After two years of pandemic-inspired changes to how and where many people work, many businesses are still trying to find the right balance among performance, safety, and job satisfaction. In some cases, such as Apple, employees have reported that they’re unhappy at being forced to spend time in the office, even if it’s only one day a week. A Harvard study showed that one to two days a week of in-person work is ideal for productivity, while a Deloitte survey of women found that about 90% said they worried working remotely would hurt their prospects for career advancement. Yet another survey showed that 77% of managers said they’d fire or cut the pay of any employees who refused to return to the office.
The main question has moved away from “how do we get everyone back to work like it’s 2019?” to “how do we make the most of this new normal?” That was the topic for the latest Fortune CEO Perspectives virtual roundtable, which took place Wednesday and featured executives from a swath of industries.
The central theme that emerged is that this style of work — whether it’s referred to as “work from home,” “hybrid,” or “flexible”—is here to stay and it’s up to leaders to make the best of it. For Bret Taylor, the co-CEO of Salesforce, the solution involves letting each division in the company dictate its ideal schedule of working at home and in the office. These “flex team agreements” give these smaller groups the leeway to work as they see fit, with some in-person time built in to maximize creativity, collaboration, and socialization.
Partially, this strategy is due to the fact that the response to the pandemic varies by location and culture. As Taylor pointed out, San Francisco and Seattle are very different from London and Tokyo right now, so there’s no sense in setting a global policy for hybrid work. More importantly, there’s the fact that employees have more leverage now.
“Early in this pandemic, a number of executives made prominent statements about returning to the office and I think a lot of them have walked back from that simply because of the war for talent that every company in the world is in right now,” Taylor said. “People are competing on their employee experience. We really have to think about what is our value proposition to the talented employees we’re trying to compete for.”
Zoetis CEO Kristin Peck said her company, which specializes in animal health products, has a similar approach called “empowered flexibility.” They recognize that there’s no way to implement a company-wide policy when some people work at desks and others are required to be in labs or manufacturing, so instead they’ve created a set of principles for every team to follow. The end goal is to foster collaboration and community among the various subsets of the company, without only giving more freedoms to those who work “desk-based” jobs.
“A lot of these people, if you want them to work in the manufacturing sites, they have to believe that they’re going to be treated with the respect that they deserve and the flexibility that some of the other people have,” she said. “There’s no way to do that job from home but they should still be able to go to their kids’ games and get to a doctor’s appointment. It’s up to us as an organization to figure out what that [arrangement] looks like.”
Kyle Vogt of Cruise, the self-driving car company, said their approach is to let every individual decide what’s best for their lifestyle. As he pointed out, trying to get the best of the best in A.I., machine learning, and robotics is no easy task, so they want to offer whatever work situation is ideal for the talent they’re hoping to hire and retain.
“Some people like being in an office environment. They thrive on physical interactions and the type of mentorship you can do in person. Other people have personal needs, like time with family or proximity to relatives or loved ones. Some people have jobs that require them to be on-site but they know that when they take the job. So for us, flexible work doesn’t mean remote work. It means an environment where everyone can do their best work. If you can do your best work at home, sitting on a couch, we’re going to give you the tools to be successful in that environment.”
Other executives on the roundtable noted that flexibility also has to extend to leadership’s approach to these new norms of hybrid work. The strategies that are functioning well right now might have unintended detrimental effects down the line, so adaptability is key. “When we first sent people home, March 13 of 2020, I said to my leadership team, “You’ve got to add two words on every sentence — ‘for now,’” said Karen Kaplan, CEO of advertising agency Hill Holliday. “So much of this is moving fast and unknowable. We’ve done a lot of listening and surveying and our policy is what I call ‘wherever and however.’ It’s totally flexible.”
SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna said his company is aiming to find the balance between allowing people to work flexibly and making sure they’re still active members of the corporate community. “One of the issues that has been caused with this fear of great resignation is we have started pandering to people’s needs versus trying to create a better balance across the organization,” he said “As part of our philosophies, we do not count the hours—we focus on behaviors and outcomes.” He noted that some people are unwilling to return to the office but that it’s critical that his staffers spend at least some time together and be part of the team. “We’re not saying how often but we’re giving examples of how it’s important, how it’s beneficial, and at the same time trusting them to come up with new ideas.”
In the same vein of “pandering,” Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., CEO of Society for Human Resource Management, said allowing too much flexibility could end up backfiring. “One of our chief complaints is underrepresented minorities and women have said they could not grow with an organization because they lacked visibility, face time, relationship-building, etc.,” he pointed out. “The downsides that people aren’t talking about over the long haul for people who choose to work remotely, I don’t think we’re weighing them properly and sufficiently enough. So be careful with giving people what they want, because five to 10 years later, what they want could actually hamper their careers. Be mindful.”
On the flip side, Bret Taylor said that he sees plenty of ways that this shift could benefit organizations. “It’s probably less about building the perfect structure for the reality where it is today but setting up a culture and technology platform that sets you up to be agile in the face of unexpected changes,” he said. “I think it will significantly improve diversity because our workforce plans are not anchored to a headquarters where a founder started the company 50 years ago. It will lead to mothers returning to the workforce in greater numbers if we can afford more flexible work and that tradeoff of balancing work and life. We can create a more inclusive workforce and provide greater opportunities for entrepreneurs. Companies that lean into these changes can build stronger companies on the other side.”
Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.