A few months ago, and for the previous seven decades, the vast majority of employees around the world would travel to their workplace each work-day, share that space with colleagues, and then return home. Remote and flexible working trends were increasing, the freelance gig-economy was growing, but until a few months ago “going to work” was the global norm.
When the COVID-19 outbreak became a full-blown pandemic, that all changed quickly. All but essential workers, in most major markets, conducted their jobs from home if they could, and what began as a temporary public health measure is now threatening to become a full-blown workplace revolution.
“We are all on this accelerated timeline figuring out how to work from home. It's learning the culture and the rhythms of interacting with your colleagues by video conference and doing your work remotely. That is getting so much better so quickly that I don't think I'm going to be commuting nearly as frequently as I was before,” said Microsoft CTO, Kevin Scot. “Every organization will increasingly need the ability at a moment's notice to remote everything from manufacturing to sales, to customer support,” added the firm’s CEO, Satya Nadella, who called for a shift to “remote everything” during the company’s developer conference in May.
In big-tech; Microsoft and Amazon are giving all employees the option to work-from-home (WFH) until at least October. Google expects most of its employees to continue to WFH until the beginning of 2021 and is even giving each employee $1,000 to spend on home workspace equipment. Twitter has introduced a company-wide optional WFH policy, forever. While Facebook says most of its employees will have the option to WFH permanently but may face pay cuts depending on if they move.
“I think we’re going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work, at our scale, for sure,” said Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. “And the plan that we have initially involves a couple of big steps. The first is aggressively opening up remote hiring. And we are going to couple that with a more measured approach to opening permanent remote work for existing employees,” he continued, predicting 50% of employees would WFH within 5-10 years.
It’s not just modern tech firms, the reaction from the big-finance firms that dominate business districts in most major cities is similar. Visa and American Express will allow a majority of its workforce to continue working remotely for the rest of 2020. Goldman Sachs is running a “hybrid business model” of people working from home and in offices around the world “for quite some time.” While JPMorgan Chase expects to keep its offices half full, at most, for the near future, according to a regularly updated reopening policy list by Jessica Hartogs at LinkedIn News.
Remote and flexible working trends were already taking place before COVID-19 sent us into the Worlds Biggest Remote Working Experiment. However, 6-months to a year of most people working from home will accelerate this trend beyond anyone’s expectations, and this will be further exacerbated as the recession forces companies to consolidate their real estate assets. On top of that, there is a lot of pressure on employers to “play it safe,” with the reputational repercussions of “returning too soon” weighing heavily on the minds of corporate executives.
“Much remains uncertain, but one thing is clear: customers, workers, suppliers, and other partners are watching,” warns a recent Deloitte workbook titled Workforce Strategies for a Post-COVID-19 Recovery. “How organizations handle the recovery will define their brands with both their workforce and their customers, establish their reputations for years to come, and determine their future competitiveness,” it continues.
The return to the workplace is not an operational challenge, it’s a human challenge. For commercial buildings, it’s not just about complying with government policy, it is about adapting to their unique situation to make sure occupants are safe, and feel safe. Not just under the threat of developing a bad reputation, but also for the unprecedented opportunity to build a good reputation as a caring employer and public health advocate. Alongside remote work policies, we have seen factories converted to produce essential supplies and donations made to crisis-support initiatives. All good for the cause, and good for business.
The COVID-accelerated remote working trend will persist as long as these drivers remain, which could be a while. The longer we stay away from the office, the more we change the landscape of work away from the traditional office format we have become accustomed to. Not just because of viruses, social distancing, and caring reputations, but because we have been forced to see the light of a tech-enabled WFH culture and it looks quite nice.
Comfort, flexibility, and zero commute times are likely to get many employees on board, and many more will be convinced when better services emerge for the growing WHF community. Meanwhile, reducing real estate costs ahead of the downturn, clear WFH productivity gains, and minimizing the post-COVID occupant-safety headache, are tempting more and more companies to enact broad WFH policies.
Executives that already had WFH policies on the table before COVID-19, now see an opportunity to make the switch while increasing their reputation as a caring employer. Regardless of what might be best for business, there has never been a better time for companies to switch to a fully remote workforce.
“To these companies, we encourage them to consider the option of going all-in. While the journey to becoming a fully remote company will be challenging, the opportunities are immense for both the business and your teams,” Brian Kardon is CMO of InVision, a fully remote company since 2011. “The companies that embrace this new reality to its fullest—those that commit to learn, test, and iterate their approach until they find what works—will be the ones best poised for resilience, and to reap the benefits of digital transformation.”