Opinion: Remote-work expert on companies wanting a return to normalcy: ‘The way it was can never be again’

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, office workers still have plenty of questions about the workplace. When will bosses announce that it’s time to go back to the office? And be back full-time? And who really needs to be there anyway?

Right now it looks like the longer-term answer for many workers may well be a more structured mix of working from home and going to the office.

Only 10% of Manhattan office workers are back in the office as of March, according to a survey by the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit group representing companies employing more than 1.5 million New Yorkers. That figure is expected to rise to 45% by September. But those same employers say 56% of office workers will work remotely at least part of the time.


has said it expects to reopen its corporate headquarters at 10% capacity on May 10 if health data continue to improve — but also that it expects half of its employees to work from home by 2030. Microsoft

began bringing workers back to its headquarters on a hybrid schedule on March 29.

And while some companies have said they’ll be giving up some office space because of remote working, there are signs that others are turning away from that idea. A recent KPMG survey found that just 17% of CEOs say they plan to cut back on real estate, compared with the 69% who had that view in August. Only 30% said they expect to have a majority of their staff working remotely two to three days a week.

Workers, too, may be more enthusiastic about returning to the office after a year of becoming tech support for children attending school remotely or seeing the boundaries blur between work and home.

While Salesforce

made headlines by saying in February that some workers now will be 100% remote, it also noted that 80% of its workers want to be in the office at least part of the time — and that it expects most employees to be in the office one to three days per week.

MarketWatch discussed the future of work from home in an email interview with Tsedal Neeley, the Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and an expert of virtual work. She is the author of “Remote Work Revolution.

Question: The past year has taught many of us that working from home is possible. But many bosses still want people back in the office as soon as COVID conditions allow. Why do you think they are still reluctant to let people continue primarily working from home? Where has WFH broken down for them?

Answer: This is the most pressing and vexing dilemma facing organizations today. The most recent survey on this topic was gathered by Harvard Business School Online. Eighty-one percent of employees want to retain some form of remote work. (I use the term remote work and not WFH because the issue is not necessarily about home anymore. It’s about “anywhere” including other states and even countries.) Of that number, 27% want to work remotely full time. These are staggering numbers and consistent with Gartner’s recent survey.

However, many employers are wrestling with their desire to return to “normalcy.” The reasons vary. While some want to preserve their “culture,” others perceive that having everyone in the same space promotes formal collaboration and serendipitous encounters easily. Others believe that the work that they do requires in-person presence. Sprawling real-estate holdings that are empty are a major concern for some groups.

It’s complicated. But the reality is that the way it was can never be again.

Read: ‘Welcoming the chaos’ — what COVID taught this C-suite couple about leadership and work-life balance

Q: The flip side: What’s been the biggest lesson that employees have learned about working from home this past year? 

A: Clearly the staggering numbers of the people who want to retain some form of remote work corroborate the positive aspects of remote work. People are finding untold opportunities such as no stressful commutes, flex time, autonomy, productivity, etc.

But we know that remote work is not a panacea. Employees are also learning that unchecked and untrained remote work can lead to the blurring of work/non-work boundaries, longer work hours, tech exhaustion and professional isolation, among other things.

Q: What about you? What’s been the biggest surprise from the past year?

A: I’ve learned that today’s remote work is much more intense because of the sheer scale and magnitude of the number of people who are participating in this particular work arrangement. Even remote-work veterans are seeing disruptions to their routines because their co-workers are pushing new ways of working and communicating. The world has changed for everyone.

(Harper Business)

Q: Some are surprised that worker productivity hasn’t declined. How do you explain it? Does WFH mean working extra hours?

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The evidence on this is as robust and as long as remote work has been around. Think decades. Remote work increases productivity, provided certain conditions are met, including proper home conditions, ideal ambient noise situations, great virtual leadership, effective distant collaboration experiences and autonomy.

It’s beyond people working longer hours. The asynchronous dimension, flex time and job satisfaction motivate people to perform well.

Q: Peering into the future, what do you expect this to look like in a year’s time? Three years’ time? How many of us will mostly, if not exclusively, be back in the office? Will the new norm become two to three days in the office and the rest from home? Or something else?

There is no singular permutation for the hybrid model that we can predict today. One-size-fit doesn’t fit all. Organizations will have to design what’s optimal for their businesses and employees.

Over time, I also expect that competencies, as remote workers and leaders, will increase, which may bring creative notions of work that we can’t image yet.

One thing we do know, however, is that tech companies have had remote work since the early 1990s. Those with the most experience are comfortable offering 100% remote-work options to their entire workforce, whether people take them up or not.

Q: A big question after this year is just how far people can live from the office. Does WFH mean you must be within commuting distance of the office so you can come into the office twice a week or so, or does it mean working anywhere and meeting with the boss or team in person every month or even less frequently?

A: True remote work means that we don’t count actual miles between our office and our work spaces. With the advent of Airbnb, where you live ought not to matter for the collaboration experience. It will, however, matter for labor-market reasons. Compensation differences based on cost of living are already becoming relevant for some organizations.

Also read: 5 ways your company can make working from home even better

Plus: Digital nomads don’t sit on the beach or travel all the time — here’s what life is really like

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