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Delta’s rise highlights why companies should let employees guide return-to-office plans

August 9, 2021, 7:00 PM UTC
The rise of the coronavirus Delta variant shows why companies should let employees guide their return-to-office plans, writes Rich Barton.
Luis Alvarez—Getty Images

The highly contagious coronavirus Delta variant has some employers scrambling to rethink their efforts to bring workers back to the office. But forcing a “return to normal” was never the right call.

The necessities of the pandemic created an opportunity to reimagine how work gets done in many industries, and while many companies didn’t take that chance—opting instead to pine for the old days of commutes and cubicles—hopefully they are now thinking long term.

Even before Delta gained a foothold, millions of workers were quitting their jobs, and millions more were telling pollsters they were seriously considering it. Employers risk accelerating that trend if they ignore employee preferences and bring everyone back to physical offices a set number of days a week, especially while a mutated coronavirus ramps up infection rates nationwide. 

Zillow announced in July 2020 that, from then on, the vast majority of employees could work from wherever they choose. Those plans haven’t changed. 

We were among the first to make that move, because even when the pandemic began upending our lives and work, our 5,000-plus employees produced incredible results. Our customers needed more digital tools to help them tour homes and move when social distancing was critical, and our teams came together over Zoom to launch new services and technologies. 

We onboarded 1,500 employees from afar in 2020. Every team collaborated digitally, even as they juggled school closures, isolation, and caring for ill relatives. Our employees showed empathy to one another, worked flexibly, and nimbly produced quality outcomes. 

Before we rolled out a work-from-anywhere culture, we had employees in 24 states; we now have them in 49. As it turns out, when people can work where they are happiest and most productive, they move.

We are not advocating for the elimination of the office, or for a work culture in which employees never see each other in person. Instead, the office should evolve into a flexible hub of collaboration and a welcoming place for employees and teams when they need it. Getting together is still critical, but we should be more intentional about how to nurture those opportunities.

At the same time, we need to better accommodate the majority of workers who prefer wrapping their work around their lifestyles. When we did this at Zillow, productivity remained high and we saw a 9% spike in employee engagement, both of which have stayed strong in our employee surveys. And the number of Zillow employees who say they prefer working from home increased over the last 12 months. 

Now, about 60% say they want to come into the office only once a month or less. They are not alone: A national poll by PwC showed that more than half of workers want to work remotely at least three days a week. The same survey, however, showed that 43% of executives prefer limited or no work-from-home schedules—and only 24% said they expect many or all employees to work remotely for a significant amount of time. In contrast, in a survey by Robert Half, one-third of workers said they will look for a new job if forced back into the office full-time. 

Work preferences have shifted because many people now realize that working from home creates opportunities to improve their quality of life. This is reflected in changes to how people think about “home,” a trend we call “The Great Reshuffling.” Those who can work remotely are now free to live where they are happiest—whether in their favorite city, in a larger suburban or rural home, or one closer to family. 

Almost two-thirds of Americans we surveyed said they would be at least somewhat likely to consider moving if they could work from home as often as they want. And based on broad anecdotal evidence, they also love reclaiming commute times to spend instead with family or on personal tasks.

Worker preferences are also clear in job application trends. Zillow is seeing a whopping 51% more applicants than our previous high, and 78% more than last year. Meanwhile, job applications are down 23% across industries this year, even while job postings are up, according to recruiting firm iCIMS. 

Almost half of Zillow’s new hires say their biggest reason for joining, besides pay and benefits, is that work/life balance is a priority here. These are strong signals about how prospective employees think about what kind of company they want to work for. 

Zillow’s decision to support more freedom and location-flexibility for employees avoids unnecessary friction and turnover. It provides more opportunities for upward mobility for those not working out of our larger offices. And it will help resolve a big problem: The in-office face time, headquarters-based culture likely excluded far too many people we want and need at our company. 

However, a survey by Microsoft reveals great news: Remote job postings on LinkedIn massively increased during the pandemic, and women are among those most likely to apply for them. It also showed Black and Latinx workers are more likely than white workers and men to say they prefer remote work. A location-flexible workplace provides opportunities to reach these potential new hires where they live, and companies will create better products and services for customers and partners as a result.

What’s next? At Zillow, we may meet at the office for “on-sites” instead of getting away for “off-sites.” We implemented “core collaboration hours” to consolidate most meetings into a time-zone-friendly, four-hour window. We also plan to level the playing field with a “One Zoom—All Zoom” rule: If even one participant is “dialing in” via laptop and headphones, everyone does, so we avoid creating face time advantages for those “in the room” and disadvantages for others.  

As we all learned early in the pandemic, technology provides many digital analogues for in-person collaboration that work well and are rapidly improving. These technologies create opportunities to work together from anywhere. A broader definition of “the office” will benefit employers and employees alike through increased diversity, productivity, engagement, satisfaction, and retention. 

This awful pandemic resulted in at least one silver lining: It revealed the future of work—if we are only willing to see it. For those who are, let’s shape the workplace of the future in the image our employees want and have proven they can succeed in. The rewards will be bountiful.

Rich Barton is cofounder and CEO of Zillow.

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