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Don’t Count On More Explosive Growth in Remote Work

Don’t Count On More Explosive Growth in Remote Work

I just returned to the office this week. It was a strange thing. 

Before working at home during the past year, I spent most of my 40-year career in offices. And I’ve missed the water-cooler chats… the unstructured interaction with my fellow employees… going out to lunch with them. I even missed the spontaneous mini-meetings, where someone would plop down on a chair in my office to discuss an issue that needed resolving. 

My back-to-the-office experience this week was strange because it offered both the familiar and unfamiliar. I’m now working with just a couple of my colleagues in a remote office. It isn’t work-from-home. But it isn’t quite the office experience I was used to either. 

While I’m happy to be back in an office, employees and bosses have a wide range of opinions on the subject of work-from-home. JPMorgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs David Solomon are both looking forward to putting Zoom calls and a  remote workforce behind them. Netflix co-founder and co-CEO Reed Hastings couldn’t agree more. He doesn’t “see any positives” to remote work.  

Other tech companies have taken a more flexible view. Facebook and Twitter have put in place permanent remote working plans. Stripe has launched a “remote engineering hub” to support its remote workers. According to CTO David Singleton, the hub will help Stripe tap into “the 99.74% of talented engineers living outside the metro areas of our first four hubs.” 

For startup investors, what a post-pandemic workplace looks like is more than idle curiosity. More and more startups are getting into the business of helping other companies build distributed teams, create shared workspaces, capture and support new customers and manage new recruitment, onboarding and HR practices designed for a remote workforce.

What does the future hold for them? And what does it hold for companies supporting and servicing remote and/or hybrid conferences and virtual events? Here are my thoughts.

  • It’s a hybrid world. Even before the pandemic hit, a growing portion of the workforce was working remotely. Now there are dozens more tools available to help manage a remote workforce. 
  • Just as important, there’s a deeper understanding of the commitment that management of a remote company requires. It’s not as simple as replacing in-person meetings with Zoom calls. It’s taking steps organizationally and culturally to foster cohesion, work-flow inclusivity, clarity and productivity. Without this kind of commitment, companies going remote are doomed to fail.
  • But there’s a steep learning curve here. Companies that experienced market dominance with a predominantly in-person workforce will be reluctant to rethink the entire gamut of their operations and protocols. A lot of companies will simply refuse to go down the remote work path, in part because they don’t believe the benefits — while potentially significant — are worth the effort.  Other companies won’t because they don’t believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. This is a different calculation, based on the belief that the benefits are minor and the drawbacks are major.
  • I believe the benefits of remote work are big. Just in talent acquisition alone, it confers a huge leg-up for those companies that welcome remote workers and seek more diversification, particularly among women. 
  • But the drawbacks cannot be and should not be dismissed as “backward” thinking. The conversation I had when I sat down (in person!) with the founder of a startup a couple of weeks ago was much more informative — not to mention enjoyable — than the hundreds I had over Zoom during the past 13 months. This was not my imagination! The best parties aren’t by remote video linkup. Whether it’s fun or business, humans are built for person-to-person engagement. 

Whole businesses have been built to help remote work simulate in-person interactions. And they’ve thrived during the pandemic. But they’re also likely to face lessening demand. Many CEOs intend to bring workers back to the office, where they are seen as being more effective and productive. 

Netflix’s Reed Hastings says workers will be coming back to the office about four days a week. Top bank executives also want employees back in the office. They’re aiming for 4-to-5 days a week. 

Is it wishful thinking? Many employees have other ideas. They’ve tasted freedom. They’ve continued to do their job well (at least in their minds) while at home. There’s going to be pushback. So, who has the firepower — the employers or employees? 

There’s still a lot of people unemployed and hunting for the job that will put their life on course again. That should give an edge to employers. Yet, a recent Russell Reynolds survey of 1300 executives finds the battle for talent is growing. More than half of leaders cited the availability of key talent as one of the top factors that may impact their business in the next 12-to-18 months. This pushes the balance back towards employees, who may value the opportunity to work from home over other factors when job hunting. Dimon, Solomon and other bank executives may be forced to seek a middle ground when it comes to remote work.

I’m eschewing talk of massive business shifts and societal transformations. I think the longer-term gravitational pull will favor a return to in-office and in-person activities. And remote work will resume its pre-pandemic — healthy but not explosive — growth trajectory. 

Startups that have helped companies adapt to a remote workforce will continue to play an important role in an increasingly hybrid world. They’re operating in a growing but very competitive space. They get no extra points or demerits from me. The best will do well and thrive. 

It means, as usual, I’ll be doing my homework on these companies. 

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