(This column originally appeared in The Guardian)
I think we can all agree that, for the most part and thankfully, the worst of the Covid pandemic is over. People are getting back to their normal lives. But does a “normal life” mean coming back to the office? That’s up for debate. And what a debate it is.
Workers at AT&T say they’re being forced to return to the office early and have started a Change.org petition to make their company’s pandemic work-from-home policies permanent. Apple employees, upset with their company’s return-to-office orders, have launched a petition saying the company has risked stifling diversity and staff wellbeing by restricting their ability to work remotely.
Meanwhile a few big-name corporate leaders are pushing back. JPMorgan Chase’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, has publicly complained about remote work and Zoom, which he refers to as “management by Hollywood Squares”. And unlike the Apple employees, Dimon believes that returning to the office will “aid diversity”. Elon Musk has jumped into the debate, telling his employees that he’s happy for them to work from home, as long as they’ve worked 40 hours in the office.
A Stanford economist says that working from home is fueling growth at companies around the world and other studies support his claim, with onefinding that 77% of workers reported increased productivity when operating remotely. However, there are other reports that conclude that those who work full-time at home are 70% less productive than those who don’t work from home.
And what about mental health? Many experts feel that working from home has the potential to reduce stress levels because “there’s no daily commute, you can sleep a bit longer, family commitments are easier to manage and you’ll likely achieve a better level of concentration without the distraction of office chatter and telephones”. But one study from the American Psychiatric Association found that a majority of employees working from home “say they experienced negative mental health impacts, including isolation, loneliness and difficulty getting away from work at the end of the day”.
“Working from home is slowly killing me,” writes a software engineer at Amazon. “I’ve gotten lazy and antisocial. It feels like I wake up, go to the next room, work, log off, go back to the next room, rinse and repeat,” he adds. “I don’t feel like myself and feel very emotionless.”
It is still difficult to parse the real benefits and costs of this extraordinary experiment so many of us have taken part in. But there is one answer we will soon agree on: all companies will need to let their employees work from home — just maybe not as much as some would like. I’m seeing a compromise already happening among my clients, and that compromise comes down to just one word: hybrid.
Many younger workers were begging their bosses to allow them to work from home long before the pandemic struck. And many older employers resisted them. Then along came Covid. And what happened? We, as small business owners, were forced to send our employees home and it was fine! They were right. We should have listened. Now we have no choice.
That doesn’t mean we allow people to work from home all the time. Or that we force them to come to our offices all the time. Even the most vocal supporters of remote working I know admit that spending some face time with colleagues is beneficial — particularly for young people who need mentors around them. Or for people who desire to be around other people. Or for those who are easily distracted, prone to loneliness or who suffer from certain anxieties. It’s also beneficial for groups that need to collaborate, for people to share their ideas, and for workplaces where the culture depends on social activities, camaraderie and teamwork.
Which is why the end of the work-from-home debate is on the horizon. Workers and business owners know that a compromise is inevitable. My clients already agree with their employees that some days in the office are good. And a few days at home are also good. Hybrid.
They’re allowing their managers to decide what working arrangements are best for their teams. They’re supporting employees who work from home with good technology and security. They’re demanding that workers be available during the work day and that they come to the office when required. Some employees I know prefer going into the office every day. Others not at all. The choice is theirs, as long as they meet the company’s minimum requirements and their managers are satisfied.
Will we still be debating work from home a year from now? I don’t think so. Because, unlike some of the other issues created by the pandemic, a hybrid work environment is already putting this one to rest. I just hope that my older clients recognize this. Because if they continue to resist, they’ll lose out on great talent.