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Sunday, January 29, 2023

WFH or Work at the Office—More Tech Employees Can Now Choose

The office has become a state of mind. It’s not a place you commute to—not for many people, not anymore—unless you count shuffling down the hallway as a commute. The morning chitchat around the coffee carafe now takes place on Slack, the daily stand-ups are seated on Zoom, and the people who once shared desk space in modern open floor plans now work cubicled inside of their individual computer screens.

For plenty of people, this has worked out pretty well. They’re more productive and satisfied with their new work-from-home lives. For other people, it has been a total disaster: poor connectivity, lack of personal space, and clamoring children have all made the home office hell. So as companies think about the future, they’re tasked with decisions regarding keeping the happy work-at-homes where they are, bringing the office-forever people back, and managing the new expectations of people who want more flexibility about when, where, and how they work. Out of this, a compromise has emerged: the “hybrid workplace.”

In the hybrid workplace, some people have a permanent desk at the office, just as before, while others videoconference in. Some people work from home several days of the week and commute for the rest, maybe desk hoteling when they do. Some people keep to the nine-to-five; others make their own hours. “It’s a model of flexibility, adaptability, and shared ownership between employers and employees,” says George Penn, a VP at Gartner, which has conducted extensive market research on remote work this year. Of course, Penn says, that’s the fairly idealistic definition. “When you break down those components, what does flexibility mean? There’s room for interpretation.” (Even the term hybrid work has various interpretations: It’s also been used to describe workplaces with more automation, or ones with more contractors.)

Granted, this model only really works for knowledge workers, or the subset of work that involves things like typing, designing, and coding. Even still, the shift toward location-flexible work is significant. In its research, Gartner has found that while plenty of jobs were “remote-viable” before the pandemic, only about 30 percent of people in those jobs ever worked remotely. Now, about 48 percent of people in those jobs expect they’ll work remotely post-pandemic, some or all of the time. “And that number is creeping up,” says Penn, as more companies give people the option to continue working where they like. “I think organizations are starting to recognize that hybrid environments are not just about sustaining performance but actually improving performance,” he says. Which means managers are likely to be more supportive in the long term.

The model has taken off, in particular, among tech companies. Microsoft is now a “hybrid” company, where employees can work remotely half the time and still keep a desk in the office, or give up the desk and work remotely forever. Twitter and Reddit now allow employees to work remotely, indefinitely, but they will maintain their respective headquarters in San Francisco for employees who wish to return to the office.

Google has also moved toward a hybrid model, extending the remote work option this year while simultaneously building more office hubs around the country and proposing new construction in Mountain View, California, where the company is headquartered. “We firmly believe that in-person, being together, having a sense of community is super important when you have to solve hard problems and create something new, so we don’t see that changing. But we do think we need to create more flexibility and more hybrid models,” CEO Sundar Pichai said at a recent event. One internal survey of Google employees, from July, found that the majority—62 percent—wanted to be in the office some days. That number had crept up from 53 percent in May.

Facebook, which gave employees $2,000 stipends to kit out their home offices earlier this year, has also fashioned itself into a hybrid company. It expects that half of its employees will work remotely in the next five to 10 years—but office space is still critical for the other half. The company has even expanded its footprint: This fall, Facebook bid on REI’s brand-new, 400,000-square-foot corporate campus in Bellevue, near Seattle. REI, which laid off hundreds of corporate employees in the spring, decided it would sell the headquarters to go “remote-first.”

In the hybrid model, companies seem to be selling a corporate vision of having it all. You can have the office, with the fancy ergonomic chairs, or you can have a stipend to buy one for your house. You can come here for your meetings and see teams in person, or you can take them at home with Zoom. You can even take a little from column A, a little from column B. Based on Gartner’s research, Penn says there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between satisfaction among people who are always remote and sometimes remote, but the option to choose where to work does seem to have an impact. Things like productivity and work-life balance generally improve when employees have the option to decide.

Still, the promise of flexibility comes with some fine print. Consider workplace surveillance. “Back in April, less than half of organizations were tracking productivity,” says Penn. “As of August, that has jumped up to over 70 percent.” Before, managers may have kept an eye on when people came and went from the office—not exactly a scientific measure. Remote work isn’t necessarily better. Mostly, Penn says, companies are tracking metrics like virtual clocking in and out, Outlook and Calendar usage, or time spent online. Now, with the pressure to always appear online, some employees are working much longer hours or wasting time on performative productivity: things like excessively chatting on Slack or setting up useless meetings, just to show that they're there.

The model could also disadvantage employees on teams that are mostly in the office, or mostly remote, or people who want to keep different hours from the rest of their team. “Hybrid remote work perpetuates two very different employee experiences, and that can affect things like equity, inclusion, and belonging, or even career trajectory,” says Melanie Collins, the VP of people at Dropbox. Earlier this year, Dropbox found that its European employees—who had previously been the outliers on the Zoom screen—finally felt on equal footing with the Californians, because everyone was on the screen. That was a surprising upside of everyone working remotely. “Our teams in Europe have expressed how Zoom has been a great equalizer for them,” says Collins. “No one’s left out of the conversation.”

Last month, Dropbox announced that it would become a “virtual-first” company. The company plans to turn its offices into a series of meeting spaces, where teams can occasionally come together in person. Otherwise, and for the majority of the time, employees will work remotely. (It will also provide a stipend for coworking spaces, like WeWork, for employees who prefer to leave the house.) The change is significant: Before the pandemic, only 3 percent of Dropbox’s 2,300 employees worked remotely.

Collins believes that the future of work has less to do with where it’s done, and more to do with when it’s done. “Many things that were broken before feel even more broken now,” she says. “We’re working longer hours, we have back-to-back meetings, and they're all on Zoom, and that’s exhausting.” To fix that, Dropbox is also moving toward a model where employees come together for meetings and the like during “core collaboration hours”—a four-hour window of time each day—and otherwise control their own time. “That doesn’t mean our workdays are shortening,” says Collins. “We just want this to result in a nonlinear workday.”

Other companies seem to think giving up on the office is premature, or even a mistake. Box, one of Dropbox’s competitors, has decided to go for the hybrid model. “For the most part, people want to have that flexibility,” says Aaron Levie, Box’s CEO. “They don’t want to have polarized approaches—all remote and all distributed, or everybody’s going to go back to how things were.” Levie says that while remote work might suit seasoned employees, it can be disorienting for new hires, who are trying to get to know their teammates and understand company culture. Box recently surveyed a class of new hires (which, for now, is working 100 percent remotely) to ask about their preferences for an office. “Unanimously,” Levie says, “people wanted the option to come into an office.”

It’s not hard to see why that option appeals, especially with so much uncertainty looming in the future. Even people who want to get back into an office aren’t even sure yet what that office will look like: Will their desks be exactly as they were, preserved under a layer of dust, like a corporate Pompeii? Or will everything look different, the desks double-spaced and immured in Plexiglass? The hybrid model accounts for some of that uncertainty, and for now, no one has to make any real commitments about what their personal future of work should look like. One thing that is certain: As companies in the tech world adopt the hybrid model, other industries are sure to follow.

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