Future of Work6 minute read

Remote, not re-moat

In the name of “returning to normal,” companies are forcing employees back into the office, locking out both themselves and their employees from working remotely—and all of the benefits that it brings.

Taso Du Val
CEO of Toptal

As Toptal’s Chief Executive Officer, Taso manages Toptal’s core team of hundreds of team members distributed throughout the world, with a focus on innovation. Since Toptal was founded in 2010, Taso has led it to become the largest high-skilled, on-demand talent network in the world. Taso serves on the board of multiple organizations, advising on talent strategy and innovation for Fortune 100s and nonprofits. Taso has guest lectured at Harvard Business School, Wharton, and Oxford on talent management and entrepreneurship.


As the pandemic winds down in many places around the globe, CEOs like Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman and WeWork’s Sandeep Mathrani are pushing for a return to the office. The backlash has been swift and severe. Many employees simply don’t want to go back into the office today, tomorrow, or ever, with 39% stating they would consider quitting their jobs rather than sacrifice flexibility. That number increases to over 49% for millennials and members of Generation Z, which account for more than half of all US workers.

This spells trouble for organizations with an attachment to pre-pandemic ways of operating, and presents an incredible opportunity for companies that embrace remote work. It seems very clear that companies that embrace remote work—prioritizing flexibility and skill over physical presence—will have access to a significantly larger pool of talent relative to pre-pandemic times.

Any so-called “return to normal” ignores the fact that younger workers, parents, and caregivers are no longer willing to sacrifice a manageable personal and family life for the sake of their careers. Women in particular are leaving the workplace fast, with further studies supporting this finding. This doesn’t even consider the millions of college graduates and young workers who strongly prefer remote work. Combine these factors with the thousands of companies that have responded to the above facts by embracing remote work and hiring away these individuals from the very companies that are “returning to normal,” and the new normal becomes obvious.

This almost comical situation is likely to persist, all the while companies refusing to adapt focus singularly on reentry planning, real estate expenses, and other efforts that amount to an attempt to sustain—quite literally—a prehistoric normal.

Proper Remote Work Works

The pandemic revealed with perfect clarity that innovation and productivity do not require in-person gatherings. Though instead of building upon those learnings, many companies are investing time and money into figuring out a way to force workers back into an outdated mode of operating. Capitalizing on this absurdity is how thousands of companies that understand remote work have responded, tailoring their work environment to the desires of these workers, and hiring them away from companies that are refusing to adapt.

Knowing what infrastructure, metrics, and practices to focus on is key to running a remote company successfully, and often such elements are not set up properly for companies that are not used to working in a remote environment. As such, older companies often blame remote work, rather than their lack of understanding on how to work remotely successfully as a key reason for it not working well.

As just one example, in a remote company it’s important to properly measure productivity, not presence; a metric that companies often get wrong and prevents them from making the transition to remote work successfully. If your employees aren’t thriving remotely, you need to reexamine your accountability and leadership strategies, not your office. Ask yourself whether you’ve truly set up an organizational model for successful remote work.

Companies that have experienced pain with the above simply have not set up their organization for remote work adequately. A fully proper setup generally separates a successful remote work experience versus one that amounts to needing to force people back into an office.

January 2020, Thomson Reuters Multigenerational Workforce Panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
From left to right: Lareina Yee, Senior Partner and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at McKinsey; Taso Du Val, Chief Executive Officer at Toptal; Tae Yoo, Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Corporate Social Responsibility at Cisco; Othman Laraki, Chief Executive Officer at Color Genomics.

Access to a Global Talent Pool

Without geographic restrictions, companies have access to the best talent in the world instead of the best talent in a given ZIP code. Obviously, better talent leads to better products and services. Defining work as an in-office-only experience effectively rejects huge swaths of talented people who thrive in different working environments and locations. Whatever pitfalls there may be when it comes to remote work, they are vastly outweighed by the benefits of a significantly larger talent pool.

The second-order consequence of embracing a global talent pool is that it allows a company to easily focus on meritocracy. A true corporate meritocracy can only exist when the best person for the job is hired for every role. The world’s best developers should not have to relocate to Silicon Valley to work for leading tech companies, especially when that work can be completed from anywhere. A top-tier finance expert should not have to live in New York City to land a role with a top-tier company. We live in a world without digital borders. It is no longer necessary or reasonable to hire within the constructs of a physically centralized workspace. In fully distributed companies, it isn’t about where you are or who you know, it’s about who you are and what you can do. Fully meritocratic.

These benefits happen while at the same time saving companies on their office-related expenses and employees on their commute-related expenses. Companies save on average $22,000 annually per remote employee, with workers saving as much as $4,000 per year. It’s no wonder the majority of full-time workers want to continue working remotely—so much so that 64% would turn down a $30,000 raise for the privilege.

Simply put—remote work reduces operating costs for everyone.

We Trust Your Employees, so Why Don’t You?

For most companies, the cost savings alone should be enough, though unfortunately there is something more powerful at play. Trust—or a lack thereof— is at the heart of the attacks against remote work. People often ask: How can you trust that someone is doing their work if you can’t see them? How can you build trust between employees if they’re never together? How can you foster trust between your organization and its external customers if you can’t sit down in a room with them?

Rather than the questions above, think of the following questions: When you force employees back into the office, what message are you sending? When we hire away your top talent because we trust them to work remotely and you don’t, what’s your response to that? If thousands of companies are embracing remote work and your retention rates plummet, is that the only time you will change?

The most engaged people aren’t the ones that have the most restrictions placed on how and when they work, nor are they the ones that are listened to the least; they’re the ones who feel their employers trust and value them enough to let them chart their own path. In fact, 56% of employees say flexibility is the primary way their company could alleviate their pandemic-induced burnout.

Forcing employees to return to the office isn’t an elegant solution to the stresses and challenges of the past year. Quite the opposite: It’s an instinctual response fraught with long-term consequences.

An Economic Paradigm Shift Is in the Making

By this time next year, the global economy will be fundamentally transformed. Dissatisfied workers are poised to quit their jobs in droves. The pandemic has led many to reevaluate their personal and professional lives, and people are choosing flexibility and balance over status and money. Twenty-five percent of workers are considering quitting their current job after the pandemic. Twenty percent have already quit and completely changed careers. Many are seeking to pursue their passions, but a lot of them simply are tired of living by someone else’s arbitrary rules. There’s no going back to the way things were. People have seen a better way and won’t be dissuaded from pursuing it.

But it’s bigger than the cost of attrition. Fully distributed companies have no physical footprint: no office, no cars, no equipment, no machinery. We don’t contend with heating and cooling bills, office supplies, or facilities fees. These factors are reflected not only in our bottom line, but also from environmental, social, and personal aspects. Our workers don’t contribute to carbon emissions through needlessly long commutes. We don’t contribute to the waste of human capital by forcing people to spend hours each week behind the wheel. We don’t need to entice our employees with in-office gyms, laundry service, and pingpong tables in exchange for their loyalty and work-life balance.

The future is clear: one without physical presence, and one that prizes people over presenteeism. As we move further into that future, our message to employers is this:

Revisiting the past will not move your organization forward. If you’re unprepared and unwilling to adapt, you’re going to lose your best people. And to those workers who have had enough of the old way of doing business: we’re hiring.

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