Since I wrote last week
about one company’s high-profile move to long-term work from home (WFH) and office decentralization, I’ll give equal time this week to the case against such shifts becoming permanent trends. One datapoint comes from a recent announcement by Amazon, and an additional argument comes from our sister website, No Jitter.
You can read the Amazon news here
. The company announced it would spend $1.4 billion to expand office space by 905,000 square feet in six major U.S. cities. The article at the link suggests that in making the announcement, Amazon is looking at the long-term, post-pandemic world, and is affirming its belief that in-person spaces will always be an important mode of working when conditions allow it.
The No Jitter post
is a terrific piece by communications consultant Robert Lee Harris, who lists four reasons why office work will never go away: Entry-level workers need closer interaction with supervisors and colleagues; social connectivity will always be important; competitive drives favor in-person engagement; and companies may need to offer equitable arrangements across workforces whose tasks have varying degrees of appropriateness for remote access.
I think Robert’s third point is particularly compelling. Those of us who were around for the multiple Internet booms and busts of the last 25 years are not hearing this talk of ubiquitous remote work for the first time in 2020. Our own company did a conference called “Digital Video Conferencing” in the late 1990s, and many of us remember that era as one where it seemed every late-December technology article foretold the coming “Year of Video.”
Back then, business video wasn’t of high enough quality, cheap enough, or easy enough to use, so it wasn’t destined for widespread adoption. And yet video has been good, cheap, and easy to use for at least a couple of years, but it took a pandemic to halt business travel. Robert’s point about competitiveness is one I haven’t heard many people talk about: A salesperson who’s willing to get on a plane to pitch an expensive, complex purchase has a significant edge over a competitor who restricts themselves to video. Robert puts it exactly right: “Predictions that everyone will do what is easier only work if competing organizations all follow the same rules.”
What we end up with is a more nuanced picture. Lots of work can be done remotely, and when that’s the only option, the work can and will get done. And when it truly doesn’t make a difference where the work is done, WFH also makes sense. But enterprises willing to invest in in-person collaboration will find plenty of incentive to do so if they can gain a tangible business benefit.