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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Why forcing employees back to the office is a losing strategy

Going all-in on a virtual-only model can be done, but it has to be done very intentionally.

Why forcing employees back to the office is a losing strategy
[nikkimeel / Adobe Stock]

Someone recently asked me if there is a subject on which I disagree with other tech leaders, which was quite thought-provoking. Right now, there are a lot of polarizing opinions on what the post-pandemic work scape should look like. I’d like to weigh in.

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Not too long ago, a prominent business leader (I won’t name names) claimed that employees who wish to return to the office are those who are the most engaged. This insinuated that workers who would rather continue working from home are the least engaged.

In my opinion, this statement is complete and utter nonsense. And I believe that any business leader who believes this and is planning on returning their entire workforce to the office has a losing strategy.

This pandemic created a shift in us—in our businesses, our economy, and our personal lives. Stay-at-home orders forced businesses, employees, schools, and families to switch to a remote model. It showed us that we are highly adaptable and that we’re able to adapt quickly, even in the face of adversity. Even the operations that traditionally require human contact found ways to adapt. Take doctors offering their practices through telemedicine, for example.

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Let me pause here and acknowledge that there are exceptions. There are some sectors and industries for which that in-person, face-to-face element is critical. Education is one that quickly comes to mind. Many of the businesses that truly do need face time had to close their doors, and many people lost their jobs. For them, my heart hurts. Certain operations are meant to be in-person, and they will return as soon as it is safe. What I am about to say does not apply to these exceptions.

Through this process, I guarantee that businesses and industries discovered new advantages, efficiencies, and core competencies that they didn’t even know they had. They’re finding that they can offer even more value to customers. If the invention of the internet brought about the fourth industrial revolution, maybe we can call this version 2.0—pandemic edition.

Our workforce was given no other choice but to work from home indefinitely. Some of us found that working from home isn’t a good fit and that we can’t wait to return to the office. On the other hand, many of us discovered the advantages of working from home.

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I think the companies that will be the most successful are the ones that adopt a hybrid workforce.

There are some statistics that have driven me to this conclusion:

Ninety percent of children are now born into millennial parents.

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Sixty-six percent of households have millennial parents who both work.

• Within the next decade, we will make up 75% of the workforce.

Based on these statistics, I believe that the largest generation of working parents in our current history will show a preference for working from home. I believed in this even before the pandemic happened, but I feel more certain now.

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As a new parent, I can speak from personal experience about how much easier it is to have the flexibility of working from home. And when older children return to classrooms, parents who work remotely will have the chance to pick them up from school when they aren’t stuck in the office. After-school programs become optional, and new parents can spend more time with their young children.

Let’s also not forget about pets. During this pandemic, animal shelters were cleared out. This goes to show how working from home made it possible for so many individuals and families to adopt when it wasn’t possible before.

I’m not saying that adjusting to this new blend of work and family life was easy, but I think that many families are enjoying spending more quality time together. We get to have these increased special moments that we otherwise would have missed.

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I think that this parental workforce, who also happen to be digital natives, will drive companies to be more innovative. Companies that force their employees back into the office full-time will experience a huge talent drain. That’s because employees who want to continue working from home, whether full-time or part-time, will find plenty of competitors who are adopting a hybrid model. Many Americans bought homes and relocated during the pandemic. They will quite literally be unable to return to the office if required. Not only that, but companies will lose out on the opportunity to recruit talent from different geographic locations.

EMPOWERED EMPLOYEES ARE ENGAGED EMPLOYEES

Going all-in on a virtual-only model can be done, but it has to be done very intentionally. There are a few permanently remote companies that already do it very well. Otherwise, those that can strike a balance somewhere in the middle will have the winning strategy.

That way, employees have the power of choice. It’ll help them feel empowered, and thus more engaged and loyal. Your employees who thrive in an exclusively in-person environment can choose to come back to the office full-time if they wish to do so. Those who feel more productive working from home, or want to stay home to be with their families and pets, will have that option. Many of them will want a combination of the two and get the best of both worlds. With the help of their managers, they’ll be able to design an optimal workweek that helps them thrive and boosts their productivity.

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As we head into the fall and winter months, and as the delta variant continues to surge, startups have an advantage over larger tech companies in adapting and changing plans frequently. I’m proud to be the CEO of a startup where we can be nimble, flexible, and better equipped to make quick, important decisions.

Empowered employees are engaged employees. Give them the power of choice, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how your team’s productivity will boost your bottom line.


Cody Barbo, Founder & CEO, Trust & Will.

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