The “Great Mismatch” on Remote Work (aka the battle for #RTO) is Over

An Old World Cubicle Farm

Nicholas Bloom starts his recent New York Times article with a bold claim.

“Working from home is here to stay. I can prove it with data — lots and lots of data showing that returning to the office (R.T.O.) is D.O.A.”

The Five-Day Office Week Is Dead

In it, he highlights the growing divide between employers seeking to mandate return-to-office and employees’ clear preference for location flexibility. This “mismatch” underscores a key theme in our work here at the institute. Understanding the real need to determine where do we do our best work, from Somewhere, or Anywhere.

I spoke about this further in an 11 minute keynote I produced for We Work Remotely’s 10th Anniversary, called “A Return to the Office Won’t Solve Your Problems.” Indeed if you are reading this, you are likely shaking your head in agreement with that title right now.

For me, it’s simple. A Return to Office (RTO) mandate is counter productive. Today we have a real opportunity in front of us, to intentionally redesign how we work, instead of just discussing where. That’s part of my key objectives at the institute. We need to reevaluate work places based on the nature and requirements of the work rather than organizational preferences.

This can be a moment to bring labor, managers, and executives together in common cause, to produce the best possible results.

The good news? Despite the hype and increasing demand for a return-to-office (RTO), office occupancy rates remain around just 50% of pre-pandemic levels as of October 2023. The desire for hybrid arrangements, which studies show employees equate to an 8% raise, has stalled the RTO momentum.

Even companies like Zoom, despite media narratives from an admittedly frenzied news cycle, are embracing hybrid models for employees living further from the office. As Bloom notes in his article, many firms realized that rigid RTO policies would mean losing their top talent. It seems many saw the proverbial writing on the wall and rethought whether or not they wanted to coerce their workers into doing something they didn’t want to do. They hopefully realized the cost to their employer brand and the difficulties they would have replenishing their ranks with top people in light of such an action. This supports the underlying point of my keynote, that blanket mandates fail to account for nuances of roles, the nature of work and the needs of individuals.

The Case for Anywhere Work

Bloom makes a data-driven case for why remote and hybrid policies are here to stay, driven by technological progress and generational shifts. Knowledge and digitally-enabled work that meets core requirements online can often be performed from anywhere without productivity trade-offs. Bloom also notes the cost and sustainability benefits of remote work, further boosting its viability. I encourage you to read the article directly for all of the statistics.

Intentional Policy Design, Not Mandates

Rather than issue blanket RTO mandates, employers would do well to thoughtfully evaluate which roles necessitate on-site work and design tailored policies that balance organizational and employee needs. One based on a respect of the human worker, with an eye towards lifting their well being, so that they may lift the prosperity of the company.

As Bloom concludes, this is a rare win-win – flexible policies boost worker satisfaction while benefiting firms’ bottom lines. But change requires letting go of old assumptions. The data makes it clear – the future is undoubtedly hybrid, based on the needs of the work and the agreement of the worker. Embracing this mindset shift can unlock the full potential of distributed work to empower both productivity and prosperity.

One more thing…

While I for one am glad to see the current wave of attacks on work flexibility and employee autonomy that started this summer have had little measurable impact, I’m not so sure. I predict that next summer, Bloomberg and other real estate owners will be seeking a return to the office once more, and will continue to try to return us to that inefficient model of the past.

We long ago passed the threshold for not needing to be in a specific and secure location to access the equipment we needed for knowledge, creative, and other human work. Blinded by the “status quo” and “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, it took a global pandemic for us to prove the reality of this era, enabled by technology. Now we need to move more consciously into understanding and improving how we work together, screen to screen, and shoulder to shoulder.

But more than that, I’d like to address the short and long term impacts of AI at the intersection of human work and real estate. Ironically, the people building the AI often need to be co-located, though they too can work from anywhere. But in the most secure of situations, in the most computationally demanding edges of our future, they are more likely to want to be on site. But more often they NEED to be on site due to the expensive equipment costs and the need for high security.

However, if we turn to our long term view, the need for centralizing knowledge workers at city scale, will be diminishing consistently. Instead the density will like shift to creative cities according to Richard Florida, and I believe he is right. The need for office space may even become less than the need for fabulous workcation off sites hosting quarterly remote-first company meetings.

So not only do we have a great opportunity from this first era of widely accessible AI where we still have a chance to shape it’s integration into society before the genie is out of the bottle and it’s running rampant in unintended ways. I am advocating for ripping off the bandaid of a declining demand for office space today, rather than trying to mend what will never recover to what it was before. To not look to the ast, but instead to look to our brighter future, and collectively discover what could be. To let go of what has been.

We can do better. We know better. We will do better.

Learn more about how in our Introductory course to Team Flow Fundamentals for free, or enroll in our first 8 week course today.

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