By fostering an environment — no matter where — in which everyone reaches their own potential, you not only get better results. You retain great employees and become competitive for recruitment and investment.
How do you know which option to choose for your organization? Ask of course! The results may surprise you.
The New Stack is a wholly owned subsidiary of Insight Partners, an investor in the following companies mentioned in this article: Automattic.