From March 9, 2020 through the writing of this article, I’ve been remotely interviewing software engineers of all levels. After several decades of doing so, it’s clear that 

  1. engineers generally abhor interviews, and 
  2. they aren’t really great at writing resumes.

But what has readily become apparent during the interview-from-home era of work was a “perfect storm” that ended – and began – with a reality check and one very big question.

Do I really need to commute to and work from an office when I have everything I need at home – and not only am I happier but I’m more productive?

In a very recent HBR article, “Why You May Actually Want to Go Back to the Office”, the author offers three reasons why office work can help one’s career: Culture, Collaboration, and Purpose. However, these unequivocal elements of traditional office work under the command and control of traditional management appear to be substantially offset within the cohort of several hundred people I’ve spoken with over the past 16+ months by the freedom to set one’s own hours. (… which end up being inherently longer when you can work sans pants.) 

Culture is just as much something one adapts to as it is something that welcomes people from varying backgrounds, professional aspirations, and personal needs. Who then is the one truly missing out with a multifurcated workplace culture?

Collaboration is something that has been in modern times, projected to take place by coffee machines, dry erase boards, and somewhere in cubicle – or open floor plan – environments. However, the unspoken side of collaboration – true solitude or personal time during the workday – has been a welcome by-product to the pandemic, and most are reluctant to have this replaced by returns to an office. 

Physical collaboration is going to have to wait.

Companies such as Salesforce are, in fact, shrinking their real estate footprint in preparation of this new reality. In places such as New York City, while employers are projecting upwards of 62% of workers to return to work in September, these workers are only back three days per week. 

The report also found that larger employers are bringing employees at a slower pace: “At companies with more than 5,000 employees only 8% have returned, while 24% have returned to the office among employers with fewer than 500 employees.” To most employers surveyed, the one true limiting factor for those in larger cities is the perceived safety of public transportation – and in NYC, ridership is still only at 44% of pre-pandemic levels

Purpose, ah, purpose

Ah purpose – the most personal of reasons for people to cascade back to their cubicles. The logic of a physical workplace being the conduit for purpose building harkens back to archaic times when famine overtook towns and people took to their work to escape the drudgery and woe of home. 

While famine and drudgery are no longer the case in many households, a large portion of modern society has the benefit of technology that both reinforces collaboration but does so in a manner that also reaffirms purpose (I can recall several unusual, unique, and very fun Zoom backgrounds during the past year plus). Yet “workplace experts” – often academians and consultants – continue to spread the aging belief that only a workplace offers the long-term purpose people crave. The prolonged work-from-home period has clearly reaffirmed our ability to create a collective purpose out of a mound of masks and vaccine vitriol.

Yet the work-from-home or work-from-an-office debate will not be ending soon.

In a telling article in Scientific American, behavioral scientist Gleb Tsipursky offers the oft-used executive line, “people are our most important asset” then ultimately breaks down this logic with, “those who are resistant to permitting telework are not living by that principle.” The reason for standing by old ways of thinking is that there’s a paucity of solid research to support the desire to work from home, certainly not enough to override the decades of the command and control mindset of the workplace and workplace leaders. Heck, the hub-bub at Apple was due largely to Apple’s leadership not conducting quality workplace surveys to determine the changing values towards a physical workplace.

What are the possible outcomes if employers don’t get the post-pandemic workplace location and mindset right? Some are calling it The Great Resignation Era (those old enough to remember might call it a “Howard Beale” moment Editor’s note: no one is THAT old.). 

The pandemic has forced many to realize their job does not equate to their pursuit for happiness, and they are electing to seek out fulfillment elsewhere — in new jobs, new careers, new cities, or in many instances, more balance in their lives. Yet turnover is disruptive and expensive, and it is not relegated to just average performers. What are the possible outcomes if your best employee chooses to remain in their work-from-home capacity? Do you bend? Modify policies? Find their replacement?

“Three days a week [in the office] is the new five,” Twilio Chief People Officer Christy Lake told MarketWatch

As many tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Twilio, Facebook come to mind) move to a 3 days per week in an office, recruiting might very well achieve the high ranking status it deserves in an organization. In preparation for this, there are points of action every Talent Acquisition function must consider:

  • Survey not only current employees about attitudes towards work but also those externally whom you covet
  • Revisit Maslow’s Factors of Motivation at Work; begin by surveying people monthly through Q2 2022 and every quarter thereafter
  • Monitor the movements of coronavirus variants monthly (there needs to be someone in every company doing this)
  • Conduct a new intake strategy session when anyone leaves through at least the end of 2021 – and be sure to ask two critical questions: Can this role be performed substantially or fully remote for the right person? How will you know when you come across the right person?

The Pandemic Era of 2020 to Present will be ultimately viewed as a paradigm shifting period in the world of work. Those most prescient will also view it as a series of opportunities to improve humanity in the workplace, the compassion of its leaders, and the quality of how we attract and retain people.

brown and white ceramic dog figurine
Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

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Steve Levy