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A $4 billion U.S. company went remote, and says staff can work from home forever

December 22, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

Amid an ongoing pandemic and the emerging Omicron variant, many large U.S. companies are second-guessing their return-to-work dates, either moving them back yet again, or admitting they don’t know when workers should expect to come back to the office. 

Uber announced a hybrid model in September in which employees are required to come into the office for only a few days a week, but the company said in early December that no one would be asked to commute in until further notice. Apple and Google have suspended their return dates with no definite deadline. 

But other companies have bet that a permanent remote model will work best for their employees going forward. Upwork, a digital platform with a $4.3 billion market cap and headquartered in San Francisco that connects freelancers with businesses looking for their services, decided to go permanently remote in May 2020. The company told Fortune that its remote model has given employees more flexibility and control over their working schedules, and has freed up money that the company previously spent on office space.

“The finance people are happy about that, the ‘people people’ are happy about that, and the business leaders are happy about that. Because we’re all leading this business together and really driving results through a team that is engaged and sees the company meeting them where they are,” said Zoë Harte, the company’s head of HR.

Upwork consists of 2,000 team members across 86 countries. Before the pandemic, almost all of Upwork’s freelancers (which make up 75% of its workforce) worked remotely, but only around 10% of full-time employees were remote. Now, 100% of their team operates remotely, employees and freelancers alike, with the option to work in an office should they choose to.

Part of the reason remote work might have been so successful for Upwork is because so many employees worked from home even before the pandemic hit last year. And even workers who came into the office were remote once a week for a tradition called “Work Online Wednesdays.”

“We already worked from home one day a week across the entire company. Because we feel like it’s really important for us to have empathy with team members who are distributed [remotely] all the time,” Harte said. She added that the company made the transition well because they already had the tools and the language to implement a new kind of normal that they had already developed during their weekly Wednesday, from leading virtual meetings to more intentional planning of in-office work.  

There is mixed data about how employees feel working remotely. Only 11% of employees said they felt more productive working from home, according to a survey by 451 Research, a tech advisory firm, while the majority did not. And this 11% was largely made up of seasoned leaders who had previous experience with technology and remote working, according to a September 2020 report by data and analytics corporation S&P Global. However, another survey that tracked more than 30,000 workers between May 2020 and March 2021, found that 40% of workers noted feeling more productive at home than in the office during the pandemic, while only 15% said they were less productive than they were in the office, the Chicago Booth Review reported.

For Hanna Badmus, a legal advisor for Upwork, those virtual Wednesdays were one of the reasons she chose to join the company four years ago. 

“When I was in the interview process, and a recruiter mentioned to me that we would have the opportunity to work from home on Wednesdays, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Like, that’s a dream,’” she told Fortune. 

When it was clear that COVID would become a pandemic in the U.S. in March of 2020, Upwork’s offices in San Francisco, Santa Clara, Calif., and Chicago shut down completely. Just two months later, the company announced that they had become permanently remote, with an option to work from the office for people who wanted to. In October 2020, they closed the Santa Clara office owing to a reduced need for in-person meeting spaces. Upwork gave only vaccinated employees the option to work in person in November 2021, almost a full year after they became a two-office company.

“I worried about it being so, kind of, extreme. Going from like one day to five days remote…It was a big shock, and I even had COVID,” said Cameron Roberts, a senior acquisition manager at Upwork who now lives in Miami.  

“It’s kind of a surreal thing to have so much flexibility in front of you,” he added. “I think you really have to write down your priorities in life and assess what sort of schedule is going to work best to meet those priorities.”

One thing companies need to watch out for when transitioning to a remote-first model is the burden they might unintentionally place on employees’ shoulders, Kim Fulton, an employment expert with global consulting firm Kearney, told Fortune. 

“Because it puts more autonomy and control in the hands of employees…employees are going to need to be able to manage their work/life balance more proactively, and really be able to establish and maintain those boundaries. And leaders need to work with employees in setting those and maintaining them going forward,” she said.

When Badmus realized remote work would be the permanent model, she remembers worrying she would lose unexpected opportunities to connect with colleagues.

“I have really strong relationships with people I just met over a cup of coffee, grabbing coffee in the kitchen or having lunch,” Badmus said of her time in the office pre-pandemic. When she began working completely digitally, the inability to meet people casually was jarring.

“Getting that ideal office space together kind of took time for me,” Roberts said. “I’m not gonna lie…I am, like, a very social person. It was a little hard. Adapting to not having all of those watercooler discussions.” 

Badmus said she’s replaced her happenstance encounters with more intentional connection. If she is curious to get to know a colleague, she’ll ask to set up virtual coffee. Upwork has a program called “Glow Up” that brings together leaders who are people of color. Roberts said he’s part of an LGBT group called “Up and Out” that he celebrates holidays with. Through virtual programs like this, Badmus said she’s met people she wouldn’t have bumped into in person anyway.

The main benefit of remote work is deeper than flexibility, Fulton said. “What they’re really looking for is a greater sense of autonomy and control to actually decide when they’re in the office versus when they’re remote.”

“It really signals a higher degree of respect and trust for employees,” she added, about a company’s decision to try a hybrid or remote model.

Both Roberts and Badmus moved homes while working remotely. For Badmus, it was an opportunity to be closer to her family; pre-pandemic, she’d always had to live near her place of work.

“Knowing how much I can fulfill my love for travel and any other hobbies that I have, it would be hard to go back to the office or any sort of traditional nine-to-five work life,” Roberts said.

Upwork employees are still able to go into offices. But Badmus chooses when she’ll go in with great care. 

“[If] I can have the opportunity to meet, like, 10 people from one team at a time, I would take that opportunity and hop into the office,” she said. Otherwise, she’s staying put in her at-home office, which is more conducive to private calls she needs to make as an attorney.

While Upwork declined to comment how much it saved by closing an office and reallocating funds, it did confirm that the company used that money to invest in new software and the remodeling of its two remaining office spaces. Employees were also given $1,000 stipends for their home offices, and a coworking stipend for third-party workspaces that require a membership fee.

Upwork says a full remote model is functioning well, but do other workers want this? 

Out of the 1,000 full-time workers who responded to a survey Workhuman conducted for Fortune, over half are looking forward to a return to the office. And based on surveys conducted by management consulting firm Gallup, 54% of employees in the U.S. that work remotely in some capacity would prefer a hybrid model. Only 9% want to go back to the office full-time.

“I think, before [the pandemic] people used to have that misconception that if people couldn’t see you working, you weren’t working, which I just always thought was hogwash,” Badmus said, adding that both she and her colleagues had plenty of unproductive moments in the office anyway.

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