What does the ability of most offices to go fully remote successfully for over a year mean for the future of office culture?
The first week of March 2020, I was vacationing in Florida with my kids. Coronavirus news was everywhere. No one was wearing masks yet. I was anxiously watching CNN daily, counting the days until I could get my kids safely back home to New York. The anxiety was already palpable, even though none of us knew quite what we were in for yet.
When I returned home, I quickly made the decision that I wouldn’t be boarding the commuter train I took from the Hudson Valley into New York City for work. I relayed the message to all the employees who reported to me, and told them to work from home effective immediately. A week later — our offices were closed.
That was over a year ago, and no one in my company has returned to our open, third floor, sweeping Chelsea office — and a definitive return date is nowhere in site. But that may be a good thing. I recently polled some colleagues, all in upper management positions, about what working from home has meant for their teams. There was definitely an over-arching theme: no matter how difficult the last year has been, people don’t really want to return to our pre-pandemic work lives.
“Not at all excited about returning to the office,” one manager admitted to me when I reached out with some work from home questions. “Myself and my team have all been far more productive with the work from home arrangements. We tend to get more done and everyone is far happier due to not losing large portions of their days to a commute.” And for people in metropolitan areas, commutes can be taxing.
“Honestly, I’d rather work a little later at home than hop back onto the treadmill I was on in the days before COVID. I was always running.”
“In New York, where more Americans take public transportation every year than in any other state, and the systems are rated among the best America has to offer, the average commute time was still more than 53 minutes each way,” a 2020 study found. My personal pre-pandemic commute was two hours door to door from my Hudson Valley home to our Chelsea offices. But I was one of a few employees only required to commute into the office a handful of times a week. For those who reported to me and had to commute in day after day, the exchange could be rather awkward — as I knew that they were just as capable of working from home as I was, yet expected to show up in the office daily. “Traveling 30 minutes each way to see someone for 30 minutes seems silly for certain kinds of meetings when relationships can easily start and blossom over Zoom,” one co-worker recently admitted. “Love having that time back.”
“I don’t know anyone on my team who wants to go back to the office. Almost everyone I speak to comments on how much more productive they are now that they no longer have to commute,” another manager reported. “I feel less stressed and more focused, like I have more control over my time. Though it can sometimes be difficult to disconnect and leave my desk at home, I acknowledge it’s often a personal choice to keep working. Honestly, I’d rather work a little later at home than hop back onto the treadmill I was on in the days before COVID. I was always running. And because I was always rushing to get somewhere, the burden of whatever work I was unable to finish in the office would follow me home. I felt like I could never truly relax.”
If we’ve learned anything from the past year at our digital media company, Some Spider — parent company to the brands Scary Mommy, The Dad, and Fatherly — it’s that working from home, well, works. We’re effectively communicating, meeting with teams, having face-time on Zoom, and getting things done. Communicating on Slack is not a foreign concept, either. Many of us were communicating on the app while sitting in the same office. Our company had remote employees all over the country before the pandemic. We’ve learned that what works for some — definitely can work for the rest of us. Another thing that has really hit home is the idea that no one is out of the loop when everyone is out of the loop. “Since I’ve been remote for my whole time so far in this role, and was consulting before that, I feel pretty fine about working from home,” another manager, who lives outside of New York, admitted. “The only thing I have some anxiety about as we get closer to most folks being back in the office is missing out on face time with colleagues and managers, since I’m in another city.”
When you work from home and away from your colleagues, there is an element of trust at play that doesn’t exist when you are working side-by-side. I trust my employees are getting their work done. I trust they are managing their time.
Hearing how the transition to 100% work from home has affected those already working remotely pre-pandemic is eye-opening. “As someone who worked from home before the pandemic, there are many ways the new arrangement has significantly improved my work process,” a colleague admitted. “Now, everyone in the company understands the challenges of working remotely and has optimized their virtual communication practices. It’s been amazing! I used to have teleconferences with folks in offices, and as one of the remote participants, I had a tough time hearing what was happening or I was left out of the meeting. Even when I’d say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m having a hard time hearing,’ people wouldn’t make adjustments or they’d forget. Now, everyone is virtual like me. So everyone connects remotely with great audio/video and it’s so much easier to be involved.”
But there are other things to consider when examining why people may be enticed by a more flexible, work-from-home schedule; the shift to trust as a business model.
When you work from home and away from your colleagues, there is an element of trust at play that doesn’t exist when you are working side-by-side. I trust my employees are getting their work done. I trust they are managing their time. I trust that even though I have no idea how many physical hours they are working — they are competent and completing all necessary work at and above my expectations. The increased flexibility has strengthened our working relationships, too — as I work on elements of trust that they need from me. My reports can trust that I respect their time. They can trust that I will not communicate with them after hours unless there is an emergency. With the work and home line blurring increasingly with remote arrangements, this trust and agreement to establish boundaries has been so important and enriching. “I’ve been working in media since coming to New York in 2004 and it’s taken working from home during a global pandemic to finally feel like I have any semblance of a healthy work-life balance,” one of my reports confided. “I feel empowered to use my time in the most productive way possible, and trusted to make choices.”
A workplace where boundaries are respected, skills are trusted, self-management is valued, and hours of commuting are rendered obsolete sounds like a dream. We just never grasped the dream could be a reality. Now that we know it exists — will we work toward developing a new normal, or slide back into the commuter grind?