Is remote work actually better than returning to the office?
To answer that question we must take into consideration personality type, occupation, personal preference, family situation, mental health, proximity to the office, health and safety concerns, distractions like young children, availability of a home office space, etc.―which makes returning to the office full-time a very sensitive subject, especially among CEOs.
In fact, it’s so sensitive that many Utah CEOs would not speak on the record about their strong desires to get workers back in the office―even if that is how they’re leaning.
CEOs want employees back in the office
Joshua Aikens, chief of staff at Zonos told me the biggest challenges his company faced during the pandemic were threefold: lost communication, collaboration, and cultural connections. Productivity got a boost, but other things are better in the office, he says.
Ryan Wedig, CEO of Vasion agrees. Wedig is not afraid to share his strong support for getting people back into the office. In fact, I have to credit Wedig as the inspiration for this article. In the middle of a pandemic, Vasion charged ahead and invested in a massive office building at Tech Ridge in St. George, fully equipped with open workspaces, whiteboards, a mixed-use basketball court, a stage, an arcade, quiet boxes, a lunchroom, and a lounge where employees can hang out.
Wedig argues that, in a purely remote work environment, it’s difficult to recreate personal interactions and experiences. Video calls, he says, are a good example. “Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to have everyone on the video and actively participating, but it’s so important because their one insight, even though it might be small, could change the whole trajectory of the meeting in a meaningful way.”
When I asked Wedig how he felt about employees working from home, he says that’s a perk the company offered long before COVID and that once processes are established, employees are often more efficient and productive while working remotely. In the short run, he says, that can be totally beneficial for individuals and for the company, but in the long run, it comes at a cost.
BambooHR is open for employees who need somewhere to work outside their home with masks, social distancing, and other health and safety protocols in place. However, they look forward to the Phase 1 reopening of the office this calendar year, the timing and decision of which will be based on the latest guidance from local and national health authorities.
According to Cassie Whitlock, director of HR, “a struggle with having employees work from home has been ensuring that culture is not lost in translation. When you’re not physically in the office surrounded by coworkers, are you still feeling part of the company culture? This concern is amplified as we plan to hire around 500 employees this year.”
One of the pros of the work-from-home environment, Whitlock says, is focused work. Remote work has also brought to light things that were overlooked in the workplace, such as mental health and resilience. Mental healthcare has become a huge priority over the past year and now an open and honest conversation in more organizations, she says.
But remote work may inhibit collaborative work and connection, she says. “Many employees are finding that they are working longer hours and maybe taking less time off. Historically, when you took time off, the changes you felt included not going into the office, not commuting into work, and other behaviors that aren’t part of remote work. So what are the new emotional changes we need to experience when we unplug from remote working? For many individuals and organizations, they need to build that muscle to gain those beneficial outcomes.”
Goldman Sachs in Salt Lake City has made similar observations. In a recent company-wide town hall, CEO David Solomon says: “Ours is a collaborative, innovative, and apprenticeship culture. We know from experience our people do their best when they forge close bonds with their colleagues. There are many ways to do that. But we found the best way is to work together in person on a regular basis. We owe it to the next class of campus analysts and associates to make sure that they don’t have to work exclusively from home. Getting them into the office is the best way to get them connected to Goldman Sachs.”
Goldman Sachs is temporarily offering employees working in the Salt Lake City office up to $20 per day that can be used toward meals delivered to the building. The purpose is to provide people who are coming to the office with the option to obtain meals without having to leave the building―part of their comprehensive approach to help protect the health and safety of employees during the pandemic.
Employees want to choose
Linda Llewelyn, chief people officer at Health Catalyst in Salt Lake City told me they will invite employees back in the office when they feel it’s safe to do so, in accordance with CDC and state guidelines. Right now, they anticipate returning in late spring or early summer. “We’ve heard from team members that the biggest struggle is the lack of social interaction with each other,” Llewelyn says. “This is especially true for team members who thrive in social settings.”
Over the past year, the inability to celebrate their achievements in person, as a team, and as a company has been sorely missed, she explains. As a result, Health Catalyst plans to provide team members with the option to work remotely or from the office, similar to the options provided to team members prior to the pandemic. They suspect that some will return full time, while others may shift their work experience.
CHG Healthcare has 1,400 employees who have been working from home since March of 2020. Now that vaccines are more widely available, they are working to fully reopen their office over the next few months. That means bringing back their onsite amenities like their gym, health clinic, and cafeteria, says Kerry Norman, SVP of people and operations. “Hopefully, things will start to feel a lot more normal soon,” she says.
As the company moves forward, they want to keep the best parts of working remotely and working in the office. That means giving people the flexibility to choose how many days they’d like to work from home and bringing back the amenities to the office so people can have a great experience when they’re onsite, she says. “It’s going to take some adjustment. We’re going to have to learn to lead and engage our people when some are in the office and others are remote. We’ll need to reconfigure our workspaces to be both more tech-friendly and people-friendly. But, in the end, I think all this work will result in us being a better place to work than it was before the pandemic.”
As the pandemic evolved, Pluralsight decided there was an opportunity for interested team members to work in their new global headquarters in Draper on an optional basis beginning in March. A number of factors led to this decision, including steady declines in the number of COVID-19 cases in the state of Utah, vaccine availability and rollout, rapid testing availability, and improvements in treatments.
One positive factor is the ample space and flexible work areas provided by the new HQ, which allows for safe distancing and improved productivity says Anita Grantham, chief people officer at Pluralsight. “The reception so far has been really positive, and our team members have really embraced the opportunity to return to the office with about a third of team members in Utah going to the office in Draper on a regular basis.”
When I asked Grantham about Pluralsight’s challenges with employees working from home, she says “the biggest challenge has been the loss of in-person connections.” They’ve tried to counteract that throughout the pandemic by being very intentional about fostering connectivity in a virtual environment with more frequent company-wide town hall meetings, a regular cadence of meetings at the organization and team level, etc.
“It doesn’t replace the benefits of in-person connections, but we have wanted our team members to still feel connected with their colleagues. Other than that, it’s the normal things you’d expect—not having a dedicated workspace at home, juggling family responsibilities like caring for kids without childcare.”
Grantham says that in regards to the future of work at Pluralsight, their team members are already starting to work from their beautiful new global headquarters in Draper. “We also have team members returning to our offices in Sydney and we are hopeful we have team members that can return to our offices in Boston and Dublin really soon. So there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.
“Pluralsight has always been a remote-friendly company, but we are now more open to remote working options across the company. Fully remote and partial remote options (i.e., splitting time between office and home) are available when hiring new team members as well as existing team members.
Some roles by their nature are not suitable for fully or partially remote options, but the vast majority of team members now have greater flexibility to work remotely if they choose and it works for their teams and leaders. Overall, we see this transition as being critical to our ability to drive forward our company goals.”
Businesses are betting on office space
Despite conditions caused by the pandemic, Utah has fared surprisingly well as a whole. In regard to keeping their office space amid the uncertainty of remote work throughout 2020, many have managed to hold on to their office space. Josh Smith, EVP of Colliers says that despite tenants being forced out of office buildings in March of 2020, the vast majority of office tenants have been able to continue paying rent. According to Smith, this has prevented major issues within the industry as it relates to tenant defaults, rent deferment issues, and loan defaults.
However, Smith says the solution for remote work will be different for each company. Companies such as Goldman Sachs, Barclays, Cisco, and JPMorgan Chase have made announcements they will be making a full return to the office. Others such as Amazon, Alphabet (Google), and Apple plan to return to the office between July and September with a hybrid model, allowing employees the ability to work from home one to two days per week.
Arian Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Kiln, estimates that prior to the pandemic, the work in office, flex in-and-out of office, and work-from-home split for a majority of the workforce may have been 90 percent, 5 percent, and 5 percent respectively. “Today, post-pandemic, those percentages may settle out to be 40 percent, 40 percent, and 20 percent respectively. This represents a major shift in strategy, where a business will need to find workspace solutions that optimally support a dispersed and flexible workforce,” Lewis says.
“For the more than 250 companies that call Kiln home, there are a few conclusions that appear to be universally clear in our post-pandemic world: 1) the need for improved operational and financial flexibility as it pertains to workspace, 2) the social, emotional, and professional benefits being in-office, even if only part-time, provides for most professionals, and 3) creating a safe and experientially-driven workspace environment can be challenging, often requiring a partner like Kiln to help deliver.”
Isaac Barlow is the CEO of busybusy and the visionary behind Tech Ridge in St. George. He says the changes caused by the pandemic helped design more fluidly around flexible workspace in every area throughout the massive mixed-use development. In other words, Tech Ridge is taking into account the new normal, and they’re evolving to meet the new needs of their tenants.
Whitlock doesn’t think it’s realistic to expect businesses to have a flawless plan. “ Instead, we should focus our energy on building a solid, comprehensive plan and then incorporate a backup plan with feedback channels. Use your business network to enhance your plan: your industry peers are grappling with the same issues, and you can work together to effectively address health and safety as you reopen your work site.”