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Jul 19, 2022
Hybrid Work is Not Doomed
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“The existence of an office is the central premise of office work, and nothing—not even a pandemic—will make it go away,” says Ian Bogost, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the Director of the Program in Film & Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Respectfully, I disagree. 

 

To his credit, Bogost doesn’t necessarily believe that working in the office is more productive than working from elsewhere, but he says productivity is not the issue, adding, “Companies have been pulling employees back to work in person irrespective of anyone’s well-being or efficiency.”

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And he’s not completely wrong there. Among other high-profile leaders resisting remote work, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told employees last month that they “...must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla.”  Unlike Bogost, Musk has made it clear that he doesn’t believe great work can be achieved outside of an office, saying, “There are of course companies that don’t require [in-office work], but when was the last time they shipped a great new product? It’s been a while.” 

 

To blame any company’s underperformance on remote work would be short-sighted. Musk is making statements to justify his long-held beliefs rather than, it seems, making decisions based on research. This aligns with what Bogost believes. 

 

Bogost writes that return-to-office plans “serve as affirmations of a superseding value—one that spans every industry of knowledge work.” His article posits that companies as a whole are unable or unwilling to function outside of the office construct. Musk also appears to hold this belief. But not every company (or government) sees things that way. Many companies are embracing flexible work arrangements and at least one country is also taking a stand to protect hybrid work.

 

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In the Netherlands, the decision of whether or not to offer a remote work option in on its way to being taken out of the hands of employers. Just one day before Bogost’s article was published, the Dutch House approved making work from home a legal right. While the decision still requires approval from the Dutch senate before its final adoption, local media reports said the legislation would require employers to consider employee requests to work from home if their profession allows it. 

 

Do I expect the United States to enact a similar law? Not any time soon (we don’t even have a liveable minimum wage), but it’s worth noting that the Netherlands isn’t a newcomer to leading in the remote work sphere. A 2018 Eurostat survey found that 14% of employed people in the Netherlands worked remotely, the highest number in the region. So, their actions could be predictive of future legislation in other countries. 

 

Even if the US is a long way from such a law, it’s not inevitable. The nature of the work has changed drastically over the last 200 years and continues to evolve. As recent as the late 1800s, full-time laborers were still working 100 hours a week. It wasn’t until 1938 that Congress created the 44-hour work week. This was more than 10 years after Henry Ford’s own research found that working more hours led to diminishing returns on productivity. It wasn’t until 1940 that the 40-hour work week became law. The nature of work is always changing and no pillar of eras gone by is safe from evolution.  

 

One of Bogost’s arguments is that tech companies have been slow to change their practices, stating, “If the companies that design and build the very foundations for remote work still adhere to the old-fashioned values of the Office, what should we expect from all the rest?” He posits that tech companies that invested in free food, in-office gyms, and flexible workspaces prior to the pandemic will be less likely to adopt hybrid work in the long run. However, this too is a generalization. 

 

Upwork is among those companies building the foundations for remote work and they do offer many of those great in-office perks, but it hasn’t prevented the company from becoming remote-first with its team spread around the globe. In-office benefits and flexible work arrangements don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Companies can adapt to meet the changing ratio of in-office to remote workers. Upwork closed one of its offices permanently during the pandemic. They still have offices for team members to visit and work in if desired, but they’ve made remote work the default instead of office work.

 

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Even companies like Amazon and Google, which originally said they would require employees to return to the office full time, have changed their tune. Many companies have ultimately adopted hybrid work models that may not allow workers to be remote all the time, but still allow more flexibility than was the norm pre-pandemic. Other companies though, like Goldman Sachs, followed through on their plans and are back in the office five days per week

 

And what are workers saying? Will they be easily forced to comply with antiquated company policies? Gallup reported that approximately half of the U.S. full-time workforce can do their jobs remotely at least part of the time. Before the pandemic, only 8% of these “remote-capable” folks worked entirely remotely while about one-third had a hybrid arrangement. 

 

In May of 2020, this number jumped predictably with as many as 70% working exclusively from home. When these remote-capable workers were asked about the future, about 53% expect a hybrid arrangement, and 24% expect to work exclusively remotely. Upwork found that 34% of workers who were remote are not excited about returning to the office.

 

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The next logical question is what happens when employers don’t meet worker expectations? Gallup found that employees who are required to work fully on-site but would prefer to work hybrid or fully remote experience:

  • significantly lower engagement
  • significantly lower wellbeing
  • significantly higher intent to leave
  • significantly higher levels of burnout

54% of fully remote workers would look for another job if their employer stopped offering remote work options

Gallup found that, if their employer stopped offering remote-work options, “An astounding 54% of employees currently working exclusively from home said they would likely look for another job; 38% of hybrid workers said the same.” In the same vein, Upwork surveyed 4,000 professionals in the U.S. and found that among those who are not excited about returning to the office, 24% would be willing to take a pay cut to work remotely, and 35% would consider it. 

 

This is not a marginal, fringe group of radicalized workers asking for extreme measures. This is average workers realizing that there is a better way to work than what has been established as the norm. 

 

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Upwork also found that 68% of teams are hiring within the next 6 months, but they’re having trouble finding talent. Adhering to old-school business practices will only make the search for talent more difficult, particularly in a job market that’s favoring workers. 

 

Bogost says, “The office gives identity to office workers and firms alike, by imposing its practices across the workforce.” I say, “So what?” It’s time to develop new practices and that evolution is here whether or not employers are willing participants. 

 

Miles Everson, CEO of MBO Partners, told Fast Company, “For workers and employers alike, the so-called permanence of a full-time position filled by a single individual sitting at a desk in an office complex has become a relic of the past—whether they realize it yet or not.” 

 

Not every job can be done remotely and not every worker wants to work remotely, but the numbers show that companies must be willing to get on board with changing trends. Companies that refuse to adapt are headed for difficult times where they may struggle to win the dedication of workers.

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