There’s a common refrain among people who’ve been marooned in their homes this year, trying to manage their jobs and their children’s distance learning, always fighting the losing battle against the dishes, the laundry, the dog hair, the grocery list. “I cannot wait to get back to the office,” they say.
But people don’t really want to get back to the office. They want to get out of their apartments, their houses, their parents’ houses. They want their children back in school, and also out of the house. They want to see people’s faces again, and have conversations with people who are closer than 6 feet from them. But that doesn’t mean that they actually want to be back in the office — at least not the way the office was before.
Many companies are preparing to bring employees back in the spring or summer, depending on how fast the vaccines roll out. Picture it: At first, the office will feel like the first day of school, senior year — everything’s familiar, and all your old comforts are there, and everyone’s thrilled to have the sort of proximity we’ve actively avoided for months.
But the old annoyances will arrive right on schedule. The commute will still be long; there will still be too many meetings and time-sucks; it’ll still feel like a mad rush to get out the door in the morning or get dinner on the table at night. The question will present itself: Why, again, do we insist on traveling to an office every day?
When I talked to dozens of analysts, H.R. experts, architects, consultants, real estate agents and office furniture designers, the consensus was clear: The future of office work is flexibility. At one end of that flexibility spectrum, there will be fully “distributed” companies like the software maker GitLab, with no headquarters and employees scattered across the world. At the other, there’ll be more old-fashioned organizations that demand face time in the office, but whose belief in the infeasibility of remote work has been permanently undercut.
And then there’s the vast, corporate in between. Headquarters aren’t going away, but more companies will embrace the hub-and-spoke model: smaller footprints in big, expensive cities, and smaller offices in places where employees want to (and can afford to) live. Some companies will keep their existing office space and allow people to claim staggered schedules that align with their preferences, avoid peak commuting times, and reduce overall capacity in the office.
Others will try what used to be known as “hoteling” or “hot desking,” in which multiple workers share a desk. Still others will offer stipends for employees to join the small, neighborhood-oriented working spaces that will proliferate as Americans get vaccinated.
People will be leaving their homes, having conversations, working with others — which is what they actually miss when they say they miss the office. They’ll just be doing it more on their terms than ever before.
There are problems, of course, with each of these scenarios. Let people do what they want and the pre-pandemic power dynamics of the office will simply reproduce themselves. No one, for example, should be allowed to go to the office every day — otherwise it’ll just become yet another way to prove yourself the better, more present worker. And the employees most likely to embrace the flexibility of working from home are the same people expected to perform the majority of labor in the home: women.
Remote work will have to be viewed as equally important as in-person work. In practice, that means rethinking what remote working actually looks like — that is, very little like what we’re doing now. We’re not just working from home, after all. We’re working from home during a pandemic.
We might have haphazardly arrived at workarounds, but there’s still so much more to develop, whether in terms of dedicated heads of remote work, or technology that actually makes hybrid in-person and remote meetings feel less awkward.
“I think the future is actually having to manage people,” said Adam Segel, the chief executive of Cove, which helps companies organize shared desk and conference space. “The default setting right now is that you just see people in the office, and that’s how you manage them. But now people actually have to learn how to communicate about the work that you’re doing, about productivity, about expectations.”
The companies that are creating the tech, the flexible office space, the modular, high-turnover conference rooms — they’re ready. But everyone else still seems to be in maintenance mode.
“I haven’t heard from anybody, anybody, who’s thinking about how we’re going to make ‘Working Parenting 2.0’ or ‘Flexibility 2.0’ work,” Daisy Dowling, who runs a consulting and coaching business for working parents, told me. “People are too assaulted right now, and they haven’t quite gotten to the planning yet. But that’s kind of scary, because when we do get there, they won’t have the structures in place.”
If the structures aren’t in place, piecemeal hybrid schedules will fail, and we’ll end up right back where we were before.
For employees’ relationship to work to meaningfully change, companies need to start thinking about it now. What has previously been subtext will have to become text. If your department all comes in on Thursdays, what do you do with that valuable, weekly time? Which meetings are essential, which could be silent, or a simple progress update?
If you take the train into the city only once a week, that day becomes useful: a time specifically for collaboration and ideas, instead of just another day spent endlessly toggling between emails and meetings, doing everything and getting nothing done. Instead of resenting your exhausting slog into the city, it might start to feel actually productive.
“Right now, we’re in an emergency, and the red lights are flashing,” said Michael Colacino, the president of the office real estate company SquareFoot. “But when the lights are off, the question will still be: ‘How do I get the engineer I want, or the web designer I want? How do I induce them to come here? I can pay them more money, which is expensive. Or I can give them more space, more feeling of safety, more amenities.’”
All of these companies catering to the highly skilled work force told me the same thing: Post-COVID-19 flexibility is going to make the office even better. Workers are going to have a higher quality of life, more time with their kids, more connection to their communities. They’ll be able to live where they want to live, stop paying exorbitant rent. They might even figure out how to work less, simply by being able to concentrate more. This is the wild, blissful, utopian flexible future.
But this is also a huge shift in the understanding of corporate flexibility — an ethos that was embraced in the 1980s and ’90s. Back then, flexibility was for hirers, not employees. Corporations wanted a work force that could be expanded and reduced quickly, that wasn’t yoked to the company through long-term contracts, faint ideas of loyalty, or union demands. In short, they wanted disposable workers instead of the long-term (or even lifer) employee who had historically weighed down the bottom line.
The “flexible” ethos was sold to employees with the language of choice — it’s liberating to be a freelancer or a contractor — even though it was often “freedom” to work more, for less pay, with far less stability. This made shareholders happy but left companies with a burned-out, less productive, and ever more alienated work force.
This was a problem pre-pandemic, and it’s a bigger problem now. Which brings us to the bleak heart of the issue: A vast majority of people who were in “good” jobs — stable, well paid, with benefits — before the pandemic have managed to maintain those good jobs. Doing the job might have become more difficult, but the job itself has largely remained steady.
These employees are the ones whose bosses are going to be seeking these solutions, who are thinking of hiring heads of remote work, who are looking to even further “amenitize” their spaces, to figure out new strategies to make work-life balance real.
For the rich, and for the office worker whose skills are in demand, the COVID-19 recession has been over for months. With that sort of economic stability brings the ability to innovate and think about what “flexible” could mean moving forward — including, hopefully, new ways of thinking about the centrality of work in our lives. When you’re not compelled to be in the office from 9 to 5, “flexibility means you actually schedule your day around your life,” as Mr. Segel put it, “instead of around your work.”
That sounds great. But actual work-life balance — the kind that comes with health care and the ability to someday retire — should be for everyone, not just programmers and web designers. The bargaining power that comes from something as old-fashioned as a union or something as seemingly radical as Universal Basic Income would liberate workers to ask for more. Not more money, necessarily. But genuine flexibility to make work secondary.
If the future of work is flexibility, our challenge now is to make sure that future doesn’t just worsen the ever-widening divide in American society between those promised a new vision of the good, balanced life, and those for whom “flexibility” means effacing your wants and needs and dreams, once again, to the fickle demands of your employer.
Anne Helen Petersen writes the newsletter Culture Study and is the author, with Charlie Warzel, of the forthcoming “Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home.”