Are you going “back to the office”, or exploring a new world of work?

May 5, 2021 at Online with Frazer Nash (invitation only)

Covid-19 has prompted a rapid shift away from office working to home working.

Now, as companies look beyond the pandemic, many are deciding whether to bring employees back to offices or allow them to stay at home. But it’s not just about where to work.

A year of working from home, juggling childcare when schools were closed, avoiding the stress of commutes, and the cost of inner city real estate, has prompted many businesses to look again at the traditional working week, and some to fundamentally reimagine how they work.

  • Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg predicted 50% of his people could be working remotely within 5-10 years, but added “people living outside major cities may be asked to take a pay cut”.
  • Twitter’s Jack Dorsey made headlines when he announced his employees “can now work from home forever” … and then added “if they are doing work suitable to do at home”.
  • Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, however, said the lack of division between private life and work life meant “it sometimes feels like you are sleeping at work”.

The pandemic has highlighted many advantages to working from home, the time and expense saved commuting, the efficiency of remote meetings, particularly when connecting with people who are located far away, the new online work tools like Miro, the ability to be more flexible in your personal time, including spending more time with the children.

The disruption, and experiment, has allowed companies and individuals to explore working in new ways – and to live in new ways – so, perhaps it also a time to reimagine how we work.

Brynn Harrington, who is Facebook’s vice president of People Growth, says some workers have been “really thriving” at home and will be keen to continue doing so. “For example, parents who are closer to their children and are happy to cut their commute time and optimise their work day, they’re thrilled to work from home,” she said.

But home working is not great for everyone. “We also have people juggling care giving responsibilities, we have people living in small apartments with roommates, those people desperately want to get back into offices, and we’re working really hard to do that, as soon as it’s safe to open our offices.”

Starting with the bigger changes

However we should also see these challenges, and choices, in the context of a bigger picture. “The future of work” was already a huge question before Covid ever hit. Digitally-enabled transformation of every market and organisation demands that business thinks, adds value and works in new ways. Fast and connected, automated or augmented, collaborative ecosystems and empowered teams, gig workers and multi careers, more flexible, more hybrid, more human.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Work agenda, updated annually, creates a strong vision of a rapidly changing world of work, most significantly driven by the fourth industrial revolution, the challenge of technology, but also the imperative for human ingenuity. My new book Business Recoded builds on this, connecting it with other ideas such as Laloux’s reimagined organisations, Haier’s “rendanheyi” devolved structure, and Google Aristotle’s safe and extreme teaming:

  • Future-proofed organisations – simple, flat and agile structures – connecting people and partners
  • Align new technologies and skills – augmenting and enabling people to add more beyond process and machine
  • Work portfolios – everyone is a project worker, internally or gig-working, lifelong learning and evolving
  • Doing meaningful work – more purposeful, more responsible, more valued outcomes, particularly for GenZ
  • Human-centric leadership – organisations as platforms to enable people to achieve their potential

The pandemic’s disruption has accelerated this shift. Without choice, we all found ourselves experimenting with new environments, new tools, new ways of working. Some of it we loved, some of it we didn’t. But it gave us a glimpse of what’s possible, and some of it will inevitably stick.

Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report for 2021 focuses on the shrift from surviving to thriving, both in the sense of surviving the pandemic and thriving as we emerge, but also a more general complacency in business, to choose stability over change.  It highlights 5 big trends:

  • Designing work for wellbeing (and the end of the work/life balance or separation)
  • Unleashing human potential (beyond skills, enabling new mindsets and freedoms)
  • Building superteams (power of teams, and using tech to augment the humanity)
  • Adaptive strategies (embracing uncertainty, to make better decisions, with agility)
  • Rearchitecting organisations (enterprise-wide mindset, more fluid, connected and human)

One of the most insightful analysis of what is happening comes from Microsoft, and while they clearly have a Teams-centred tech view of of the digital workspace, they are also an organisation of 166,000 people across the world. Over the last two years I have seen at first hand how they are rapidly embracing a new work style, physical and virtual, not just where, but why and how their people approach work.

Microsoft’s Hybrid Work report has key messages including “leaders are out of touch … productivity masks exhaustion … GenZ most at risk … authenticity drives well-being … innovation in danger … talent is everywhere”.

Creating the hybrid post-pandemic workspace

Different organisations are responding differently – partly because they have different types of tasks and cultures – but qually depending on how enlightened they are, or at least their leaders. NTT’s workplace intelligence report found that 31% of companies are implementing additional creative thinking spaces, while 30% will provide more meeting places and 27% will reduce individual desk space.

Turning the office into a digitally enabled, collaboration-first environment will be critical to enabling a hybrid workforce. As companies seek to create a safe, collaborative, and efficient space for their employees, we have observed a few common practices:

  • Smart meeting rooms: spaces that enable employees to easily collaborate with their remote colleagues, often include video-conferencing capabilities, smart whiteboards (eg Miro), mobile-friendly office management applications, and virtual collaboration hardware such as 360-degree cameras.
  • Portable work kit: network technology will need to evolve to support employees constantly on the move between the home and office and third spaces (clients, coffee shops, virtual hubs), meaning a new focus on what tools are needed to support a mobile, connected and productive workforce.
  • Touchdown space: beyond hot desk, a shared space to plug in and work, eg second monitors widely accessible in those desk spaces  can enable employees to move to and from the office while maintaining equal levels of productivity, to work open plan on large tables to encourage informal collaboration and socialising.
  • Activity zones: huddle rooms for one-on-one meetings, phone booths for calls, larger conference spaces and separate, project enclaves to build virtual teams, movable desks and even walls, to create more activity-based spaces while balancing the need for privacy.
  • Cowork spaces:  rethinking real estate, some companies are choosing to invest in smaller co-working spaces that are closer to employees, local Regus hubs etc. Done strategically, this setup can generate sizable cost reductions while fostering a strong sense of community and providing employees with the option to work in different settings.

As companies begin to formulate and test hybrid operating models, continued investment and careful strategic planning are necessary to maintain effectiveness and resilience.

So what are companies actually doing so far?

Microsoft with 160,000 employees is fully embracing a hybrid working future, giving employees personal choice in where, when and how to work. However Satya Nadella said physical workspaces still matter, even for the most tech-enabled business: “We believe in the value of bringing people together in the workplace. Having facilities around the globe enriches our culture with new ideas, fresh perspectives and unique local viewpoints that help us continue learning from each other. From innovation labs to briefing centers, being near our customers and having more touchpoints helps us better understand customer and partner needs, adding value to the great work we’re doing together.”

Facebook is planning to start its return to in-person work in May, after over a year of working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Bloomberg. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced remote work plans near the start of the pandemic that promised around half of his employees could work remotely in the next five to 10 years, but until then, in-person work, at least in a limited capacity, is in the company’s immediate future.

Uber is hoping to get back to in-person work even sooner. The ride-sharing company announced that it’ll reopen its Mission Bay, San Francisco headquarters on March 29th, with a limited 20 percent capacity, according to Reuters. Uber plans to follow similar COVID-19 restrictions as Facebook, requiring face coverings, regular cleanings, and asking employees with sick family members to stay home. Prior to this reopening plan, Uber was letting its office employees work from home until mid-September 2021.

Twitter took a big step and made working from home indefinitely an option for all employees at the start of the pandemic. The company doesn’t have a set date for when it will reopen its offices, however, but “it will be gradual, office-by-office, and at a 20 percent capacity to start,” a Twitter spokesperson tells The Verge.

Google’s plans are less certain, and the company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge, but in 2020, it said employees would be able to work from home until September 2021 and that it would explore requiring employees only to work three days a week in-person.

Spotify starts by describing the principles for working, and then how they plan to change:

  • Work isn’t something you come to the office for, it’s something you do
  • Effectiveness can’t be measured by the number of hours people spend in an office – instead, giving people the freedom to choose where they work will boost effectiveness
  • Giving our people more flexibility will support better work-life balance and help tap into new talent pools while keeping our existing band members
  • Operating as a distributed organisation will produce better and more efficient ways of working through more intentional use of communication and collaboration practices, processes and tools.

Spotify defines its  new hybrid work model:

  • My Work Mode – employees will be able to work full time from home, from the office, or a combination of the two. The exact mix of home and office work mode is a decision each employee and their manager make together.
  • Location choices – more flexibility when it comes to what country and city each employee works from (with some limitations to address time zone difficulties, and regional entity laws in the initial rollout of this program). Here, our employees have the same “My Work Mode” flexibility, and if someone chooses a location that is not near a Spotify office, we will support them with a co-working space membership if they want to work from an office.

IBM was a pioneer in the work-from-home revolution before it largely abandoned the policy in 2017, but the company is pivoting again with a new system of remote working, with 80% of the workforce working at least three days a week in the office. “I would imagine that we will get rid of tens of millions,” CEO Arvind Krishna told Bloomberg, referring to square feet of office space. “Are we going to go toward zero, absolutely not. Will we have over half of what we had, most likely.”

IBM employees took it upon themselves to define good ways of working remotely during the pandemic. They created a “work-from-home pledge” that specified company norms such as how to communicate and treat each other while working remotely. This grassroots initiative was ultimately supported by Krishna, which provided a strong signal to the rest of the organization about accepted remote-work norms.

However “When people are remote, I worry about what their career trajectory is going to be,” says Krishna. “If they want to become a people manager, if they want to get increasing responsibilities, or if they want to build a culture within their teams, how are we going to do that remotely?” he asked.

Goldman Sachs’ chief executive made clear he saw working from home during the pandemic as an “aberration” saying young employees at the investment bank needed direct contact and mentorship that you could only get in the office.

PwC say employees will be able to work from home a couple of days a week and start as early or late as you like. This summer you can knock off early on Fridays too.  Following the pandemic the accountancy giant is offering its staff much more control over their working pattern. PwC chairman Kevin Ellis said he hoped this would make flexible working “the norm rather than the exception”. “We want our people to feel trusted and empowered,” Mr Ellis said. PwC call their approach “The Deal“, built on two-way flexibility, to meet the needs of clients and employees and the company, and to achieve climate goals. It includes:

  • an ‘Empowered day’ – which gives our workforce more freedom to decide the most effective working pattern on any given day – for example, an earlier start and finish time
  • flexibility to continue working from home as part of blended working, with an expectation that people will  spend an average of 40-60% of their time co-located with colleagues, either in offices or at client sites
  • a reduced working day on a Friday, with the assumption the majority of our people will finish at lunchtime having condensed their working week

Siemens, the largest industrial manufacturing company in Europe, announced that its employees may work from wherever they want for two or three days a week. Siemens has around 385,000 employees in more than 200 countries. The work-anywhere— several days a week—decision was due to a global staff survey, in which employees desired greater flexibility in their approach to work. Roland Busch, the deputy CEO and labor director of Siemens, wrote in a tweet, “#Covid19 gives us a chance to reshape our world and reimagine work. To empower @Siemens employees to perform their best, our #newnormal working model will offer 2-3 days mobile working.” The press release highlights

  • Mobile working two to three days a week as worldwide standard
  • Managing Board approves new model for working independently of fixed locations
  • Model based on transformation of leadership and corporate culture
  • Siemens among first large companies to adjust working models permanently

Amazon issued a statement to employees  saying: “Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline. We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the new work-from-home age, then. Part of the hesitancy is that although many employees want more flexibility, it’s still not at all clear what kind of model works for the companies.