There is a lot of debate going on right now around the future of office work. Work from home. Return to the office. Hybrid arrangements. What will the future really look like?
The Future of Work
I don’t think it’s hard to predict. All you need to do is understand two simple truths. First, that employees put a high value on flexibility in living their lives. Second, that it is not just possible but is already common to successfully manage teams, innovation, and business relationships from a distance.
Let’s take flexibility first. There are three things that matter most to people when choosing to take (or remain at) a job. They want to get the most compensation possible in exchange for their efforts and skills. Money matters. Thankfully, though, it’s not everything. People also want to know their work is meaningful, or find it very enjoyable. I call that fulfillment. Having a fulfilling job makes life more satisfying. And finally, people want flexibility. Life is complicated, and short. It’s nice when we get some choice in what we do and when. Flexible jobs are more attractive.
Attracting Top Talent
Compensation. Fulfillment. Flexibility. A job needs to deliver at least two of those in order to make a person happy with their career. For example, if I am paid very well and love what I do, I can tolerate making sacrifices and working lots of hours and traveling a lot. Let’s say I was good enough to be a professional NBA player. I would be willing to play 80+ games, travel all the time, train in the off season and so on. There is very little flexibility in an NBA player’s life because everything is scheduled out for you. They even play on Christmas. But, because the players make a lot of money and get to play a game for a living, it is a pretty good job to work as an NBA player.
Or, take another case. I am a stay-at-home Dad who wants to earn some extra cash for the family when the kids are in school. Sure, I could take any part-time job with flexible hours, like mowing lawns or being a cashier at the local convenience store. But that would not pay much, and it would also not be very fulfilling. I would be much happier if I could get minimum wage working as a social worker who is making a difference in the lives of needy people in my community. Or maybe working at my kids’ school itself, so I know my hard work is improving the quality of their education. Flexibility and fulfillment is enough to make me feel good about working, even though the compensation is low.
While having two of compensation, fulfillment, and flexibility is good, getting all three is even better. And do you know who knows this? The most talented people in the market.
As we know, it’s talent that ultimately wins in most competitive situations. The better salesperson. A more prolific and compelling marketer. Smarter data analysts. Faster programmers. The list goes on and on.
It is inconceivable that great talent can be consistently recruited if you don’t offer them maximum flexibility. Not hybrid or partial flexibility. Full flexibility has a higher value than partial for the very best people you want to hire.
Management in a Remote Work Environment
Now, let’s move on to managing all these talented people, assuming you’ve attracted them with great compensation, fulfilling work, and the flexibility they want. Is it possible to get them working together to beat the competition if they aren’t working in the same office? Can people be productive, innovative, and value-creating without face-to-face meetings?
Fortunately, no speculation is needed to answer this question. The most innovative companies today (Amazon, Google, Apple, Tesla, etc.) have people spread out all over the world.
Google has more than 100,000 people in hundreds of offices. How do they innovate? Do they meet up in the office regularly? Some of them do, but a lot of the people who work on projects together in these world-beating companies never meet in person.
Managing well is difficult in person, and it is difficult from a distance. The techniques to do it well are the same in both cases. Set clear goals and objectives. Check in regularly. Communicate transparently. Keep people accountable for what they are supposed to deliver. Inspire the troops with purpose and a clear mission.
It’s nothing but managerial laziness to say that it is easier to manage people in person. As if walking around and peering over shoulders could possibly be enough to guide a complex project from beginning to successful end.
The best managers in the world already don’t care where their people work. It’s all the bad managers out there, and especially those who don’t want to improve, that are crying for people to get back into the office. That way, they can still pretend to manage, and their people can still pretend to be efficient.
Don’t believe any of the talk about in-person work being better. If there is no physical reason for people to be working in the same place, there is no reason for them to spend the time and money to get into the same physical place. It’s as simple as that. Manufacturing workers will still need to go to the factory. Cooks need to be in the kitchen. But almost all employees who work on a laptop can do what they need to do without sharing physical space with others.
The time and money savings of not commuting and traveling are by themselves compelling. Business leaders love saving money. On top of the huge efficiency gains, add the benefits of being able to recruit the most talented people.
The last argument people make about why it’s important for people to be in the office together is about building relationships. That’s true, and gatherings will need to happen. But they don’t need to happen three times a week, or even once a week. And with new virtual socializing tools, relationship-building is also going remote. Many activities that encourage team building and authentic networking can now be facilitated through these platforms.
In summary, it’s clear that people value flexibility. It’s also clear that the world’s most innovative and competitive companies already have loads of people working together without being in the office together.
The future of remote work for office workers could not be easier to predict.