Chase Garbarino is the Co-Founder and CEO of HqO.
The past year has been a whirlwind. Whether we wanted to or not, the Covid-19 pandemic pushed many of us into working from home. Employee safety remained top of mind, and with less people in the office, we were all left to wonder: How long will this last, and what will “stick” as a result?
The technology was (and still is) there to keep us working. Connectivity, cloud and collaboration software tools helped us transition overnight to working from home. The realization that people could work wherever, whenever and however they wanted was tempting. After all, who wouldn’t want to skip those grinding commutes, have more time to spend with family and friends and work every day in their favorite pair of sweatpants? It all seemed so ideal. Thus, productivity appeared to increase and the Zoom work culture was born.
The truth is that for those unaccustomed to a remote work culture, it’s easy to overlook the drawbacks as you reap the initial benefits. Most people aren’t working remotely from Bali or improving their work-life balance. Instead, they’re in makeshift offices in their living rooms or kitchens. They’re babysitting their children while they work, or sharing space with their partners. They’re working longer hours for less pay. They’re burnt out, stressed and unable to disconnect. The physical and mental toll is becoming more detrimental as time goes on.
Full transparency: I run a technology company that sells to office landlords. Many of the clients we provide for can’t wait to get back into the office. I wholeheartedly agree with them. Yes, our team uses Slack and Trello, among others. Yes, all of them are excellent management tools, helping us connect quickly, stay on task and work flexibly.
However, not even the best technologies can replicate the in-person interactions you have in the office. This is especially true if the first time your company attempted remote work was this past year. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that remote-only models exacerbate the worst of the workplace. Technology can still make a real change, but it should be an enabler — not a replacement — for the modern office.
The remote work ‘dream’ isn’t always realistic.
A positive outcome of the pandemic has been how companies are reimagining their offices through technology adoption in commercial real estate (CRE). Owners and property teams are finally taking pointers from the retail and hospitality industries by assuming a more modern, customer-focused approach to the workplace. Though beneficial in many ways, this has also come with a slew of additional issues.
Instead of leveraging technology to complement the physical office with more flexible workplace policies, we’ve begun to idealize remote work as the ultimate solution. At first glance, it makes sense. Being able to work remotely is the ultimate manifestation of flexibility — right?
Nothing happens in a vacuum. When we forget that every business is different — with different employees and different needs — making the shift to a remote-first workplace can become more of a hindrance than a benefit. More importantly, it can take years to realize. What’s best for one person may not be best for the whole building community, meaning that removing the physical office from the equation and simply replacing it with remote work comes with real human and financial costs.
Enter the debate about proper compensation. When you increase the remote options an employee has, they may move to less expensive areas. Likewise, your perfect candidate may happen to live out of state. Thus, discussions around compensation increase as companies unveil new obstacles: Will an employee working from a quiet town in Indiana deserve less pay than an employee working from San Francisco? Are company benefits set up with national (or even global) coverage? Is your company prepared to fight for talent on a much broader scale?
Compensation remains a top priority for most employees, many of whom would not be willing to take a pay cut to adapt to a fully remote work environment. Properly supporting a remote workforce through internal policies and culture can take years of work, financial bargaining and lessons learned. Unfortunately, time is not a luxury that most companies have as they come out of the pandemic — making the return on investment (ROI) of retaining physical office space more valuable than you’d think.
Technology is not at fault, we are.
As many of us navigate the uncertain waters of returning to work, we have to remind ourselves that technology was not created to eliminate all human interaction. Instead, technology complements the ways in which people engage with one another. In Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, he explains how cities are cultural and economic success stories. As part of this trajectory, technology has encouraged people to interact in person instead of keeping them apart:
“In 2009, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lived in cities. In a time when family, friends, and co-workers are a call, text, or email away, 3.3 billion people on this planet still choose to crowd together in skyscrapers, high-rises, subways, and buses. Not too long ago, it looked like our cities were dying, but in fact they boldly threw themselves into the information age, adapting and evolving to become the gateways to a globalised and interconnected world.”
A successful company’s technology stack allows people to adapt and evolve. By combining the best aspects of the physical and digital workplaces, employees can seamlessly shift between locations to address in-person and remote needs. For many, this flexibility will come from having a more collaborative and social in-office culture while reserving “remote” time for heads-down work.
Remote-only models will remain an option for companies who are up for the challenge, but I believe it will be physical office spaces that are behind the majority of a company’s growth and success. As a result, workplaces will need to step up their game and keep in mind that people together — not alone — are a business’s greatest asset.