Every week, I scan the news for must-know stories about the employee-centric, happier, distributed, and AI-driven future of work.
Welcome to Future Work. Every week, I scan the news for must-know stories about the employee-centric, happiness-focused, distributed, and AI-driven future of work. Below is this week’s edition. Not a member yet? Join over 8,000 people-centric managers and subscribe here.
Sponsored by: Remote Connect 2023 – The Must-Attend Conference for Remote Leaders
Remote is organizing a super practical, high-quality virtual conference on October 19.
The best news? Tickers are FREE: https://remote.sjv.io/g1L6g9
✨ 8 Masterclass Sessions, including “Converting Contractors to Employees”
✨ 6 Ask-Me-Anything sessions with HR and Remote leaders
✨ 40 Guest Speakers, including Andy Tuong (Chief Strategy Officer, Gusto), Sarah Lovelace (Vice President, People @ Airbase), Job van der Voort (CEO, Remote), and Jenny Choo (VP, Zendesk)
👉 Register and join here: https://remote.sjv.io/g1L6g9
6 out of 10 CEOs Predict We’re Returning to the Office Full-Time. I Don’t Think So.
While the ‘return to office’ debate continues, most of us still enjoy our remote work privileges.
October 2023 office swipe-in data shows that occupancy is at 50% of pre-COVID numbers and that those numbers have plateaued.
But looking a mere 3 years into the future paints a different picture, at least if it’s up to your boss.
64% of global CEOS believe there will be a full return to in-office work by the end of 2026, according to a KPMG survey. (Emphasis on “believe.”)
Even if it takes some bribing on their part, as Orianna Rosa Royle reports in Fortune:
“Steadfast in returning to the pre-pandemic way of working, the CEOs surveyed even admitted they’re up for sweetening the deal by making the added cost of commuting and buying packed lunch worth worker’s while.”
While some online chatter said CEOs WILL have people back in the office, the report says they ANTICIPATE people back in the office. That’s a big difference.
As the Rolling Stones Would Say, “You Can't Always Get What You Want.” (* for our Gen Z and Zillennial readers: the Rolling Stones were a rock band in the ’60s; ask your parents.)
“No way” – Your Employees
So CEOs want people back into the office.
Is that going to happen?
For five good reasons.
1. Your people would vote with their feet
The power balance will not favor companies unless we have 10 people fighting over every job out there (a.k.a. never.)
Not now. Not in 2026.
If it’s up to employees, a full-time return to the office is as unthinkable as going back to faxing cat memes instead of Slacking them.
In our latest research, only a third of employees would happily return to the office full-time. And in the real world, just look at Grindr, which lost half its team when they mandated a hybrid schedule.
According to Gallup research from last week, eight in 10 remote-capable employees expect to work hybrid or fully remote in the future. The contrast between CEOs and their people couldn’t be starker.
Even in the government, a survey showed that sixty-six percent would consider leaving the EPA if flexibility was reduced.
So, forcing a full return to office without mass resignations? Good luck.
2. Flexible Work Cuts Overhead, Boosts Productivity, and is Profitable
“At the end of the day, despite all the noise some business executives made, remote work saves companies money. It cuts overhead, boosts productivity, and is profitable. And what is profitable in a capitalist economy sticks.” – Nick Bloom
3. and 4. Positive Impact on the Environment and Society
Nick makes another great point in the same article:
“Thankfully, remote work also has major benefits for society, including improving the climate by cutting billions of miles of weekly commuting and supporting families by liberating parents’ time. We all should celebrate the resilience of our workers and the benefits of working from home.” – Nick Bloom
5. Boosting DEIB
A final reason to highlight is the benefits for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.
Stanford professor Nick Bloom’s research shows that women want hybrid work more than men but receive it less. And indeed, hybrid work schedules enabled a record number of women with young children to enter or remain in the workforce, reported to Axios' Emily Peck.
2023 McKinsey/Lean In research explained why these groups want and need flexibility more:
“Flexibility is allowing women to pursue their ambitions: overall, one in ﬁve women say ﬂexibility has helped them stay in their job or avoid reducing their hours. Many women working hybrid or remotely feel less fatigued and burned out as a primary beneﬁt. And most women report having more focused time to get their work done when they work remotely.”
Even simple things like not having to be presentable for in-person interactions can make a huge difference.
Future Forum research from Brian Elliott’s team shows that the same applies to underrepresented groups like Latinx, Asian-Americans, and Blacks. Even introverts do better in flexible working environments.
Giving up on remote work, therefore, also means giving up on offering sincere opportunities for people to be included and support critical DEIB efforts.
Too many reasons not to
In short, employee preferences, positive company economics, environmental and societal benefits, and boosting DEIB are simply too many forces in favor of flexible work for those CEOs to win.
Jon Holt, the chief executive of KPMG in the UK who conducted the CEO research, acknowledged the reality that hybrid work is a win-win-win for companies, employees, and the world:
“Issuing an ‘all hands on deck’ edict is a simple response to a complex issue – it won’t work for all businesses. Some sort of hybrid working will likely remain useful to attract and retain the good people the CEOs know their business needs. CEOs hoping to return to an all-office world must work collaboratively and carefully with colleagues to get it right.” – Jon Holt, CEO, KPMG UK
The $1.3 trillion dollar office problem
What makes companies want a return to the office? Look no further than real estate.
Companies are sitting on a lot of costly, unused office space.
As Matt Boyle wrote for Bloomberg in “Return-to-Office Is a $1.3 Trillion Problem Few Have Figured Out:”
“McKinsey Global Institute estimates that pandemic shifts could erase as much as $1.3 trillion of real estate value in big cities worldwide by 2030.”
There are three key issues with offices in the hybrid and remote work age.
I want to highlight this to illustrate a significant “pull” issue, creating no significant motivator for people to obey any RTO mandate.
1. The cost and effort of getting and being there
Nick Bloom’s research shows that people despise commuting more than the work itself.
Additionally, it’s expensive to get to the office.
In a new 2023 Owl Labs report on hybrid work, employees shared that coming to the office costs them $51 per day, leading to 29% of employees saying they’d expect a salary increase if their boss mandated a return to the office.
Bloomberg research pegged this cost to be closer to $20 per day (perhaps polling petless workers), but regardless, working from home means less money spent.
And that was exactly why NYC Mayor Eric Adams told companies to call their people back to the office.
So the 90% of CEOs surveyed by KPMG who said they would reward in-person workers with raises and better assignments and promotions at least got that part right.
They’ll need to, as according to Nick Bloom’s research, employees value hybrid work as much as an 8 percent raise.
2. Not having a good reason to be there
What happens when you force people to come to the office without an important reason?
They’ll have a cup of coffee and do some work.
And then return home.
This phenomenon, called “Coffee Badging,” is becoming more common, as the Owl Labs report also found.
Besides the high cost and effort of going into the office, sitting there doing solo Zoom calls may be the deadliest sin of them all.
Creating offices people want to go to starts with understanding what’s best done there versus remotely.
Workplace strategist Corinne Murray, who engaged deeply with such stakeholders at Gensler and WeWork shared in my interview with her:
“Executives are focused on getting people there rather than digging deeper into activities best done together. As an extension of activity-based working, we should focus on what types of work make the most sense to be physically together for, like workshops and creative brainstorming sessions. But if you're doing heads-down work, as long as you're doing it and you're doing it well, it shouldn't the organization shouldn't mind.” – Corinne Murray
The intentionality with which in-office days are designed is key.
3. A design that doesn’t facilitate why you’re there
And even if you have a good reason to be in the office, the design of most offices doesn’t match the kind of work you’re there for.
According to a new McKinsey study, 20% of companies are redesigning offices to accommodate hybrid work better.
But for now, many offices are still designed for pre-pandemic work, the “9-to-5 at your desk.”
Great hybrid office design enables you to do the work you can’t do well at home, including socializing, collaboration, celebrating, focused work, or online calls.
This last part may seem counter-intuitive, but it's not when you think about multiple people working from home, or the downside of the office: too much socializing.
Sandra Panara oversees Analytics, Insights & Innovation at Relogix, the leading provider of workplace performance data. She shared with me that:
“Relogix sees many single occupants in non-desk type workspaces. While the initial thought is that using non-desk type workspaces is to be nondisruptive, when the reality is that only 30% of people are in the office, the choice to work in a private space isn't driven by fear of disrupting others, but rather a personal need for private space.” – Sandra Panara, Director, Analytics, Insights & Innovation, Relogix
As Antony Slumbers, a famous future of work thinker, shared to me for this article:
"The contradictory commentary around RTO one thing is certain: the ‘Product’ is getting a major overhaul. Smart people, and smart companies, are interrogating what the ‘jobs to be done’ of an office are, and developing new form factors, business models and services to match. The bar is being raised. Dramatically. Those leaning into this will reap the rewards. Talent goes where it is respected.’ Atlassian is opening new offices, despite no asking anyone to go to them. Bet they are great spaces!” – Workplace Strategist Antony Slumbers
Redesigning Work Beyond the Office
Those 6 out of 10 CEOs wanting us back in the office may also not yet see the incredible promise of technology.
We can additionally lessen the “need” to be in an office by improving remote collaboration – perhaps even a real alternative to being together in person, which CEOs wish for.
Atlassian's acquisition of the asynchronous video tool Loom this week tells me a lot.
Loom allows anyone to have their side of a video call, send it, and let people engage with the video (including creating their video replies) on their schedule.
Recent demos from Facebook showed us how the Metaverse might be more real than we memed about in the past year.
After a one-time face scan and with a relatively light wearable device, we can be fully present in a virtual environment, mimicking the real world.
Finding a hybrid between in-person and online, his series “Inspired People. Places.” has gotten good feedback.
And while Dave told me this week that “by no means would I suggest it should replace teams gathering in person entirely,” we just have to look at the pace of development of these technologies to understand where we could be in 2026.
Atlassian and NVIDIA: Two Massive Remote Success Stories
Atlassian: Team Anywhere
Atlassian is a great example of a company rethinking the workplace experience completely.
The global software firm, which makes collaboration tools such as Jira and has a $48 billion market cap, adopted a “Team Anywhere” policy in 2020 and has stuck with it—bucking the trend of more companies enforcing return-to-office mandates this year.
“We expect people to be able to work from home, from a café, from an office, but we don’t really care where they do their work—what we care about is the output that they produce. I might come into the office about once a quarter.” – Scott Farquhar, co-CEO, Atlassian
Annie Dean, Atlassian’s VP of Team Anywhere, wrote on LinkedIn that “at Atlassian, we take a data-driven approach to our real estate footprint. As a result, we can give employees the option to work from anywhere and we’re still growing our office footprint around the globe.”
Paired with exceptional office design, employees come in, even if they don’t have to.
In another post, Annie writes that “last quarter in our San Francisco office, 50% of our office visitors came in 2-3 days per week, and 90% of the local San Francisco population visited (employees who live within 2 hrs driving distance of the office).”
Nvidia: Doing Your Life’s Work
Nvidia, 2023’s hottest startup, also sticks with employee choice for its 26,000-strong workforce.
As Steve Mollman writes in Fortune, “Today, the California-based company is sticking with the policy while also offering employees luxurious office spaces (see below) in which to gather and collaborate. Nvidia leaves it up to workers whether they work at home, in a cafe, or the office.”
Nvidia’s Vice President of Employee Experience Beau Davidson said it sees the arrangement “as a way for employees to balance their personal and work obligations while preparing for the future, so they can focus on doing their life’s work.”
Similar to Atlassian, Nvidia keeps investing in real estate for when people want to join in-person. It’s latest addition to their Santa Clara headquarters is an “750,000-square-foot building is designed to give employees a good place to work.”
Following these two success stories, it’s also good to revisit Zoom.
Zoom drew the irony of media, commentators, and … well, everyone, when it announced a ‘return to office.’
As I wrote in “Zoom Return to Office and The Death of Remote Work,” Zoom told all employees within 50 miles of a company office to return to the office for two or more days a week.
It resulted in a ton of nasty media, but as I wrote:
“Asking people to be in the office two days per week is far from killing the remote dream. An announcement a few years ago that people could work from home three days per week would have made very positive headlines. It’s also in line with other companies that embraced a structured hybrid approach. While the media loves to talk about “return to office” as if people are asked to live there seven days per week, just like with Zoom, it’s often about 2-3 days, as showcased by Scoop’s Flex Index.”
So what happened since that much-discussed announcement?
Well, 65% of employees continue to work remotely, as they live too far from any office to be impacted by the policy.
For the others, Zoom is “not focused on how it plans to enforce the policy, rather it’s dealing with employee issues on a case-by-case basis,” Danielle Abril reports in the Wall Street Journal.
She quotes Matthew Saxon, Chief People Officer at Zoom, as saying: “There have been people who say this [policy] is a problem, and we want to work with them. For us, it’s making sure we give people flexibility when they need it.”
During its ‘Zoomtopia’ product event, the leadership team also offered an additional and oddly retroactive reason for people to come into the office. It’s “to build collaborative products for the new ways of working, employees need to experience the pain firsthand.”
“We had to put ourselves into your shoes. By doing this, we have dialed into the challenges you are facing.” – Zoom CEO Eric Yuan
The issue of productivity
These massive companies show that remote work can be done at scale without losing productivity.
As Emma Goldberg writes in “Here’s What We Do and Don’t Know About the Effects of Remote Work,” the debate on remote productivity hasn’t been settled. Still, most of the evidence points to productivity not being negatively impacted.
As her article states, remote work productivity varies widely, with studies showing declines of 8 to 19 percent in some cases while others report gains of 13 to 24 percent.
However, employee productivity is a tough topic. As I wrote in “How To Improve Employee Productivity of Hybrid and Remote Teams,” productivity is often ill-defined and based on subjective employee or manager reporting.
The true effectiveness of remote work seems to depend on factors such as managerial support and opportunities for in-person interactions.
But time and time again, when surveys ask hybrid and remote employees, there seem to be no productivity challenges.
In our manager study, for example, we saw only 2% of managers saying they found work less productive after leaving the office.
The Rest of the World is More In-Office
As often, the perspectives and data are quite US-centric.
But things are different outside of New York and the States.
The Bloomberg chart below shows that Europe and Asia are much closer to a return-to-office than the US.
As Matt Boyle wrote for Bloomberg in “What the Return to Office Looks Like Globally,” this is for a few reasons.
Asian nations, having effectively managed the pandemic, had a smoother return to office life due to less reliance on remote work.
Europe showcases varied remote work habits, with the UK having high rates of remote work and several countries embracing flexible schedules.
Conversely, the US lacks centralized policies, leaving companies and employees to independently navigate the return to office. Companies in the US, including Amazon and Zoom, exhibit diverse approaches, with hybrid schedules becoming the norm.
Cultural expectations, public transportation reliability, home sizes, and the perceived value of physical office presence also make companies and employees in Asia more interested in in-office work.
As I also shared in the New York Times, this is partly due to a culture not ready for hybrid or remote work. Small apartments and a lack of infrastructure play a role in Asia’s developing markets, like Vietnam, where I am based.
Legislative initiatives also play a large role. Whereas NYC’s mayor called people back to drive spending in the city, Europe has been proactive in shaping the future of work through legislation promoting flexible arrangements, such as the "right to disconnect."
Several nations, including Belgium and Ireland, have enacted or proposed laws supporting remote work, reflecting a global shift in work norms.
(Interestingly, while Europe and Asia see more return-to-office, the McKinsey study referenced before shows that office space decreases are most likely here.)
What 2026 Will Really Look Like
The 'return to office' question is a complex interplay of employer aspirations, employee preferences, and economic considerations.
While CEOs may wish to return to in-office work by 2026, occupancy data shows a plateau at 50%, and many employees remain committed to hybrid or remote arrangements for good reason.
Rob Sadow, CEO of Scoop, provided me with a good perspective on how to think about the KPMG study:
According to our Flex Index data, 39% of US firms require full-time in-office work for corporate employees. That's down from 49% in January 2023. So, while some CEOs may predict a full return to office, the data indicates companies are moving the opposite direction, at least in the US. This research is a good reminder of the significant divide between data and sentiment. Many CEOs may wish that employees were in the office full-time or hope that will happen. But labor markets are structurally tight, and flexibility is incredibly important to job seekers. Just like there was no meaningful change in US RTO post-Labor Day per Kastle data, I doubt we'll see this prediction come to fruition. – Rob Sadow, CEO, Scoop
I don’t foresee any world in which this employee sentiment would change, for example, in a situation where jobs would be so sparse that people have to ‘suck it up and come in.’
Embracing policies akin to "Team Anywhere" or Nvidia's commitment to employee choice demonstrates that productivity can be maintained without the compulsion of physical presence.
Nick Bloom gives two additional reasons in his New York Times piece for why remote is more likely to increase than decrease:
- Technology continues to improve our ability to work remotely (as we saw with the Loom acquisition and Facebook Metaverse demos)
- 75% of new businesses that are founded now start remote. They will become the enterprises of the future, starting a shockwave of change
There are too many benefits for companies and employees to discontinue hybrid and remote schedules.
More importantly, it’s an opportunity for happier employees and positively drives diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts.
This is a future we can all strive for.
Previously on this topic:
Every week, I scan the news for must-know stories about the employee-centric, happier, distributed, and AI-driven future of work.