When Facebook conducted a survey shortly after the pandemic hit, 80% of its employees wanted to work remotely. When it conducted the same survey six months later, responses had reversed; 80% wanted to return to the office, at least in a hybrid arrangement.
Other companies have found a similar evolution in views over the course of the pandemic, Justin Bedecarre, CEO of commercial real estate technology company Raise, said in a SaaStr webcast.
“The future is hybrid,” said Bedecarre, whose company has been helping other companies manage their employees’ return to the office as restrictions over the pandemic ease.
Companies generally are taking one of a handful of return-to-office approaches, the two most common build in some type of hybrid flexibility. One is office-centric, in which companies set up, and hire around, hubs where remote employees come in a couple of days a week. Adobe is one company that’s going this route.
The other is remote-first, in which employees work remotely but have cafe-like hubs near them for when they choose to go in. Coinbase, Shopify and Brex are among the companies taking this route.
Also being used a lot is what Bedecarre calls hybrid-flex, in which some people or teams work predominantly in the office, and others don’t, based on the nature of the work they do. Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft are among the big companies going this route.
And then there’s an office-centric model, in which the company tries to replicate the office-first policy it had before the pandemic.
“There are meaningful employers out there who are looking for as similar to 2019 as you can imagine,” he said.
Although cost can be a factor, a company’s strategy should be driven by what employees want.
“Empathy is the word we keep coming back to,” said Felipe Gomez-Kraus, Raise’s president. “Why would you have a workplace? Why commit to the human experience? What role does the workplace play in that?”
Whatever answer you come up with, prepare for that to evolve over time, Gomez-Kraus said. The days of having a static, one-size-fits-all workplace policy are probably gone, which means companies that want to meet the needs of their employees should expect to survey them regularly and make changes over time.
After working remotely for close to two years, many employees are ready to come back to the office, even if not every day, for social interaction. From the company standpoint, though, having employees come back, at least partially, makes business sense.
A Microsoft study based on input from 60,000 employees found that, while productivity didn’t appear to suffer from remote work, employees increasingly worked in silos, resulting in employees not getting interaction with other employees outside their immediate teams. That’s a negative, Gomez-Kraus said.
“Teams, missions, geographies grow,” he said. “If we can’t get them to act together, so much of the joy goes away in addition to our ability as employers to deliver on our commitments. Who wants to work with a bunch of strangers?”
The best return-to-office strategy appears to be one that’s sensitive to employees’ evolving views about what’s right for them.
At San Francisco-based Raise, the company let the leases expire at its hub offices at the start of the pandemic and then entered into new leases months later after it had a better idea of the kind of space it needed.
“In L.A., we had a fast-growing team and knew we needed to get them back quickly, so we went with a WeWork, a month-to-month contract,” Bedecarre said. “So, we had flexibility to get out and grow into our new space, and moved in there during the pandemic. It was almost empty. Now it’s at 73% occupancy.”
The company evolved other flexible spaces, too, including in a hub area in Silicon Valley. “We started with a flex provider, Regus, as part of our office access plan,” Bedecarre said. “We had team members there that just didn’t have the right situation at home. We used that until we had visibility to find a space that would work for us from a culture and brand standpoint. As a short-term commitment, it had used furniture, which saved over $100,000. The layout of the space was 100% communal as opposed to one-to-one desking.”
Whatever you end up doing, don’t force people to come back prematurely even as restrictions around the pandemic ease; not everybody is comfortable about returning to the office.
A survey by CoStar, the commercial real estate data company, found people have widely mixed views on returning to the office from a social-interaction standout, with 36% very comfortable, 36% comfortable, 16% not too comfortable and 12% very uncomfortable, according to Bedecarre.
“There is real anxiety about social interaction,” he said.