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Hybrid work presents an opportunity to revitalize offices

June 15, 2022, 8:00 PM UTC

As the war for talent and debates about returning to the office rage on, business leaders are scrambling to figure out how to attract and retain workers—all while maximizing productivity. It’s a situation complicated by the ongoing pandemic and a likely recession, among other uncertainties, and few companies seem to have anything more than temporary solutions. 

At Fortune’s latest CEO Roundtable event, Making the Workplace Work for People, executives from a wide range of sectors generally agreed that the only certainty right now is that there’s no going back to pre-pandemic operations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. While there are some short- and long-term downsides to remote and hybrid working, many see it as an exciting opportunity to improve their workplaces and, by extension, the lives of their employees. 

“I don’t think you’ll ever get a person to come back in on a Monday or Friday, unless they’re in a service environment. In the corporate world, I think that those days are sacred cows now,” said Dave Heath, CEO of apparel company Bombas. Many other executives at the roundtable agreed, with the prevailing sentiment being that any company that mandates a five-day in-office schedule is bound to lose a lot of its talent. 

But simply mandating that workers come to the office Tuesday through Thursday as a compromise isn’t enough, some CEOs argued. “They do need to come into the office for innovation, for learning, and for culture. We’ve adopted a phrase, which we say is ‘bring people back with purpose,’” said Prudential’s Charles Lowrey, who noted that his company has decreased its “real estate” to focus on meeting rooms instead of cubicles and offices. “That purpose may be for a specific meeting that you want to use to create things, but bring people back with purpose. Otherwise, there’s work that they probably can do more efficiently at home.”

“The work dictates the where” is how J.C. Penney’s Marc Rosen put it. “If you’re a merchant and you’re working on assortment planning, then you need to be in the office touching and feeling product, working with your colleagues to do that,” he said. “That may mean that you’re here five days a week for three weeks. But then if you’re going into your financial planning and a lot of that work is detailed Excel work and analysis, you may be best doing that at home. So, we’re not necessarily prescribing two days or three days or five days a week.” 

John Driscoll of health care services corporation CareCentrix believes the main thing to focus on is making employees feel connected and eager to work toward a common goal. “I don’t think the Great Resignation’s about wages. I think it’s about team trust and purpose,” he said. “As labor power and choice returns to employees, the companies that have that wrong are going to lose. And one of the reasons why I don’t think things have settled down is we’re not done with this epidemic. That cloud of COVID is still affecting people’s basic uncertainty and makes them really want to be certain. They want more control over their lives.”

“I think all that COVID has done—because now instead of going to work, you’ve been at home with your kids, at home with your parents, at home with people you’re caring for—is to remind many people, ‘Life is more than the job I have,’” said Bill Schaninger, who coauthored a Fortune article on this topic. “Every hour that you’re going back to the workplace, you are not home with the people that you’re working for in the first place. It’s this idea of, ‘Yes, I want to be proud of the company.’ If you can align what you’re doing with what matters to them, you have your inoculant.”  

The downsides, most of the CEOs agreed, are that people who work remotely are missing out on the learning and social opportunities that come with office life. Worse, there’s a good chance that those who do come into the office regularly will be more likely to get rewarded for their efforts. 

“From a psychological standpoint, there’s exposure bias. We tend to gravitate and feel more favorably to the things that we are physically exposed to,” said Heath. “There’s a lot of data that suggests that white men are more likely to come into the office and people of color and women are more likely to stay home. You add five years on to this and then all of a sudden, it’s going to create a different divide between women and people of color not getting the same levels of promotions or opportunities. It’s just going to fuel the fire that has led us into a place of inequality to begin with.”

As Christian Ulbrich of commercial real estate services company JLL noted, there are questions about both cybersecurity and the environmental impacts of remote work. After all, he said, how can a company accurately measure its net-zero progress when employees are at home running air conditioners off a fossil-fuel–burning electric grid? His main point, though, was that this is a very complex issue that will be solved soon.

“What we can agree on is that hybrid is the new normal,” he said. “Work should be executed, driven by where it makes sense. There’s clearly work which you have to deliver in an office; there’s work which you should deliver from a quiet place in your home; and there may be work which you want to deliver in a flex space. That should be the driver, not whether it’s a sunny day or it’s a Monday. We have moved from the old extreme that we expect everybody five days a week in an office even if it doesn’t make any sense to do that work in an office, from the other extreme that nobody comes to an office. It will all come back into the center.”

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