Is An Office In Your Future? It's Up to You.
It's 10am: do you know where your office is?
As I watch Super Pumped, the new Showtime series about Uber with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Kalanick (“TK”), the last two years of Covid has me focusing on a very specific aspect of the show: what can happen when you have everyone in the office focused on one mission. Given the world we are living in, I should spend about ten minutes writing a disclaimer about all the things I don’t admire about Uber’s early days (doing illegal things are bad!), but Uber *was* an example of what can happen when humans are in one place, working towards a common goal, surrounded by people they admire, under the direction of someone they believe in.
Covid psychologically rearranged how we think about work. As we grapple with what remote vs hybrid vs in-person looks like, the choices we face as leaders and as employees should not be based on the latest Apple News headline touting the newest survey. Instead it should be based on our own circumstances, strengths, and goals. Our choices should be based on our ability to get the most out of whichever situation we choose.
How To Choose What Is Best For Your Company
Let’s start with company leaders. If you were to start a company right now, you could argue going fully remote gives you unrestricted access to the global talent pool. No longer are you talking about gunning for the top 1% of New York City; you can also go for the top 1% of Auckland, Berlin, and Kansas City. That prospect is incredibly enticing. But can you convince them to work for you? And if so, can you manage them to greatness? Superteams often get the best talent in the world and then implode due to mismanagement.
Ask yourself: are you a great remote manager? Can you put the effort and structures in place to consistently motivate people? Anyone living in New York City who goes outside on a nice workday will see a suspicious amount of people in parks and at bars. That’s a wonderful life for them. But if you’re a leader of a company that’s growing-or-dying, or perhaps nearing its last dollar, are you able to engender the loyalty to the mission that you need to accomplish your goal... remotely? Especially now that your remote employees’ biggest distractions are… everything else in the world?
Flipping it around, what if you started a company right now and decided to go fully in-office? That’s five days a week, just like the olden days. No doubt you would lose a not-small number of applicants who now prefer their new lives in either remote or hybrid circumstances. But what of the good talent that is left? Where is the home for those who are looking for that in-person camaraderie? Idea generation could thrive. Humans don’t have ideas on command, and if Rachel comes up with something, bounces it off Shanice, who calls Ted over, who runs it up to Sofia, all in the course of 10 minutes, is that better done consistently in-person? Maybe in-person could be your advantage over other companies.
Once you have found these people, similar but different questions arise about how you get the most out of them. They have opted into full-time when many of their peers are raving about their hybrid workplaces. What will they respond with? Because magic might happen more naturally in-person, but if you get it wrong, it could actually be even worse than being remote.
Anyone who has endured the analyst years of investment banking knows the toll of meaningless hours spent at the office or the way your body tenses when you hear the voice of your Associate coming down the hallway. But those same people also remember being around some extraordinarily smart, driven colleagues. Or they remember the rush of collaborating on a project under a magnetic boss who is there late in the office with you. Are you a person who can get the most out of your employees by giving them the best environment?
The hybrid option might seem like the way to avoid most issues, but, per usual, splitting the difference doesn’t solve your problems. Done without intention, hybrid can cause the worst of both worlds. First off, hybrid can mean different things. One is a combination of in-office and fully-remote employees. If so, consider this: do the fully-remote people feel left out from the relationships, inside jokes, and spontaneous ideas that happen in the office?
When I was at boarding school, we had an unusually high number of day students. They went home at the end of the day, missing half of the experience we had as boarders. There tended to be an us-and-them mentality. (They also tended to be smarter overall, but we never admitted that to them at the time.)
Are you a leader who can foster a culture of effective collaboration when 60% of the attendees are in the room and 40% are squares on a screen? If those 40% are critical to the success of your company, you need to make sure they are fully integrated and heard, whether you are in the room or not.
Hybrid can also mean working from the office three days of the week rather than five. The prevailing theory is that your geography of potential employees expands slightly beyond the full-time crowd. But be sure to keep in mind how that geography has reset after Covid. The commute radius most likely got smaller after Covid, so going hybrid gives you roughly the same pool you would have had before the pandemic.
Just because the New York Times identified yet another “trend” of people moving 2.5 hours away from their jobs doesn’t mean it is actually playing out like that in real life. Are those people actually going to commute for 15 hours a week?
Once you find the right people, do you make everyone come in on the same days to maximize interactions? Do you treat it like a normal workday or lean more towards ideas, leaving the home days meetings-free? Arbitrarily stamping yourself hybrid leads to confusion and unintended consequences.
This doesn’t need to be for only startups either. Two of the old-guard, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, are duking this out real time. Citigroup is betting they can attract top talent and manage them best by leaning further towards hybrid and remote. Goldman is betting they can squeeze more out of their people if they are in the office full-time.
I know some companies that have different policies for different groups. The Corporate Development group, made up of all ex-consultants, is back in the office five days a week, the People team is hybrid, and the Finance team is fully-remote. Each of those is led by someone who has hopefully thought about each of these structures, and each of those employs people who are hopefully jazzed to go to work each day, no matter how they do it.
One thing is certain: you need to make a choice. The longer you let it linger, the less intentional your structures will be and the more your employees will feel in limbo. The choices you are avoiding in fear of making some employees unhappy are actually making most of them less happy and less effective. It’s certainly hurting your company. So make a choice, make it intentional, lose some people, but gain the people that want to work in that environment and make sure you’re ready to get the most out of them.
How To Choose the Best Company For You
So far we’ve only thought about it from a company leader standpoint. If you are an employee/team member/“ninja” what exactly do you want from your job at this point in your life? If it is relationships and mentorship, there are still very few companies that have cracked that remotely. Most of that happens during the “in-betweens” of work. The walks to lunch, the befores and afters of meetings, or the twilight hour of work being finished but people not having left yet.
Ask yourself: how many times have I gone out to drinks with someone now that Covid has ebbed: more or less than pre-Covid? Do you really want to put on real clothes to leave the house on a Tuesday? It’s a heck of a lot easier to grab a drink or an effervescent beverage on the way home if you’re already at work.
If work is a source of income to enable your life, then it’s a very different equation. Time with your kids, time outside, time with non-work friends, being introverted, loving working in a separate environment, hating commutes - these are all reasons to love remote or a mostly-hybrid format.
There is also a component of the historical definition of being “American”. We have so linked what we do for work with who we are. Are you someone that wants to sever that connection? Do you not feel the need to be all that close to your co-workers? Perhaps you want to do your job so you can get back to everything else in your life.
This might not lead to the corporate success many people strive for, but you have different rules. You measure your life by out-of-work metrics. Also, if you ever find your current job impeding on your life too much, then being remote will allow you to more easily switch jobs. Interviews are all over zoom and there is less of an attachment to any one company anyway. You are, in a sense, a mercenary.
There are nuances galore to these considerations. The main one being, Covid aside, that there will always be terrible places to work. Terrible places to work will attract mediocre people and will underperform those with great people. For those leaders that want great employees, don’t be swayed by the latest trends but instead by what work structure *you* can provide the best possible experience within. For those employees that want great companies, think about what sacrifices you want to make and if the rewards are worth it. And for those people that want great lives over great work, this could be your golden age. Think deeply about where your desires and capabilities intersect.