Most of you know that I recently sunsetted my businesses and took an opportunity at an amazing startup called Replit.
Having been on my own for the past 3 years and, like many, having businesses dramatically decrease in revenue due to the pausing of travel, social distancing rules, and border closures, it got to a point where it was actually more work pivoting and trying to be effective on Zoom when my businesses were built around my personality, identity, and being face-to-face with my attendees, especially during those amazing, revelatory, "fancy lunches" we had at my workshops around the world. Plus, I really missed the daily, hand-to-hand combat of managing the time of a busy CEO and helping to perfect the processes of a fast-growing startup to ensure seamless scaling.
Admittedly, the lack of connection during COVID did a number on me. No 5150 situation like we sometimes witness at our local Costco. But I often felt that I'd lost my professional identity and mojo in all the isolation. I would often question: Could I be just as effective on Zoom as I am IRL? Would people actually listen to or attend Saturday morning workshops that were still filled with a treasure trove of actionable information or see it as yet another Zoom meeting adding to mounting Zoom fatigue. Worse, on a Saturday, FFS! Which got me thinking. What about all of the employees and executives whose identities were tied to their presence and influence at the office. How were they feeling having that essentially stripped away via a lack of interpersonal interaction and communication? Did they figure out a way to be as effective (or close) managing their direct reports and teams? Or did they suffer the same feeling of diminished professional confidence and influence many are still trying to remedy. The question is: "Will a return to the office be the solution that saves business and business culture?"
Michael Gibbs, Friederike Mengel, and Christoph Siemroth's report Work From Home: Evidence From Personnel and Analytics Data on IT Professionals (May 2021) published data on 10,000 skilled professionals at a large Asian IT services company before and during the COVID-19 epidemic. Here's a quick summary of what they surfaced:
This is data from one (huge) organization in an industry that likely had a relatively easy time shifting to remote work than, say, a large law firm or government agency. But let's run with these since companies across all industries tend to have similar operating structures.
Looking at these numbers, I'm sure senior managers are rejoicing.
"See! Remote work isn't the answer everyone thinks it is!"
Well, yes and no. I believe there is a rather conspicuous desire by many in management to return to normal moreso than their employee populations. Managers who struggled with working and managing remotely see the return to the office as a reprieve, while those who adjusted well to remote work during the pandemic see it as a return to a model rife with issues that were never resolved pre-pandemic. As more and more hard data dispels the belief that certain companies can run just as effectively remotely, my concern is that the voices of those actually doing the work will be largely ignored.
The WFH debate is also revealing the age gap in the C-suite. C-suites run by older execs appear to be pushing hardest for a return to the office, seemingly less concerned about employee mental health and more focused on what worked prior to COVID. Younger C-suites appear to be more open to fully remote and hybrid working models and more concerned about the mental health of their employees. Sure, all of this still revolves around the hard data regarding the effectiveness of remote work, but more willingness by younger C-suites to explore options that more equitably support the business as much as their employees.
The biggest and most powerful shift in business is already happening: the will of the people. If you really read the comments sections and numerous articles, you'll find that employees are insisting on hybrid or fully remote work options. Where once a company to could simply plant their flag in the sand and, essentially, force employees to "like it or not," those days appear to be over. Companies insisting on in-office work are having a hard time filling seats that normally went like concert tickets. Even before the pandemic hit, prospective employees were scribbling WFH clauses onto their offer letters and often making their decisions based on the company's willingness to honor the request. Companies were willing to try it to score a potential high performer and deal with any flack from current employees yelling, "WTF?!" What once were edge cases are now the norm.
I honestly believe hybrid working is the way. In fact, I went on quite the diatribe in my book which turned out to be prescient given the choices companies now need to make. I see it as the best of both worlds. It allows for the structure more traditional managers need to be (read: feel) successful and allows employees to have a day or two of focused, deep work, as long as it's not interrupted with meetings and requests for time. If effort isn't taken to structure and protect that time, then it's pointless and really only a change of scenery.
Can someone send me the link to the magic wand site that apparently companies are using to solve the return-to-office-hybrid-remote work conundrum? I really want one.
These are unprecedented times that will require unprecedented solutions. Companies relying solely on data will, ultimately, shoot themselves in the foot. Companies like Twitter and Square boldly claiming to stay 100% remote will experience their own pains in productivity, growth, and employee mental health.
Let me remind people: there was no manual outlining how to successfully transition from a career of working in an office to working exclusively from your kitchen table. Overnight. For over a year. This has been one big-ass experiment from day one, unless you were already working remotely and had developed the skills, mindset, and guardrails to do so successfully.
I know for a fact that I've still not figured it out. I wake up at 4am every day. (It's my thing. Let it go.) I day trade most mornings from 6am to 7:30am. And I have to admit I often pop onto my work computer at 4:30am to get an idea of what the day holds for myself and the CEO I support. And, like clockwork I get pulled into actually doing work from 4:30am to 6am, and again from 7:30am until my 9am official start time. And then my workday begins. Just like the aforementioned data I've been averaging an additional 3 hours per day of work time, as well as short spurts over the weekend just to make sure I have no surprises awaiting me on Monday morning.
While I know most people reading this are still stuck on the thought of a 4am wakeup call (try it...it will change your life!) I know many are struggling with maintaining a dileniation between work and home life, especially since both now occur in the same space. For some, a return to the office instantly provides that dileniation allowing them to do their best work and be able to return home to exhale and actually enjoy their lives away from work vs. this current, forced integration.
There are some great examples in the wild of successful companies that have pulled this off and continue to thrive. However, each company and each industry is different and a number of variables are at play. Ultimately, companies will need to figure out where they stand on the hybrid work debate and whether it works for them or not. But I'd caution against issuing edicts to their employee populations without first testing a few, different approaches. Employees have gotten a taste of both worlds and are much more savvy and informed than in years past. They know what didn't work in their pre-COVID work experience and they've now experienced the extremes of completely remote work. The majority will insist on some sort of hybrid working arrangement or "happy medium." Companies who hold firm on what worked will likely find themselves with hard-to-fill seats on a consistent basis. It's a lesson that can be learned and remedied quite quickly or one that could extend for years due to stubbornness, inflexibility, and tone deafness. An expensive lesson, indeed.
For the first time in history, employees and job seekers now have the ball. Given the growing number of companies staying 100% remote or more willing to provide hybrid working options, many employees are making the move away from the traditional, in-office work model. In droves. Some are even learning new skills and taking the leap into virtual businesses of their own where they can control their schedules and workload.
I see nothing wrong with a return to the office as long as it's less about a return to normalcy by a Zoom-fatigued C-suite and more about providing an environment and situation that wholly supports their employees and meets them where they're at, right now. This past year has been difficult...across the board. Many are still suffering, didn't seek out professional help, and will be bringing a whole lot of unresolved baggage with them to the office. Trust me, a couple of days away from the crazy will be a welcome reprieve, especially if low-key forced to be in the office 5 days per week.
Companies that do the work, weigh the data, and create thoughtful working options for their employees will be the ones who win. Those who blithely return to their pre-COVID blueprint with little regard for their employees' collective health won't fare so well. I've been pushing hybrid working for years. After 28 years of observing C-suites and employees I know with certainty it will work. Either extreme, especially in these times...nah.
Phoenix is coaching and supporting American billionaires, CEOs and executive teams in tech, retail and banking for over 25 years. He also founded and created MEGA Assistant University, a revolutionary skills and mindset “boot camp” for top Executive and Personal Assistants who want to level up quickly and begin forging a mutually successful business partnership with their executives and teams. Phoenix holds a Bachelors of Arts in European Studies/Civilisation from Trinity College Dublin.