The Company of the Future Doesn't Have an Office
The pandemic's almost over, and remote work has never been more popular.
With the end of the pandemic in sight, the nation is a ball of pent-up demand: for long meals at restaurants with friends, for stress-free air travel, for normalcy in schools, grocery stores and public places.
The one thing we’re not excited about? Going back to the office.
With vaccination rates rising and case counts falling, office employees are collectively reflecting on their experience working from home–and, to the surprise of many, the home office is very popular.
In one survey, 80 percent of employees said they’d like to work from home at least three days a week from now on, up from 27 percent before the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds of employees said working from home was better than they expected; only 13 percent said it was worse. For those of us who already worked from home before the pandemic, it’s a welcome relief that our colleagues are finally on board with the benefits of the home office.
More than a decade ago, I left my office job and never looked back. Since then, I’ve worked as a freelancer, a start-up founder and an international digital nomad, building a career while grappling with the ever-present stigma of working from home.
Where my colleagues had fancy conference rooms, I had my kitchen table. Even though I had the freedom to live anywhere–and founded a fully remote, million-dollar company with 11 employees–the Silicon Valley campuses stocked with free meals and massage therapists and prominent work-from-home skeptics had always cast a shadow of doubt on my career choices.
Then the world shut down, and working from home changed forever.
The pandemic forced a worldwide work-from-home experiment, and the home office turned out to be a winner. It also eliminated the stigma of the home office and helped many employees shift their focus to the parts of life that really matter.
Related: What Is the Real Future of Work?
Kids, pets and ‘real life’ no longer need to hide in the shadows
In the past, my work-from-home colleagues and I would go to great lengths to obscure the fact that our offices were also our homes. A poorly timed barking dog, a ringing doorbell or a child in the background required profuse apologies and produced a hint of shame from our office-based co-workers.
Then everyone was suddenly in the same boat, and people started apologizing to me instead.
“Sorry, I just made my kids lunch, and I’m taking this call in my bedroom.”
“My bad, we just got a delivery and my dog is barking like crazy.”
My response: “No worries, I’ve been combining ‘real life’ with work for years. Your kids, your pets and your authentic self are welcome here.”
For far too long, we’ve stressed about hiding the messy parts of life from our colleagues. The pandemic has pulled back the curtain to reveal that, regardless of how we present ourselves in the office, we’re all human and all pretty much the same. Some of my favorite pandemic Zoom meetings were the ones where my son popped in to meet my “friends from work” and where I bonded with a colleague over our shared love of the shelter dogs sleeping soundly in our home-office backgrounds.
The ‘real’ parts of life shouldn’t be hidden–instead, we should embrace the fact that we’re all working to support our loved ones and build our ideal home. There’s nothing wrong with letting our colleagues see some of the details of our lives outside of work, even if they come in the form of brief interruptions.
‘Location, location, location’ is losing a lot of its power
From New York to San Francisco to Denver, I’ve worked with companies who viewed their downtown offices as both a symbol and a source of prestige. Without a prime location, they were sure they wouldn’t be able to recruit the best workers or win the best clients. But when they started taking meetings from kitchen tables and spare bedrooms, nothing much changed.
Working together in real life still has its benefits, but it can no longer be viewed as essential to teamwork or business success. Instead, cutting commutes seems to increase productivity and happiness–and for those of us who enjoyed listening to a podcast on the train, we now have the free time to take a walk instead. A more casual work environment with less job costuming (that is, a requirement to purchase a certain style of business attire) directly reduces wardrobe costs and indirectly reduces the subtle judgments and office politics that sometimes stem from employees’ physical appearance .
Location independence is an opportunity for office workers, who’ve realized they can do their best work and improve their quality of life in a home near the lake or the mountains (or in Barbados), rather than a dense city center. This is one of the reasons I introduced a nationwide equal-pay policy at my company, ensuring that everyone is paid based on the value they provide, rather than their proximity to an expensive city.
Remote work is also great for everyone who genuinely wants to live in a big city, since it might relieve tech and financial hubs like New York, Seattle and San Francisco of some of the competition that has created self-destructive housing markets and a dystopian homelessness crisis. When we stop forcing office workers to move to big cities, there's a better chance that everyone in the city gets a fairer deal.
The pandemic has forced us to reconsider almost everything. The company of the future may no longer see the shiny, downtown office as a beacon of success. Instead, they’ll realize that the most productive and valuable team members want to focus on life outside of work; making a home for their loved ones in a location of their choice, rather than being tethered to the expensive office buildings of the past.
Rob Howard is the founder and CEO of the web development firm Howard Investment & Consulting. His startups have been featured in Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek, and his clients have included The World Bank, Harvard and MIT.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor