In 2019, remote workers comprised 4.7 percent of the American workforce. One year later, with the COVID-19 pandemic, that number dramatically rose to 54 percent.
Three years later, companies and employees have been engaged in a tug-of-war on work from home (WFH) policies. As several prominent CEOs, including Tesla’s Elon Musk, have taken up strong stances and mandated that workers return to the office, other large corporations, including Verizon, have leaned into the remote work model.
In June 2023, a whopping 98 percent of workers stated that they preferred to work remotely at least some of the time.
Many workplaces have adopted a remote work policy. Now that the pandemic is over, is it a massive and costly effort to go back to the in-person model?
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world, there is no going back. As employees shifted to a WFH lifestyle, either due to lockdowns or employer convenience, they discovered that the pros outweighed the cons. In particular, those employees that had oppressive commutes on crowded trains and buses for well over an hour during rush-hour found a great deal of mental and physical relief in the WFH model. It’s a massive, costly effort and too heavy of a lift to return to the past.
Employees have uniformly embraced the WFH model and are intractable in their refusal to return to the office five days a week (40 hours). It’s not about money, as today’s worker values time and comfort over dollars and cents. In offices in every urban center, including New York City, office vacancies remain at about 50 percent. And the employer is actually saving money in dramatically reduced rental space. We are finding that a blended or hybrid schedule is the best compromise, i.e., an employee works at home two days a week and comes into the office three days a week.
Will companies struggle to hire skilled workers if they remove the WFH option?
Yes. It is now etched in cement that if an employer takes away the option of at least a blended WFH schedule, they will not attract the best and the brightest. To reiterate, the worker of today values a flexible work environment and wants to avoid the stress, wasted time, and cost of commuting. They find themselves more productive at home, where they are not distracted by coworkers. The job market remains in favor of the worker, and employers will need to offer all sorts of non-monetary perks as well as monetary to attract the exceptional human capital needed to function.
Do you think that companies that enforce in-office work find a brain drain as talent walks away?
Elon Musk, one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time, has disdain for the WFH model. He rightfully believes that there is positive synergy when employees are physically in the same room interacting as opposed to remote (Zoom) meetings. While he’s correct in that conclusion, in my mind, I still believe that he’s swimming against the cultural currents and the mindset of the workers entering the job market. He may well be able to get away with his approach by utilizing his charisma to attract talent; however, for the rest of us, it just won’t work if you resist WFH. It’s here to stay and employers who are resistant will become dinosaurs.
What will happen if the trend reverses and companies return to in-office working?
Flexible work arrangements will be the answer. For instance, staggering work shifts so that two or more employees can use the same workspace (because their shifts do not overlap (sort of the office version of time sharing); or have workers work 10 hour shifts four days a week and have other workers work the remaining three days at 10-hour shifts. The same office space could be shared by multiple employees. In addition, the most practical solution will be the one currently being embraced by many small and large organizations: the blended WFH model, with two days at work and three days at home.
What should we take away from the global WFH experiment?
The WFH genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no putting it back in. It’s here to stay. If anything, my prediction is that within a decade, most office and professional workers will be working exclusively in a virtual world, and the office visit will become a rarity.
This interview has been edited.