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The future of work: Utah business leaders mixed on solving the remote vs. in-person dilemma

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Overstock CEO Jonathan Johnson poses for a portrait at the Overstock headquarters in Midvale on Sept. 15, 2021.

Overstock CEO Jonathan Johnson poses for a portrait at the Overstock headquarters in Midvale on Sept. 15, 2021. Johnson recently moderated a discussion with other Utah business leaders about remote vs. in-person workforces.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The worst of the COVID-19 global lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings are now mostly in the past, but the impacts of those long-running disruptions continue to roil through the environment where most adults spend a majority of their time — the workplace.

And while the pre-pandemic version of where we toil away our working hours was one mostly based on some specific physical space, that presumption has been forever chucked out the window. Now, for those lucky enough not to be in front-line jobs without venue options, the workaday climes vary from those who enjoy a completely remote existence, never setting foot on corporate property, to those who split their days or weeks up on some variable quotient of home and office, and yes, those who have been recompelled to grind it out every day back in the ol’ cubicle.

But, as this grand, involuntary workplace experiment marches on, has anyone figured out what’s really working for employees and the companies they work for?

That was the question in front of about two dozen Utah business leaders at a roundtable discussion hosted by online retail giant Overstock.com and the Deseret News at Overstock’s Midvale headquarters this week.

To be sure, no consensus as to the optimum work environment has been reached and Utah companies are embracing approaches as diverse as the products and services they offer.

Overstock CEO Jonathan Johnson, who moderated the roundtable discussion, used himself as an example to illustrate the dilemma that faces managers when it comes to assessing the best place for anyone to do their job, and do it well.

Johnson noted workdays spent at his home are marked by high efficiency and production, cranking out the correspondence, plowing through Zoom meetings and checking all the boxes on the day’s to-do list. But, days he spends at the office have different, but equally important outcomes.

“At the end of a day at the office, I sometimes look back and think, ‘I didn’t get anything done,’” Johnson said. “But I did, and it’s time spent on relationships.”

At Utah outdoor gear maker Cotopaxi, leaders have embraced a shift in workplace philosophy that was unexpected but is one now bearing measurable benefits, according to the employees themselves.

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Davis Smith, co-founder and CEO of Cotopaxi, poses for a photo at Cotopaxi’s headquarters in Salt Lake City on March 14, 2018.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Cotopaxi co-founder and CEO Davis Smith said before making a shift that was precipitated by pandemic restrictions, he was solidly behind the concept of a daily, in-person workplace. But, in practice, the benefits of remote work revealed themselves.

“I was the biggest believer of working in the office,” Smith said. “I never worked at home, I discouraged employees from working at home and then that totally changed.

“In August of 2020, we decided we were a remote-first company.”

Smith said his foremost concern in making the change was bringing new staff into the mix who hadn’t had the opportunity to first build relationships in an in-person environment that could be carried into the remote realm. New, and very intentional ways to promote team building and connectedness became part of Cotopaxi’s revised, remote-first modus operandi and Smith said there’s plenty of data that reflects how well it’s worked.

Not only is productivity up, but in-house surveys reflect Cotopaxi employee morale is at levels any business leader would celebrate.

In a recent LinkedIn post, Smith shared the most recent results from the annual sentiment assessments, noting that 76% of the current Cotopaxi roster of about 300 employees were hired after the company shifted to a remote-first workplace policy.

• Eighty-seven percent rated their sense of belonging as an 8+ (47% rated it a 10).

• Ninety-one percent rated their sense of purpose as an 8+ (52% rated a 10).

• Seventy-eight percent say they are more productive working remotely. 6% report being less productive.

• Fifty percent say they are working more hours than pre-pandemic. Thirty-seven percent report their workload is unchanged. Note: When factoring in commute time, people work less total hours.

• Ninety-one percent prefer working from home with 6% preferring to work from the office (0% reported wanting to work from the office 100% of the time).

Other Utah business founders and executives at the roundtable are also finding success with a remote-first approach, and a handful are working to find a balance in hybrid programs that set some expectations for in-office appearances alongside work-from-home opportunities.

To be sure, the exposure to remote work has fundamentally re-shaped expectations on the worker side of the equation. Recent polling by McKinsey and Co. of over 13,000 global employees found 40% ranked workplace flexibility as the top reason to stay in a job, barely behind earnings at 41%, according to the BBC. And, in a March 2022 Gallup study of more than 140,000 U.S. employees, 54% of fully remote workers and 38% of hybrid workers said if their companies stopped offering the flexibility to work remotely, they would look for work elsewhere.

And the worker sentiment exposed in polling data is not lost on businesses that see the offer of remote work options as a powerful recruiting tool. In large part, that is thanks to a historically tight U.S. labor market that, in spite of ongoing, record-high inflationary pressures, continues to create more job openings than workers available to fill them.

But, some executives are finding niche audiences for policies that run a bit counter to a workforce that has collectively taken remote work for a spin and found it to be a comfy and compatible ride.

Joseph Woodbury, co-founder and CEO of Utah-based peer-to-peer self storage marketplace Neighbor, said his company has embraced a workplace schedule that has flexibility at its core but also requires in-person attendance four days a week. And, while the policy ran into some early resistance, Woodbury said it has turned out to be a boon.

“I was told when we embarked on this journey, by investors, by everyone that this would be a major recruiting disadvantage and it was, for about six months,” Woodbury said. “But, in the last 12 months it has become the biggest recruiting advantage for our company. This has been the easiest 12 months in Neighbor’s history to recruit talent.”

Woodbury said Neighbor has been closing numerous employee contracts via office visits where new talent has been responding positively to the energy of a very much occupied, and bumping, office setting.

While the discussion at Overstock’s headquarters reflected a panoply of new takes on creating the best workplace of the future, one veteran entrepreneur noted the new realm of flexibility was set to help drive positive change in one of the biggest challenges for every business — workforce diversity.

Cydni Tetro, CEO of ecommerce platform Brandless and co-founder/president of the advocacy group Women Tech Council, noted the pandemic had widely disproportionate negative impacts on women, driven in large part by widespread shutdowns in child care facilities.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce report released this spring found men and women suffered a 3% drop in labor force participation at the height of the pandemic. But more than two years later, men have returned to work at a higher rate than women. As of April of this year, women’s labor force participation was still a full percentage point lower than it was pre-pandemic, meaning an estimated one million women are missing from the labor force.

But, Tetro believes the new world of flexible workspaces will create bigger and better opportunities both for women currently employed and for those making their way back into the workforce.

“The impacts of COVID-19 forced everyone to work from home where family life collided with the work world and it led to a complete transformation of how we see workplace flexibility,” Tetro said. “The pandemic disproportionately hit women. But, they’re coming back into the workforce and we’re going to see more upward mobility because you don’t have to be in the office all the time. You can be remote, or be in the office when it works, carve out family time and find that balance.”

Corrections: An earlier version incorrectly stated Neighbor is requiring employees to work from the office two days a week. The requirement is four days a week.