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A Prediction Is Just An Educated Guess Until It Becomes a Reality, Back to the Office is Fast on the Way. Sorry, Rover!

Posted by Michael S OGrady on Mar 31, 2021 2:50:25 PM
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Pet-Party

“Pets understand humans better than humans do.” said Ruchi Prabhu, Indian Author. One thing for sure, our pets will miss us when we return to the office, but somehow they will survive. Pet party! The humans are gone!

When the pandemic is over or almost over, in whatever form that takes, where will workers go work? Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon said, in referring to the growing sentiment of working remotely, "I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us. And it's not a new normal. It's an aberration that we're going to correct as soon as possible."

Think about it. If the work-from-home business model was so viable, why wasn't this solution already in place long before the pandemic? The best business minds in the world are always looking to adopt, adapt and grow. The remote worker idea is not new; it's just never been considered a winning strategy. 

This work is why I think the so-called "new normal" is just an interim solution that's had its day. Optimistically, I forecast that 75% or more of the workforce will be back full-time in an office by the end of the year or soon after. But don't take my word for it. Consider what influencers and top business leaders are saying.

American's Top Leaders Want Offices Fully Staffed

Many CEOs and other executives say they've seen enough to judge whether having employees work remotely is the right solution. Here's what some top leaders are saying about working from home vs. the value that working premise contributes to productivity, performance, community hand culture:

Reed Hastings, Co-Chief Executive of Netflix, on working from home:

"I don't see any positives. Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative." 

Andi Owen, CEO of furniture giant Herman Miller, on the value she puts on personal connection:

"That unplanned kind of interaction that contributes so much to how we build relationships with people - and how we build community and culture - those things are what are missing."

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, on employees seeking better working conditions:

"Even in Seattle, where we've now sent a lot of people home, we realize most would rather have a workspace at an office once the Covid-19 crisis goes away because they want dedicated space with good network connectivity."

Jim Fish, CEO of Waste Management, on remote work and the desire for flexibility:

"Most of us are not hermits. We need that social interaction, not only from a business standpoint but truly from a kind of personal-development standpoint."

These leaders believe working and collaborating builds a camaraderie and esprit de corps. A place where people share essential information, engage in daily problem-solving chats, and feed off each other. They feel young employees need mentors, guidance, and direction.

CEO of JPMorgan Jamie Dimon thinks this synergy is diminished when people are disconnected remotely. All of these senior executives walk the talk, having returned to the office by mid-last year.

A recent Wall Street Journal article title said it all: "Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn't So Great After All." The subtitle: "Projects take longer. Collaboration is harder. And training new workers is a struggle. This work-from-home model is not going to be sustainable." 

Critical points in the article said hiring and integrating new employees was more complicated. Some employers said remote workers appear less connected and fear younger staff members aren't developing at the same rate as they would in offices, sitting next to colleagues and absorbing how they do their jobs.

Trust and Training Issues Are Big Roadblocks

The pandemic suddenly forced many executives into remote management, which requires a very different skill set than face-to-face management. They were required to make this transition quickly and, often without proper - or any training. Many industry sectors are not built to work well with remote staff, and workers have home lives with daunting challenges. As a result, managers struggled to adapt, as did employees, making everyone's lives more stressful.

Even before COVID-19, managing teleworkers created unique obstacles. Research shows that managers who cannot "see" their direct reports often struggle to trust that their employees are working. When doubts like this occur, managers compensate by expecting remote workers to be available at all times, disrupting work-home balance and causing more job stress

Workers who were suddenly forced to work remotely also faced new challenges such as compromised finances or school-age kids' logistics. As a result, many workers are struggling to perform at the same pre-pandemic level, or managers see some changes in their degree of productivity. This inability to work at a high-level, in turn, could create a negative spiral in which mistrust leads to micromanagement, which leads to drops in employee motivation, further hindering productivity.

Almost Half Feel More Productive in An Office

Where are your employees at their best? That's the ongoing debate about office productivity versus home productivity. Many people and companies say they've seen an uptick in productivity working from home. But more and more, the thinking is the office is a better approach. Recent findings provide an interesting insight.

A recent study found almost half (45%) of remote workers say they're more productive in an office. The study also said only 30% felt more productive working from home. These are revealing statistics from an unprecedented number of employees working from home for most of last year. Conducted by The Manifest – a company that provides data-driven benchmarks for small businesses - they surveyed workers across the country from all age groups. With most of 2020 for employees to make up their minds, the findings echo my belief.

The Office Is Best for Your Career Growth

A recent Forbes article said that, according to science, the office was best for productivity and career growth. While working from home certainly has its benefits, it also could be detracting from your career. It pointed out there are ways to be more strategic about advancing your professional career, and showing up at your office is one of them. Several other factors come into play.

For routine work, online efforts were exemplary. Working in person was far better for more complex projects with a tight deadline, so inherently more stressful. There's also the benefit that comes from teamwork. The article said a study found "positive spillover in performance." It's similar to a phenomenon called the "Bandwagon Effect," where group energy, motivation, and collective activity inspired more productivity. All of which is great for your career, as results get you noticed.

There's also the concept of social capital. If you want to build relationships - and a valuable network - that helps you grow, learn, and advance your career, it's easier to accomplish this face-to-face. While you can form relationships virtually, they won't be as solid, and trust may not be as strong. Also, in-person contact enables greater familiarity leading to stronger connections. In turn, this social capital helps you be more productive.

Face time is a crucial factor, too. Being out of sight and out of mind could adversely impact a remote employee's long-term career trajectory. Questions will arise over whether remote workers receiving the same training level, attention, mentorship, and guidance as staff in the office. If the manager is in the headquarters, they'll likely favor people who are always there, which shows commitment. Onboarding, training, and integrating newly hired staff could be cumbersome, too.

Attitudes Are Shifting Towards A Return to Work

A recent study by Eden Workplace, an office management software solution provider, found 78% of workers want to return to the office, with 52% saying that socialization was a key reason. Heath concerns are still mixed, but with lower risks from increased vaccination, there is a growing sentiment toward getting back to pre-pandemic conditions.

Writing for BISNOW, Patrick Sisson reported this quote from Brian Kropp, Chief of Research in the Human Resources Practice for Gartner, a global research firm, "Lots of companies are strongly implying they want people back. If you don't come back, you may not have a job. But what's more likely is that remote employees will get smaller raises, managers will be biased, and less likely to get promotions, and more likely to be passed over for cool projects. Their career growth is much more likely to stall." 

The Kopp quote went on to say, "We found, via a series of statistical analyses, that 60% of managers believe in-office workers have higher performance, with the remaining 40% saying in-office and remote workers perform similarly. Management is more likely to give a raise to someone who comes in, even if they perform at the same level as a remote colleague."

Working Together It's Better for Your Wellbeing

Studies from the Association for Psychological Science found engagement, satisfaction, and productivity are intertwined and tend to reinforce one another. When people – in this case, employees – are more engaged, they're more satisfied and productive. The reverse is true, too; when we're more effective, we're more engaged and happier. It's another benefit of working in an office. It's far easier to jump right in when you're there. You can actively and fully engage with colleagues working toward a common goal – and be more productive in the process.

The reality is work relations are critical to an employee's wellbeing. As humans, we crave connections with other people. Since full-time employees spend a majority of their work-life at the office, these relationships are key. It's more than just getting along. The right connections can positively affect an employee's stress level, productivity, and feelings of happiness. These factors do more than affect an employee's performance; they affect their overall health, too. 

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs includes a sense of belonging as a major one that motivates human behavior – just like food, shelter, and safety. Strong social connections at work make people happier and physically healthier, and that translates into better performance. Companies with a culture that promotes social relationships also help build a thriving workforce. All of which must take place face-to-face, in the office.

Many Say Working from Home Is Overrated

A plethora of blogs and a recent article I read suggest more and more people are finding working from home is not all that grand. The overall takeaway is that home-cooked meals and no commuting can't compensate for what is lost in social interaction, networking, and lack of stimulation.

While studies show increased productivity – at least initially - from many remote workers, research also shows what they gain in productivity; they often miss Creativity and innovative thinking. Studies have found that a team working together in the same room tends to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators and that the group dynamic suffers in online arrangements.

What's more, working in isolation is lonely, which explains the popularity of co-working spaces like WeWork, Industrious, and Regus. Even in Silicon Valley, where the tools that allow for remote work are being built, these same companies require workers to come into the office.

Apple founder Steve Jobs was a fierce opponent of remote work. He believed an employee's best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of an email inbox. He said, "Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone; you ask what they're doing, you say 'wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas." 

Google and Other Tech Companies Commit to More Office Space

Writing for BISNOW, Matthew Rothstein said the same tech companies that spearheaded remote working are now the most significant source of new office leases in major metro markets. The tech sector accounted for 24% of all new leases in 2020, according to CBRE research

Rothstein went on to say that office occupancy has slowly risen in major cities across the country. According to Kastle Systems, a firm that makes keycard-based entry systems for office buildings. For its report, Kastle measured data from these keycard swipes. The data showed that across 10 of the nation's largest office markets, worker occupancy remains at just below 25%.

According to a CNN Business article, Google has doubled down on its office space. They're the latest tech company to commit to more office space despite the pandemic. CNN reported Google plans to invest more than $7 billion in offices and data centers across the United States. And create at least 10,000 additional full-time jobs in 2021.

The article shared this quote from Google CEO Sundar Pichai, "Coming together in-person to collaborate and build community is core to Google's culture, and will be an important part of our future. We continue to make significant investments in our offices around the country." 

The CNN report also said Amazon intended to hire 3,500 more workers and announced they'll expand offices in New York, Dallas, Detroit, Denver, Phoenix, and San Diego. In total, this expansion represents 905,000 square feet of additional office space.

A BISNOW article by Jon Banister said Amazon doesn't plan to give back any of its existing office space, currently at 44-million square feet across 400 offices in 54 countries. They still plan to occupy all future office space it has committed to, including at least 6-million square feet at its HQ2 development in Northern Virginia.

Vice President of Global Real Estate and Facilities, John Schoettler, said Amazon hasn't yet decided its office growth strategy after it fills all that space. "Perhaps we'll absorb the office space we currently have and not need to grow it as fast, but we've not discussed the need to shed any of our current space." 

Some business sectors are laying-off people or fearing survival, yet the pandemic has been suitable for specific industries. Many tech companies have thrived, adding thousands of jobs, and have a very optimistic outlook for 2021. In the past, they've also spent billions on luxury office space and, as a result, will be less reluctant to abandon in-person work. 

A Prediction Is Just Like Déjà Vu All Over Again

Thanks, Yogi! Well said.

This entire article is based on my belief that everyone will be back working full-time by the end of this year or soon after. I realize that for every reason I've stated, every statistic and survey I quoted, every article I parsed an insight from, that you can find an opposite point-of-view, statistic, and study-wise. So, it comes down to history and gut instinct-based on 30+ years as a business owner, professional, and mentor.

But I can distill that belief down to a simple question, 

"If we're sending our kids back to school, shouldn't we also be going back to the office for work?" 

If we feel it's safe enough to entrust our children's health - in fact, their very lives - in going back to school, shouldn't the same hold true about going back to the office? 

I recently read a terrific article entitled, "Working in an Office: 14 Advantages and Disadvantages."

I will cherry-pick and paraphrase the good reasons they were true before the pandemic and just as accurate today. 

  • Time Management: Working in an office teaches time management. If you have self-discipline issues, regular office hours will remedy that.
  • Better Interpersonal Skills: You'll learn how to interact with others. You'll also find out how to build working relationships with colleagues and how to maintain them.
  • Be More Skillful: You'll learn to become an experienced and diplomatic person. Seasoned individuals are also seen as more responsible and trustworthy.
  • Continuous Learning: You'll expand your knowledge on new methods, approaches and techniques. It will also push you to pursue creative solutions.
  • Boost Company Expertise: You'll learn more about your company and actively experience its culture. You'll also discover if this is the place - and career - for you.
  • More Face Time: Your seniors will see you and have a definite idea of what you're doing. It's also easier to get updates from them on all essential matters. 
  • Better Business IQ: There's no better way to understand business than from working in an office. To learn how transactions are handled and techniques used to run the business more effectively.
  • Prime Networking: You'll meet and get to know more people, make invaluable connections, and develop relationships with vendors or contractors.
  • Your Workspace: You get your own dedicated space, some measure of privacy, access to better technology and support services, and healthful social engagements. 

I'm sure I'm going to get a lot of feedback for this article, good and bad. I welcome them both. I also wish everyone great success this year and that you and yours are safe and well.

Topics: Management Consulting, Leadership, CEO Series

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