Whether you’re a manager at a company with 3,000 employees or three, something that leaders across industries have learned in the past two years is that giving employees more flexibility is key to retention and recruiting of new hires. The pandemic forced the majority (~70%) of the US workforce to adapt in a plethora of different ways to keep everyone healthy while still continuing to work efficiently. Companies that previously had 0% of their employees working remotely had to figure out how to seamlessly transfer all operations to an 100% digital environment. While obviously a ton of bad things came from the pandemic, that’s not to say there weren’t learnings and lessons discovered across the board.
The reality is that more talent in every part of the country, and the world, now has access to greater opportunities because of the increased normalization of remote work. Gone are the days where you have to live in San Francisco to make a Bay Area salary. Remote work isn’t a groundbreaking concept, yet the majority of companies did not standardize remote-work until the pandemic. What was once the exception has become the expectation. Talent will work remote for you, or just work for someone else.
I see this as a win for workers. Employers know this and have had to adjust their compensation strategies to accommodate for competition. High-demand roles, like IC software engineers, have spurred more competitive salaries than skill sets. Many will argue that this combination of low-supply and high-demand of talent is cyclical and will bounce back to normal levels. Others recognize that individual flexibility and personalized working conditions are too widely adopted to be relinquished easily. Working parents can spend more time with their children when their commute consists of switching rooms; it turns out you can have your cake and eat it with your family. In the 2021 State of Work study conducted by Owl Labs, 71% of workers want a hybrid or remote working style post-pandemic, and that “39% of employers are requiring employees to be in the office full-time post-pandemic, but only 29% of employees want to be in an office.”
There’s always the flip side of the coin; there are people who miss the in-person connection and escape from their home life. In a similar vein, it’s easier to feel burnt out when you’re living and working in the same room. The same thing goes for decompression; employees can context switch from boss to parent or partner when they have a commute. For some, separating work and life into different spaces, or just even the choice to decide what is best for them, is essential. With a shift in the talent market putting more control in the hands of talent, I think a lot of companies are developing more understanding for their employees’ lives outside of work. The phrase “work-life balance” is outdated. People don’t want to balance their work and life, they want to integrate their work into their life in a way that maximizes their time with things that bring them joy and let them feel comfortable.
I’m always curious how companies react to global phenomena and how large-scale challenges help breed innovation in imaginable ways. Having been in the talent and recruiting industry for a year, at a required five day-a-week in-office job, I’ve been eager to chat with companies about what they have learned from their own strategies and new best practices for attracting and retaining talent. If you haven’t read my previous articles about talent, I like to get on calls with folks from different companies and ask questions to create a vast sample or census. Then, I summarize our call into a brief paragraph with the most interesting insight that I learned. For this article, I was curious about how companies think about the future of their work environment, given how many were forced to switch theirs so abruptly. Here are some questions I asked over the last two weeks on 30+ calls:
- Are companies that were once in-person planning on renewing their office space and bringing back folks to the office?
- Has the hybrid model of work attracted an equal interest of both employees and employers?
- Have companies that were always remote-first strengthened their beliefs in a digital office?
- What are some of the challenges with having a remote company vs. an in-person one?
- How have you been able to source talent from different areas due to remote work and how has that helped your company?
- How are companies combating Zoom fatigue?
- How have salaries been affected by people working remotely in traditionally low cost of living places?
- What do you envision happening to work-environments in the next three years as the pandemic continues to fade?
I had a lot of interesting discussions with different companies and positions on the above topics. Here’s the most interesting tidbits that I learned that I think you’ll enjoy reading as well:
Working remotely is going to be normal for a lot of people for the next decade and beyond. One of the biggest challenges with remote work is digital fatigue. Maintaining a good work-life balance is challenging when you can power up and start work at 7AM when you’re working from home. We want to create a good healthy work balance that keeps individuals engaged with that in mind. There has to be flexibility with our work environment, but seeing each other in real life is still important; there is no substitute for face to face conversation and connection.
Since 2019, most of our team culture has evolved to be remote first. And we still are remote-first, but now we are trying to add in-person options for our team of 32 people. One of the biggest challenges with remote work is making sure the right people are getting the right information that they need, while simultaneously working hard to make sure the team feels supported and that they are actually a part of the team and that work isn’t permeating their personal lives.
We are a flexible-first company. Our definition of hybrid is now more like a 50% in person and 50% remote. Our employees have proven they are productive and work well in a remote setting, so we are not in a hurry to get back in the office. Hybrid is going to be our new norm. Employees are going to demand flexibility going forward. If there’s a recession, employees are happy to have a job, and they will definitely come into the office, so it’s definitely cyclical. I know multiple people who have moved into rural communities because they can work remotely and still have the salary that comes with having a job in a large city.
We were traditionally an in-person or in-the-field company and then the pandemic hit and got us thinking differently. All of our professional staff had to work from home; we had customer-facing folks that still had to come in or folks who couldn’t do their job from home. As we separated from AT&T, we developed a virtual first culture. Not solely because of the pandemic, but, we decided we are going remote regardless. We did not want to go back to the traditional model. We proved we can work from anywhere. During the earlier stages of the pandemic, our call center employees had to come in-person, but we partnered with our unions to create a work from home model for our call center agents who can now work from home if they choose.
We have been a remote first company for 25 years. We’ve had offices and we still do, but we know that flexibility is what people are truly looking for. When the pandemic hit, we weren’t really affected. We were in a really good space. We’ve been doing this. To help create and keep a sense of community in our company, that you can’t really get over Zoom, we’re thinking about our offices as destinations for our employees. We want it to be very intentional and maximize the production and connection that you get when you’re meeting in real life.
We have always been a remote first company. We had the advantage of being a remote company before the pandemic. We had a lot of people coming to us asking for advice about working in a remote environment. So, we put together our best practices and made it public. Our biggest challenge with a remote workforce is “how do we come together?”. There’s a critical element of in-person communication that can’t be replicated as well over screens. We recognize how critical social fabric and connectivity is to how we create culture and relationships across the company. Now, we are looking at leaning into opportunities for people to connect and gather in real life even more.
We were fully in-office before the pandemic. Then, we went fully remote and it actually increased our productivity. We prioritized and focused on an asynchronous work model. We have now shifted to a hybrid model. Our more junior-mid level folks have been going into the office 1-2 times a week and senior level employees are mostly fully remote. Most of our team likes to be in the office, so I think hybrid is going to be the thing that sticks around.
There’s a few challenges that come with remote work. We tend to get more things done in person. It’s a real issue. We are also not meant as humans to be on video all day. People are fatigued by video calls and maintaining the boundaries from work and home. I think eventually as a society we are going back to back in the office. People are going to miss the in-person connection and efficiency that comes with being in person.
We were all forced to go home with just the tools we had and we had to pivot our business because we were doing this in-person. We decided to package this up into a software and do our services virtually. We proved we can be productive in a remote environment. We’re even seeing a huge increase in attraction and retention in general.
For younger employees, it’s so essential to soak up information from leadership in an in-person setting. I would rather someone raise their hand and ask 1,000 questions than suffer in silence. A few years ago I wasn’t open to remote work. I was a top performer at a PR firm for three years, and they only gave me two remote days a quarter. I can literally work in a bathroom, a castle, anywhere as a PR person. The pandemic has forced people to get smarter and traditional companies are struggling with this. You’re seeing a lot of this with big tech and big banking. I can now live in Joshua Tree and work for a company in NYC. If you’re a company who said that was okay before and are now changing your policy on that, it’s a really sticky and confusing situation to be in.
We are trying to do our best for business and for our colleagues. Before the pandemic, we had offices all over the world. I worked in Chicago with a few hundred other colleagues. There were some remote and hybrid workers pre-pandemic. So, we were already used to it in some capacity. Overnight, mostly everyone shifted to working from home. I haven’t been back to the office since March 2020. We downsized our real estate when we realized we were productive, if not more productive, at home. A lot of people are quite comfortable with working from home. I’ve got 10 hours of my week with no commute back to me.
We’ve been remote for five years, the pandemic took a toll on us more emotionally rather than operationally. Communication is the biggest challenge when working remotely. In an office, we take a lot of things for granted. You can read people better in-person. With remote work, there is so much more reading and writing. Not everyone likes that form of communication and it’s not the best form of communication for everything, people get fatigued. There are fewer pieces of communication because of that fatigue. As the leader of the organization, it’s also tough to understand when and where people are communicating. It makes communicating more of a big thing and we have to be more thoughtful about it.
There is value in non-explicit communication that happens in just existing in the same space. Without talking to someone I can tell what their mood is, I can tell if you’re head is down, they’re busy or if someone is having a bad day and to stay away. Non-verbal communication doesn’t happen as easily with remote work. Zoom fatigue is a technology problem. If you tried VR in the early days, you probably thought it sucked. VR isn’t what sucked, the frame rate and resolution is what sucked. It’s the same thing in Zoom. It’s a combination of technology and usability. Zoom wasn’t meant to be lived in like it is now, it was meant to be a place for meetings. So, that’s what we are looking to help change with the technology we are building.
Pre-pandemic, we were an everyday in the office culture; working remote was an exception. We had two offices, one in Austin and one in Costa Rica. We were reaching a capacity issue in our Austin office and we were even beginning to implement a desk-sharing policy. We were uniquely positioned, being a cyber-security company, to securely take our work to our homes when we had to. Talent lives everywhere is what we’ve learned in the last two years. A number of tipping points have come around for us to make the change to being a remote friendly company. We acquired a company that had a base of remote workers already and Austin’s housing market has become so unaffordable, so, in 2021 we started recruiting talent from all over the place.
We were fully in-person pre-pandemic but culturally we were in an interesting position. Our culture was never about being in an office; it was about the results. It was always about the task at hand and a common goal. Going remote wasn’t a big shift in that regard. It wasn’t difficult for Motus. We made sure everyone was comfortable with what was happening and met the individual where the individual needed to be met. We are now a fully-remote workforce and we will never go back to an in-person required environment now that we’ve seen how effective we can be.
When the pandemic hit, we were a small team of 20 people and mostly everyone was in NYC. We were very keen to build a product and engineering hub in NYC, which is common on the West coast but not so much in NYC. During the middle of the pandemic, we noticed our office wasn’t being used as much. As we grew the team to 120 people in the last 2+ years, we realized we can hire from anywhere because we weren’t really meeting in the office and we were still growing and scaling anyways. I think hybrid work works very well because as a company, we grew up during the pandemic and have seen it be an effective work environment in multiple ways.
The pandemic brought forth a lot of bad things but also a lot of good opportunities. This nation has become remote first or hybrid. We are all now competing for the same talent with so many remote first companies. More importantly, we are really leaning in to making sure our team has a life outside of work. We are continuously working to improve our employees’ lives. We have worked really hard to ensure that the lack of human connection in a virtual setting is able to be bridged.
We had a very start-up-like office, think ping-pong tables, in a warehouse in Austin. We had everyone who was interacting with customers in one room. When the pandemic hit, we sublet our office and went 100% remote. We treat employees how they want to be treated. If you want the option to come into the office, we want to give that option to you. The solution is to give people options and treat them like adults. We are being really transparent with our employees; we are asking for feedback constantly.
We are getting feedback from people in particular roles that they are not seeing any benefits from coming into the office. There’s a relevant minority that’s asking ‘why am I coming into the office?’ None of us really know what’s best since this is so new to us. Our vision is, let’s try in-person and remote work for 60 days and then we’ll have those conversations after we both see how it works. We need to be flexible because there’s nobody in my company who can’t go out and get paid more somewhere else because of how insane the market is for talent.
We were a team of 150 employees in the summer of 2019. Every startup that was in hyper-growth during that time was in person. When the pandemic hit, we went home like everyone else. In early 2020, we’d grown to over 400 employees. Still, everyone was in the office. We got into a couple big projects and realized that we can be really productive when we are not in the office. We found that people are productive if not more productive while remote. In June 2020, we made the decision to make remote work part of our long term vision.
We became so global so early as a company, so we’ve always worked asynchronously. You can do a meeting if you need to. It’s a tool. We have a lot of other tools to communicate and collaborate. It allows us to work around the clock. It’s neat to see folks take advantage of our flexibility that we offer at Zapier. We have someone who has been RVing across America. We’ve intentionally made intentional decisions not to make a fixed work week for people and situations like that.
We were remote pre-pandemic, across the US and the globe. We were looking at a global environment and seeking talent where they live. Our future engineers and PMs are Millennials + Gen Z. As we looked at the trends, younger generations really value the flexibility of where and when they work. Why are we trying to jam them into a traditional work environment? Let us look at what people value in their work life now and adapt as a company to adjust our work environment to fit a workforce that’s interested in that flexibility. Our existing work environment was never flexible enough for parents, but the pandemic has now taught us that we can now be both parents and be productive workers.
Every leader I’m talking to is thinking of everything in terms of giving their employees flexibility. At the same time, they want employees to maintain their personal boundaries. People were working super later or super early during the pandemic. They got burnt out far too often. I was recently in some intense strategy sessions on a business trip and by the time I was home a few hours later, I had processed what happened before I got home. Usually, when I get off a Zoom at home, I don’t have time to really transition from strategy mode to mom mode.
The talent market is very strong but we are starting to see a small softening. Hiring companies were bending over backwards for candidates before, but now we are seeing hiring organizations being strict with salary and sign-ons or relocation. Companies will need to pay attention to how they create a culture. It makes it harder to create a culture with relationships when people are remote since employees lose their stickiness.
Pre-pandemic, we were two separate offices based in LA and NYC. The pandemic brought everyone together to feel like one company since we were all remote and in it together. Now, we are hybrid and feel much closer across the organization. To continue to build on a sense of community, we encourage in-person meetings, onboarding at HQ, or visiting an office in the first month or two. We are getting the whole team twice together a year to create a better connection between us all.
Everyone but five of us are in a lab and remote work was not a thing we did until we were forced to. We decided to go back full-time and we are big believers of in-person work. It has become harder to hire someone who has experienced remote work to come join us in person, but at the same time, it has become way easier to interview people remotely.
We’ve been researching for a better decade about what motivates people and have found a lot it comes down to perception of choice, agency, and control. Companies underestimate the perspective of control. The pandemic gave people more control of where they could work, what they wore etc. If you take control away from people, they aren’t very happy.
There are some places where remote work is never going to be an option because there’s work where you physically need to do something. However, there’s so much value in being able to recruit nationally and capitalize on pockets of knowledge that are so specific to what you’re building. I don’t know if we are ever gonna get back to an in person environment and companies need to get comfortable with hybrid work. People are hungry for flexibility. I have the opportunity to take my kid to the doctor and I can participate in my community when I want to now. Moving forward the burden will be on companies to give people more flexibility.
Nothing changed for people in-person. The productivity we saw from folks who were working at home was the same as it was in-office. We saw this as a way to innovate. People can now manage their lives a little bit better than they have before. We gathered feedback from our employees about whether they liked remote work or hybrid. We got a lot of feedback from folks and they want flexibility. All of that can work. You take what you know about your job and how much you need to be present with others and your personal life and work-style. Take what you’ve learned from working in the office and now having worked at home. Work where it works. We have a culture of listening to our employees.
We’ve stayed remote now because the biggest barrier I’ve seen is hiring talent within the past 2 years as people’s values have changed. We are looking at taking our real estate and letting our leases run out and investing that into the company and employee experience. If you told me 3 years ago, you can run a people operation remotely, I would have said you’re crazy. If you make people go back to the office, they’ll quit. We have to put our own employees’ mental health first.
We are 45% remote and 55% office. We had everyone go home in March of 2020 and we never skipped a beat. We have kept it that way. Employees would ask about when they would be required to go back to the office and we asked our employees globally what they wanted in a survey. Our employees want flexibility. We are not going to open offices and require them to go back, but if they want to, they can go to an office.
These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity. Special thanks to Kathleen Walsh, Jamie Geller and Sasha Fyffe for being the best helpers ever.