The omicron variant has shaken up plans to bring workers back to the office. Companies from Ford to Lyft to Morgan Stanley have all adjusted their return-to-office plans accordingly in recent weeks, while Facebook’s parent company Meta this week delayed the return of employees to U.S. offices until March 28 from January 31 while also requiring Covid -19 booster shots. Now comes the news today that the Robinhood stock trading app will allow most of its 3,400 employees to work remotely on a permanent basis.
These changes beg the question: why is returning to the office the goal anyway? If the roughly 42% of Americans who do their work remotely have been able to do their work from home in the past 20 months, what is the reason to go back?
Authors Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen explore this question and more in their new book “Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home”. Warzel explained to CNBC how the pandemic is allowing organizations – and employees – to rewrite the rules of office work, why companies need to appoint a remote work manager, and how the current remote working model is yet to evolve even near. two years into the pandemic.
The following questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
CNBC: Your book talks about the issues and promises that come with working from home employees. Let’s start with the potential problems.
Warzel: There are a few. Many companies don’t see this time as a chance for new possibilities, but rather as a problem to overcome and then go back to our old way of doing things. The other potential problem is that employers try to make remote work a benefit or reward available to a certain group of employees. Something that they must continually earn by working harder and harder. We have seen how much people have worked throughout the pandemic. The productivity figures confirm this. And that’s why there has been this complete collapse of the boundaries between work and life.
CNBC: What’s the potential promise?
Warzel: We’ve been told for a long time that the office is incredibly important, that it’s the core of our work culture. Well, that’s not as true as we thought. We are now at a point where we can make the most of what we have learned and reimagine our working life in a more flexible and human way. We are starting to see what work needs to be done in person and what can be done remotely. We can create a new way to restructure our working life that gives people more balance.
CNBC: But even companies that offer that kind of flexibility right now don’t feel like they’re doing it right or having a sustainable plan in place. What else needs to change?
Brew: It will vary depending on the company and the team. I think we’re going to see more and more companies hiring a remote work manager or a remote work team. Don’t pile it all on the chiefs of staff who already have a full to-do list. In the book, we talk about GitLab. They now have a teleworker responsible for figuring out everything from the various tax implications for teleworkers to the number of times a year they need to come to the office. It’s a lot of upfront work, and a lot of people are put off by it. But it is an investment. The only way it will work is to put people at the top whose job it is to figure this out logistically.
CNBC: When it comes to remote working, what’s the most important message to get from leaders to employees?
Warzel: We trust you and wish you had a three-dimensional life. We trust you to do your job the way it should be done and we’ll give you that latitude so you don’t have to continually have to choose between work and your life. The second part of the message is that we are changing this for you because we have come to see that work becomes untenable when it is the main focus of your life. The combination of these two elements is what builds trust between employers and workers.
CNBC: How realistic is it for companies to take this long-term view given how competitive businesses are and how long have people been working in offices where their bosses can see them?
Brew: Well, we would have a much different conversation if productivity dropped during the pandemic, but it doesn’t. Despite everything, I am a realist. This is a long-term strategy that only comes about if both parties listen to each other and understand each other on how they want to reinvent work.
CNBC: Was there something that really surprised you while researching this book?
Warzel: We spent time studying the business psychology of building trust. One of the things I found interesting is that trust is basically someone who models vulnerability and you model it in return. A bond is created that includes not only trust, but also admiration, respect, understanding and humility. The way you model vulnerability as a director of human resources is to say that we haven’t got it all figured out. We know it’s hard for you, it’s hard for us, and we’re going to make mistakes. But we’ll work through that, talk to you, and of course correct when we need to. This creates a sense of confidence among employees that not every bad decision is the final hammer blow. They have a say throughout the process and they know they are being listened to. Without it, a sense of mistrust begins to set in that will eat away at a culture faster than anything else we’ve seen.
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