The omicron variant has thrown the plans for bringing workers back into the office into disarray. Companies from Ford to Lyft to Morgan Stanley have all adjusted their return-to-office plans as a result in recent weeks, while this week Facebook parent company Meta delayed employees’ return to U.S. offices until March 28 from Jan. 31 while also requiring Covid-19 booster shots. Now comes news today that stock trading app Robinhood will let most of its 3,400 employees work remotely permanently.
These changes are prompting the question: Why is returning to the office the goal anyway? If the roughly 42% of Americans who do their jobs remotely could get their work done from home over the past 20 months, what’s the reason for going 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 spoke with CNBC about how the pandemic is allowing organizations — and employees — to rewrite the rules of office work, why companies need to appoint a head of remote work, and how the current model of remote work still needs to evolve even nearly two years into the pandemic.
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
CNBC: Your book talks about the problems and promise arising from employees working from home. Let’s start with the potential problems.
Warzel: There are a few. Many companies aren’t looking at this time as a chance of new possibilities, but rather as a problem to get past and then go back to our old way of doing things. The other potential problem is that employers try to make remote work a perk or a reward available to a certain group of employees. Something they have to continually earn by working harder and harder. We’ve seen how much people have worked throughout the pandemic. The productivity numbers bear this out. And that’s why there’s been this complete collapse in 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 nucleus of our work culture. Well, that’s not as true as we thought. We’re at a point now where we can take the best parts of what we’ve learned and reimagine our work lives in a more flexible, humane way. We’re 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 work lives that give people more balance.
CNBC: But even companies that are offering this kind of flexibility right now don’t feel like they’re getting it right or have a sustainable plan in place. What else has to change?
Warzel: It will vary by company and by team. I think we’re going to see more companies hire a head of remote work or a team that’s responsible for remote work. Not piling all of this onto to chief people officers who already have a full slate of things to do. In the book, we talk about GitLab. They now have a head of remote responsible for figuring out everything from the different tax implications for remote workers to how many times a year they need to come into the office. It’s a lot of upfront work, and many people are turned off by that. But it’s an investment. The only way this is going to work is if you install some people at the top whose job it is to figure this out logistically.
CNBC: When it comes to remote work, what’s the biggest message that needs to come from leaders to employees?
Warzel: We trust you and want you to have a three-dimensional life. We trust you to get your job done as it needs to be done and we’re going to give you that latitude so that you don’t have to continually choose between work and your life. The second part of the message is that we’re changing this for you because we’ve come to see that work becomes untenable when it’s the primary axis of your life. The combination of these two things is what builds trust between employers and workers.
CNBC: How realistic is it that companies will adopt this view long-term given how competitive business is and how long people have been working in offices where their bosses can see them?
Warzel: Well, we’d be having a much different conversation if productivity plummeted during the pandemic, but it didn’t. Even so, I’m a realist. This is a long-term strategy that doesn’t happen unless both sides are listening to each other and understanding each other about how they want to reimagine work.
CNBC: Was there anything that really surprised you during the research for this book?
Warzel: We spent some time looking into the business psychology of trust building. One of the things I found interesting is that trust is basically someone modeling vulnerability and you modeling it back. A bond is created that includes not only trust, but admiration, respect, understanding, and humility. The way you model vulnerability as a chief people officer is to say we don’t have this all figured out. We know this is difficult for you, it’s difficult for us, and we’re going to make mistakes. But we’re going to work through this, talk to you, and course correct when we have to. This creates a sense of trust among employees that any bad decision that comes down isn’t the final bang of the gavel. They have input all along the way and they know they are being listened to. Without this, a sense of mistrust begins to set in and that will eat away at a culture faster than anything else we’ve seen.
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