Autodesk doubled down on remote work—productivity skyrocketed

Chief People Officer of Autodesk, Rebecca Pearce
Autodesk's chief people officer Rebecca Pearce.
Courtesy of Autodesk

Good morning!

Though most tech companies are ushering employees back to the office, Autodesk is taking the reverse approach. The software company, popular among builders and engineers, recently announced that it would not mandate a return-to-office like many of its industry peers. Instead, it has launched what it calls the flex forward program. 

Employees at the company continue to receive monthly perks like reimbursement for work-from-home expenses, the option to work anywhere in the world for up to 30 days annually, and a $750 home-office setup stipend. To say Autodesk’s chief people officer Rebecca Pearce is a fierce advocate for flexible work would be an understatement. “I have never believed in presenteeism,” she told me this week. “If you have to rely on seeing somebody in the office to know they’re performing, then there are multiple failures in terms of trust and accountability within your organization.”

In a conversation with Fortune, Pearce shared how the company embraces remote and hybrid work while increasing productivity.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: Why is Autodesk embracing flexible work while other tech companies are distancing themselves from the practice?

Pearce: As someone who worked flexibly at Autodesk before COVID hit us, I was already a beneficiary of a pretty progressive mindset around location strategy and access to talent. In many ways, we’re continuing the journey we started more informally. The pandemic gave us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to experiment with more radical working methods. That’s ultimately what culminated in the launch of our new flex forward strategy. 

What were you hearing from employees signaling that dispersed work was the right move?

It’s hard to say there’s any one response, and that’s one of the things at the heart of our approach: diversity of need. People at different life stages, in different locations, or just with different personal needs want different things, especially as we see five generations in the workplace. Our programs are designed to support individual preferences while driving better business outcomes and increasing productivity. 

During the pandemic, our productivity went up. So, we thought about what we could learn from that. Many organizations would say that wasn’t sustainable; many heroics were happening. And to some extent, I think that was true, and we did a lot of work around preventing people from burnout. But as a whole, I firmly believe it is better to lean in and do the harder work of finding out how to make this work and continue to iterate until we get it right.

I appreciate that [dispersed work] doesn’t work for every organization. Each organization is unique and has different roles, and its customer and location strategy has to be different. But we think [remote work is] a big opportunity and are confident it will allow us to be more inclusive and attract and retain talent. It’s certainly enabling us to hire and retain a more diverse workforce because we now have folks all over the world who we might not have previously accessed.

What are some of the nuances of the flex forward program, and how will Autodesk utilize office space in the future? 

Roughly 24% of our global workforce is now remote. That’s up from 18% three years ago, and I expect it will increase. We’ve evolved our office footprint to reflect that changing distribution and our hybrid-first philosophy. 

Historically, our offices were designed for people coming together to work apart. Now, we’ve pivoted to redesign 70% of our space for people to work together. We’ve also implemented technology to help us assess how employees use the space. We have technology that uses heat and movement sensors to show swarms of activity and where people flock so we can evaluate what feels like a waste of space. 

We’ve invested in digital tools for our remote workers to work efficiently anywhere. We rolled out a virtual assistant. It’s a Slack-based A.I.-powered tool that gives information and answers questions that HR would classically answer. That’s been incredibly successful for us in speeding up people’s access to information.

What has been the result of this latest shift toward flexible work?

In the last 12 months, we had a 58% increase in job applications. In the U.S. alone, we’ve had an 82% increase in candidates identifying as female and a 45% increase in candidates identifying as belonging to underrepresented groups. Since launching our new flex forward campaign in January, we’ve had a 400% increase in the number of people viewing job postings. We have lower attrition than before the pandemic and are in the 25th percentile of our tech peers in that space. 

How are you assessing productivity?

We’re taking a balanced scorecard approach to that. When I say productivity increased during the pandemic, I’m talking about classic measures of productivity: financial targets. From an organizational point of view, we continue to outperform our objectives, but as we think about productivity now, we think about what we believe represents an effective hybrid-first program: What do we need to see to know that this is working, particularly as we see everyone else doing the opposite?

We talk about still keeping an eye on those financial and business goals but also looking at engagement factors. There are core engagement questions that we’re looking at around the extent to which people feel that our arrangements are flexible enough to meet their needs. We surveyed in January, and 90% of employees said our current workplace arrangements are flexible enough to meet their needs. Eighty percent said they could balance their work and personal life successfully. Our overall engagement score of 83% puts us in the top 10% of our tech peers.

For us, productivity is a measure, but it’s not the measure. It’s a balanced scorecard that matters.

Amber Burton

Reporter's Notebook

The most compelling data, quotes, and insights from the field.

Are your employees reading their emails? According to a survey, likely not all of them. 

“Workers send about 40 emails a day, far less than half of the 120 they receive. And a Harris Poll survey found that employees tend to burn out on emails once they receive 50. It’s not perfect, but we can probably safely assume people are ignoring the other 70 emails in their inbox,” writes Fortune’s Trey Williams.

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- The concept of “bringing your whole self to work” risks making some coworkers uncomfortable. Wall Street Journal 

- Big business is banding together to fight the Federal Trade Commission’s proposal to ban noncompete clauses. NBC News


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