The Back to Work Dilemma: Should We Stay or Should We Go?

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to accelerate change in the workplace. COVID-19 forced companies and other organizations to quickly put infrastructure in place for working from anywhere (WFA). While many of these organizations have been pleasantly surprised that technology has made WFA easier than they thought, there remains little consensus around what should happen next with returning employees to the workplace. 

Of course, the final decision ultimately rests with each organization’s CEO and senior leadership. Among these leaders there are definitely two contrasting opinions—those who believe that return to the workplace is critical and those who believe that pursuing the ubiquitous “new normal” and embracing WFA is the right decision. A review of some of these CEOs and their contrasting opinions and decision rationale reveals significant differences.


Let’s Get Back to the Workplace

In general, those CEOs advocating returning employees to the workplace feel that WFA is inefficient, detrimental to employee morale and an ineffective replacement for the ability to conduct meetings in person.

Bob Clark, Executive Chairman of Clayco, a leading building company, makes his opinion very clear. “Bottom line, both the virus and working from home are bad for business,” he says. “Let us remember why we gather in the office. This is where teams come together to strategize, collaborate and generate social actions so that the office becomes an idea factory. Being able to manage people directly will always be critical.”

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, talking about WFA in a Wall Street Journal interview commented, “I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together, in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.”

Yext CEO Howard Lerman emphatically says, “Remote work sucks. You can’t replicate the random and casual interactions you get from being around others over zoom.”


Working from Anywhere

According to predictions in Upworks’ Third Annual Future Workforce Report, by 2028, 73 percent of all teams across the U.S. will have remote employees. Companies and organizations of all sizes are adopting and extolling the benefits of WFA.

Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, says he witnessed “a big step forward” during the pandemic for many organizations that previously were resistant to or unsure about digital transformation and remote working options. “We have seen a lot more willingness to experiment,” commented Butterfield. “Offering work from home options will become even more of a competitive distinguisher as companies look for ways to recruit and retain top talent.”

When Blackrock CEO Larry Fink looks at the future, he sees work at home as an important element. “I don’t believe Blackrock will ever be 100 percent back in offices,” he says. “I actually believe maybe 60 percent or 70 percent and maybe that’s a rotation of people, but I don’t believe we’ll ever have a full cadre of people in the office.”

Nationwide CEO Kirt Walker says that Nationwide started remote working well before COVID-19. “We hire for attitude. We have built a culture where we can trust associates; they are using the same technology that they had in the office. We rely on ten key performance indicators, so employees can monitor their work from day to day, and so can their supervisors. We don’t try to hold people accountable for the amount of time they’re putting in, but rather how well they are doing on those indicators.”


What is Best for Your Business or Organization

Whether you’re on Team Netflix or Team Slack, you have to make the decision that suits your business best. Here are some factors to take into consideration as you decide what’s right for your organization and decision-making process:

  1. How will the decision impact your organization’s mission and goals?
  2. Do you have the right type of employees?
  3. Can they manage themselves and deliver the productivity and profits you have planned for?
  4. Do you have the technology and tools employees will need if you choose to “work from anywhere"?
  5. What roles do employees’ ages and interests play?
  6. Which work model fits your personal beliefs and management style?

As a CEO or leader, the decision rests with you. But don’t forget to take soundings from your wider team if you want to bring them along on the journey with you. This is a huge cultural shift – one way or the other – for organizations. Don’t underestimate the importance of getting it right.