Workplace strategists putting together return-to-office plans must walk a delicate balance, lest they want to drive their organizations back to the pre-pandemic tension between in-office and remote workers that oftentimes hindered collaboration.
This question seemed to be on the mind of Zillow CEO Rich Barton during a quarterly earnings call in early February, as Business Insider reported
. “We must ensure a level playing field for all team members …. There cannot be a two-class system — those in the room being first-class and those on the phone being second-class,” he said during the call.
The comment called back the days of remote workers having a less-than-ideal home and the perceptions that embodied that then-normal situation. A certain stigma surrounded remote workers, and many leaders, unjustifiably, thought that real work only took place in the office. The in-office worker tended to have the better overall technology experience, and collaboration was free and spontaneous among colleagues in the same location, while remote meeting participants, for example, often had a difficult time making their voices heard or really feeling part of the team. What’s more, people in the same location could meet up in huddle spaces for quick brainstorming sessions, and chatting around the watercooler provided glue for workplace culture.
So, the line between what can be done inside the office versus outside, for many industries, has blurred. And if anything, COVID-19 has interjected a bit of humility into all our working lives. When we see our coworkers in video meetings, we aren't only connecting to them safely during the pandemic, but rather we see them busy and going through similar WFH struggles. When some of these workers return to the office, will those who stay back turn on their coworkers and see them as the ones getting away with something? I seriously doubt it.
And maybe instead of thinking about workplace issues solely in the framework of us vs. them, we can start to see how these different work modalities can complement each other. Workplace strategists can find ways to blend in-office and remote working environments, identifying which work is best suited for which environment. Post-pandemic, we will most likely still rely on remote working for a significant portion of work, but this shouldn’t discount what physical spaces could bring to the table. Even if office spaces become a vessel to improve the employee experience
, allowing employees to meet and chat about a project or socialize, some workplaces will see that as a boost, especially with the record burnout.
Other workplace experts worry that remote workers might be missing out on the promotions simply because they aren't in the office to make the connections and develop the relationships needed to move up in a company. In research that predates the pandemic, a MIT Sloan Management Review
found that "passive face time" (seeing a person in the office) has a significant impact on how management viewed employees. The MIT review found that bosses were 9% more likely to describe office workers as dependable and responsible and 25% more likely to say they are committed and dedicated, as opposed to their work-from-home counterparts.
But I wonder if this too can be addressed in a hybrid work environment. For example, a hybrid worker can come into the office for crucial collaboration sessions or project proposals and then use remote workdays for focus work, effectively gaining both the benefits of increased productivity from remote work and the visibility of being in the office. Additionally, just as workers have changed their perception of remote work during the pandemic, managers most likely have as well, and they view remote workers a bit differently, more fairly.
To Barton’s point of ensuring a level playing field for all workers, I see this as a call to make both remote and in-office experiences the best that they can be. Offices will need to be equipped with the right technology for collaboration and make sure remote workers aren’t left out in the cold. Pulling this off will require workplace leaders workings across departments (IT, HR, real estate/facilities, and others). But just as they tackled the remote work issue, I’m sure they can handle hybrid.