The Future of Work Isn't Remote
After two years of being just faces on a screen, most of the employees at my company have returned to the office at least two days a week, and we have become a stronger, more productive team because of it.
The worst days of the global health crisis seem to be behind us. Though the world is seeing another terrible surge, here in California the availability of vaccines has meant that many of our freedoms have been restored, and people are both grateful and relieved. And who can blame them?
I was hesitant, however, when I saw articles about how remote work will endure as the way of the future. While I recognize the benefits of such an arrangement, I know that there are also clear advantages to having people working together in a shared space. Why do I say that? Because our startup, Nexkey, went back to the office in July two days a week, and it was one of the best decisions we made all year.
Working from home can be a wonderful option if it’s available, but it’s not necessarily better for everyone. There is a strong case to be made that going back to the office makes people more productive, removes communication barriers and creates a stronger and more positive work culture.
How we made a flexible structure work
Our decision to go back was prompted by an internal survey conducted with team members, and the results were that 30% of employees expressed a preference for a full return, 30% wanted a hybrid model (in which they could work onsite but also remotely if they chose), 30% wanted to stay remote and 10% were undecided. We then asked staff members to work onsite Tuesdays and Wednesdays: the rest of the week, they could choose whether to work remotely or at the office. Interestingly, 20% choose to come to the office more than two days.
With a goal to increase both communication and productivity, the return-to-work structure began with sales and customer support staff, followed by the marketing team. Now, the entire company is working from the office two days a week except the engineers, who are still remote. To help fuel this new arrangement, we made spaces more welcoming (including adding a new break room and an outdoor lounge) and was strict in adhering to all local pandemic safety reopening procedures.
One dynamic we’d taken note of since the pandemic shift to remote work was that a number of team members reported not being as productive working from home: resolutions of problems were usually isolated between two people on Slack (rather than being addressed openly by everyone), and email chain threads would take longer than usual to get to the heart of an issue, to name just two ramifications. In addition, rather than resolving problems organically by inviting people to join a discussion (as would be the norm in an in-office setting), too many virtual meetings were being booked one-on-one, which wound up increasing their number and amplifying the amount of wasted productivity. Employees were often running from one video meeting to the next, in the process feeling like they couldn’t even go to the bathroom or otherwise take a break. They felt trapped, weren’t getting out of the house, and the result was feeling more drained than ever.
When we went back onsite two days a week, there was a complete 180-degree shift. Close rates from the sales team rose by 20% to 30% month over month, and customer support was able to resolve problems more quickly because its members were able to actually talk to each other. Business was booming. And going onsite didn’t just translate to better bottom lines: employees were simply happier when working next to each other in the same building. Team members went to shared lunchtimes and happy hours… even to an Oktoberfest celebration. In the end, they weren’t just happier, they were better motivated to do their jobs. Coworkers were deliberating about projects over lunch — bouncing ideas off each other — and goals and timelines were set over happy hour. For the first time in what felt like forever, we felt less like a company and more like a true team.
Data pertaining to the move back onsite
Going back to the office was a massive success for our company, and our experience isn’t unique. We’ve done our own research into the topic, and found that a significant majority of people want to return to a shared space. In August, for example, we surveyed 1771 people (300 of whom were office managers) and asked them how they felt about returning to their job's physical locations. Among the statistical highlights was that 91% of remote workers reported a wish to return to the office either full or part-time, and that 68% of workers who’d returned were happy to be back. Those are our own results, but peer-reviewed academic studies have shown that people who worked at home full-time are 70% less productive. A Microsoft-funded study published this year indicated that working remotely stymied effective communication because such work environments made information sharing harder.
In our company’s experience, employees who moved back to the office were happier, more creative, energized and engaged with their work. We need to feel connected to other people to live meaningful, fulfilling lives: it’s simply the way human beings are wired. Decades of academic studies affirm that human beings need social interaction to stay psychologically healthy. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t ever work from home. I see the value in that, and acknowledge that many do their best work when they have such flexibility, which is why we allow employees to work from home three days a week. What I propose broadly is that there's something to be said for water cooler talk, for whiteboard meetings and for company after-work drinks… that maybe, just maybe, employees work better together when they connect with each other as people rather than faces on a screen.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor