The COVID-19 remote work experience was a deception borne of necessity.
“Those of us who’ve done it for a while know this hasn’t been the real remote work we know and love,” says Chris Herd, one of the foremost Twitter remote work evangelists. He’s also the Founder and CEO of Firstbase, a subscription-based platform that supplies the necessary tools to go office-free. For most companies, the leap was neither intentional nor a perk, but rather a requisite safety measure hastily put into practice. The result, he says, was the in-office experience colliding with our home lives.
“It’s a problem because we’re in a pandemic and people have nothing else to do and they’re incredibly bored, so work becomes an escape in some respects,” he says. He believes this has tainted the experience of newcomers working from home, leading to burnout—an experience that he never felt as a remote CEO until now.
An Indeed survey found that 52% of employees report feeling burned out in 2021—a 9% increase since before the pandemic. Even those with previous remote work experience are battling isolation and burnout. Gallup reported that 29% of those who worked remotely both pre- and during COVID-19 felt burned out in September 2020—an 11% single-year increase.
Worried that the extreme events might give a false impression of actual remote working conditions, Herd talked to more than 2,000 companies to forecast the future of remote work. For employees who didn’t enjoy the pandemic version, he believes the best is yet to come as more companies go remote by choice—with a strategy—and workers realize they’ve already been utilizing many of the tools for remote working success.
“Most people have been working remotely for the best part of 15 years,” he says. “If you’re on different floors of the same office, you are basically remote. Nobody walks upstairs to have a conversation. They Slack each other, they pick up the phone, or they email you. Same thing for remote companies.”
Herd believes the future of remote work is about to break wide open, especially given the uptick in demand. A Society for Human Resource Management survey found that 52% of workers would prefer to remain remote permanently. Based on Herd’s research, here are three bold post-pandemic predictions that will help companies build a sustainable remote work structure.
Dependency on Office Culture Will Dwindle—and That’s a Good Thing
Of the companies surveyed, Herd unearthed plans to cut commercial office space by 50% to 70%. About 30% planned to go completely office-free. A PwC survey found that 87% of executives plan to alter their real estate strategy, including “consolidating office space in premier locations and/or opening more satellite locations.”
The move is being driven, says Herd, by a desire to access the best talent for open roles, which could be anywhere in the world. Cost cutting is another major component. He thinks savvy companies would prefer to spend $2,ooo per employee to outfit them with the best remote work setup versus $20,ooo per worker—per year—for the traditional digs.
Private equity firms will push the shift as they purchase new companies and look to reduce operating costs while fostering growth. Companies will be forced to transition away from in-person work to e-work, cutting huge real estate fees while maintaining the increased productivity remote workers managed during the pandemic.
“Almost everything that happens in an office is a myth,” he says. “People say, ‘We need an office for communication.’ ‘We need it for collaboration.’ You don’t. People have done incredible work in the most difficult circumstances imaginable while not working in an office.”
He warns against propping up the need for serendipitous opportunity—the ability to solve problems around the watercooler and dropping by cubicles—which is not easy to replicate virtually.
“If that’s true, your company’s broken,” he says. “You don’t have any processes that work, because you’re solving problems by accident.”
Bretton Putter, Founder and CEO of CultureGene, a consultancy platform that helps private equity funds and high-growth startups such as Experian and Outbrain manage their workplace cultures, says the transition away from office-dependent culture must start at the top.
“Leadership must not work in an office,” says Putter, author of Own Your Culture: How to Define, Embed, and Manage Your Company Culture. “As soon as the leadership team goes into an office, then everybody else will congregate and it’ll become a synchronous communication environment. And the people working remotely will struggle, feel like second-class citizens, and leave your organization.”
Putter believes not all office time is wasted, however, and the drivers of the business will dictate who needs face-to-face time.
“If you have a really big engineering team and a small marketing team, it’s likely that the engineering team will be happy working from home—they’re not being disturbed. The marketing team and the sales team may want to be together because they’re young, and they’re learning, and they need the osmosis.”
Employees appear to agree. The same PwC survey found that 87% of employees believe the office to be a vital tool for collaboration and relationship building. While young workers on smaller teams might want to learn through osmosis—and therefore think the office is the best place for that—both Putter and Herd agree that the right tech tools can achieve that same osmosis-type experience.
Hybrid Will Be the Worst of Both Worlds
Hybrid appears to be the near-term strategy for many companies. A Gartner survey found that 82% of leaders intend to offer hybrid work options going forward. Jane Fraser, CEO of Citigroup, announced in a memo that the majority of the company’s more than 2o0,000 employees would be designated as hybrid, spending three days in the office and two remote. Starting in July, nearly 30,000 Ford employees will have hybrid work options.
Herd questions the model’s efficacy.
“You end up with this disparity in terms of access to information and contribution to information,” he says. Impromptu meetings and announcements generally exclude remote workers and privilege those in the office, overindexing physical proximity regarding input and feedback on projects, and ultimately career growth.
He also believes that it leads to confusion about how remote people are allowed to be, comparing it to unlimited vacation. A 2017 study found that employees with unlimited paid time off (PTO) take off two fewer days per year than those with traditional PTO policies.
“What happens is nobody works remotely because they don’t want to be seen as someone who’s slacking,” he says. “The bigger concern should be that they work too hard and burn out.”
Working semisynchronously will also be a challenge.
“Pre-COVID, most companies were mainly synchronous,” Putter says. “Even email, which really is a semisynchronous, or an asynchronous tool, was used in a synchronous manner. You almost got annoyed if somebody didn’t respond to your email quickly.”
Putter believes hybrid success hinges on a structure that values mainly asynchronous or semisynchronous communication. Shared documentation will be essential, too.
“It could be project management tools. It could be document management software, or it could be Google Docs,” he says. “You use this combination of [project management] tools that allow for much more asynchronous communication, and then you build out a [remote working] handbook like GitLab, Toptal, or Buffer [did].” These guides outline the company culture, tech tools, productivity tips, and communication rules for successful remote work. For most companies, launching a successful hybrid program will be a 12- to 24-month process.
Putter warns that the hybrid model further limits the ability to hire top talent.
“Some CEOs tell me that they’re going to have people in the office Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, and then Wednesday and Thursday will be remote. That means they need to hire people in their city. They cannot hire the best person, who is two time zones away, who is really going to move the needle for the business.”
Ultimately, Herd says that competition will propel the transition to remote.
“If your biggest competitor is more remote than you, they are, by proxy, more talented and cost-efficient, which means you’re not going to survive the decade.”
Time on the Job Will Lose Significance
During the pandemic, Herd says many organizations didn’t truly transition to remote work.
“Companies are basically replicating the office environment remotely,” he says. “It’s bad because you end up with synchronous-type working at home, which is super disruptive and distracting. It makes it difficult to complete deep, focused work.”
Being in an office is overvalued because workers wear their hours spent there as a badge of honor—not their actual productivity. Working remotely affords employees independence, pride, and more investment in the work itself.
“Being able to do what you want, control your time, and be measured on how much work you produce is a completely different thing,” Herd says.
Asynchronous working actually enables employees to focus more on work and life, he says, as well as engage with both at higher levels of efficiency and satisfaction. The goal is to transition from focusing on time spent to focusing on deliverables. Judge employees based on whether or not they are completing their work and hitting their goals.
“Knowledge work isn’t this thing that can be fit into a box, and that’s why the 9-to-5 [schedule] doesn’t work. You go to any tech company in the world and they use project management software. They use OKRs. They’ve got KPIs to measure performance. They know at the end of a week whether or not they’re closer to their end goal. That’s all that matters.”
Will companies ever get there? Herd is uncertain due to the slow pace of change at large bureaucratic organizations, but he points to success stories like Stripe, which has employed remote workers since its founding, recently committing to rebalancing its office-centric culture by expanding the remote workforce. Herd believes they are thriving in large part because they measure workers based on output rather than time spent working.
“It’s the most ambitious goal of the lot, but it’s the one we should be aiming for. If we just end up in a worse situation, where we’re measuring how many times you click your mouse in a day and we’re screen grabbing what you’re doing, you end up with surveillance in your home rather than just in an office.”
That is, after all, the danger of bringing the 9-to-5 mindset to the remote work environment—the home becomes a scion of the company and its rules, regulations, and monitoring practices. The real future of remote work must be structured around output, asynchronous work, and trust. Getting there will require a whole new way of thinking.