Remote work is popular, but ‘moments that matter’ happen onsite, say top executives

Virtual and hybrid work models are becoming the standard for many companies. However, “people want to come back into our offices for the moments that matter,” Mala Singh, chief people officer at Electronic Arts, said.

During Fortune’s Most Powerful Women panel discussions on September 30, executives in the tech and automotive industries discussed what the future of work will look like and the implications for workplace culture. At the onset of the pandemic, “we did shift the entire company, all 14,000 workers, to working from home all over the world,” Singh said. “We saw an incredible ability for people to deliver their milestones as expected,” she explained. 

But over time, that began to erode and burnout increased, Singh said. Although gaming is a high-tech industry, employees benefit from in-person creative collaboration, she noted. “We’ll probably have 15% of our workforce that are truly remote, not connected to an office, not expected to come into an office,” Singh said. “This is higher than we’ve had in the past; it was about 2% before. But the vast majority of workers are going to be in some type of hybrid mode.”

In comparison, at an autonomous vehicle company, most employees are needed to work onsite. “Cars do not build themselves; it requires a lot of people to do that,” Erika Linford, chief people officer at Zoox, said during the panel. “Almost immediately after we went into shelter in place, we realized that to keep the company moving forward, we had to figure out how to get an essential group of people back but in a very safe way. Right now, I’d say we’re about 50% back.” The company has “guidelines around distancing, masks, COVID-19 testing, and daily health checks,” Linford said. “And people, I think, have really recognized that it’s all one team, right? So, nobody wants to be the person who gets somebody else sick.”

Lisa Edwards, president and COO at Diligent, a board software company, began her role in October 2020, remotely. “It’s really strange starting a new job in a pandemic,” Edwards said. She has primarily met with her team via phone and video calls. “But I do think that the benefit is: I’ve also probably had more one on ones than I would have ever had pre-pandemic,” Edwards explains. “We have 1,800 people, and I feel like I’ve talked one-on-one to probably 1,000 of them.” 

The onsite meetings Edwards did have reinforced that being in the office with colleagues can support culture. “First of all, I’m 5’1 and half the company thought I was 5’9,” she said. On video calls “my square is the same size as everyone else’s square,” Edwards said. When it comes to hybrid or remote work, the company has been flexible, she said. “There is no one size fits all in the [return] to work,” and leading with empathy is important, Edwards noted. 

“I think that the future of work is flexible,” Lynne Oldham, chief people officer at Zoom, said. “And that’s going to lead us all to look at hybrid as the way to go. I think that’s going to require tools that help us be collaborative, productive, and equal.” The company will soon release a tool called Smart Gallery, which is “all about camera setup,” she said. “It’s going to create the same look feel for a meeting that we have now, even if you three are sitting in a conference room, and I’m sitting alone in my own space,” Oldham said to the other panelists. It will use A.I. to create a gallery-view of in-room participants. A Whiteboard feature, similar to the purpose of a traditional whiteboard, is on the horizon as well. “It’ll just feel different as we move from meetings for the sake of meetings, to meetings to work together,” Oldham said. 

And when it comes to the future of work, supporting a company culture of inclusion is key, the panelists agreed. That includes ways to support “working moms who’ve had it hard” when it comes to childcare issues during the pandemic, Edwards noted. Retaining high-performing women is top mind for the execs. “We educated managers and helped them understand that the hard-fought wins of bringing more women into our organization, particularly at senior levels, could be lost if we’re not careful and proactive,” Singh said. 

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