Working remotely: Not a sustainable solution

Home Column Working remotely: Not a sustainable solution

By Steven Feldman

Somewhere around the middle of March, employees at many U.S. companies grabbed their laptops, went home and did something pretty amazing: They got their work done, seemingly without missing a beat.

Executives were amazed at how well their workers performed remotely, even while juggling child care and the distractions of home. Twitter and Facebook, among others, said they would embrace remote work long term. Some companies even vowed to give up their physical office spaces entirely.

Back in May, I visited my friend Bobby Weiss, CEO of All Tile. Aside from people working in the warehouse, lights were off in the huge facility with nary a person to be found. Bobby told me every customer service and marketing person was work- ing from home, and he was in no rush to bring them back. He said All Tile had invested heavily in technology some time ago so the company wouldn’t skip a beat in the event its employees couldn’t come into the office.

Our digital partner, FloorForce, with offices in Sarasota, Fla., and Manhattan, realized they didn’t need to spend a boatload of capital on New York City office space. Its millennial employees were either exiting the city or doing just fine with Zoom calls in quarantine.

However, as the work-from-home experiment stretches on, some cracks are starting to emerge. Projects take longer. Training is tougher. Hiring and integrating new employees have become more complicated. Some employers say their workers appear less connected, and bosses fear that younger professionals aren’t developing at the same rate as they would in offices, sitting next to colleagues and absorbing how they do their jobs.

Here at FCNews, the staff worked remotely for the most part from mid-March until the beginning of June. Everyone was just as productive as they would have been in the office. The quality of our print and online efforts never suffered (in some cases they were enhanced). Yet, I always felt we were all working in our own silos despite regular phone calls and Zoom meetings. We were missing the camaraderie that makes us a team.

Months into a pandemic that rapidly reshaped how companies operate, an increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes. There’s an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, “This is not going to be sustainable.”

No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked and leveled off, because workers left offices in March armed with a sense of dread. People were terrified of losing their jobs, and that fear-driven productivity is not sustainable.

Few companies expect remote work to go away in the near term, although the nature of what some companies do makes it tough, if not impossible, to function remotely. We are hearing that deadlines are being missed across many industries. Pre-pandemic, much of the collaboration occurred in one space. Problems that once took an hour to solve in the office can be stretched out for a day when workers are remote.

One benefit of working together in person, many executives say, is the potential for spontaneous interactions. Mary Bilbrey, global chief human resources officer at real-estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle, returned to her Chicago office in early June. She noticed that she was soon having conversations with peers that wouldn’t have happened in a remote setup—a discussion sparked by a passing question in the hall, for instance. “They weren’t going to think about scheduling a 30-minute call to do it,” she said.

Any broader shift away from physical offices is unlikely to be immediate. The majority of U.S. office leases are eight years or longer, according to an analysis by credit-rating agency Moody’s Investors Service. In an early July report, analysts noted they did not expect an exodus from offices, despite popular claims that offices were now obsolete.

At Stifel Financial Corp., junior employees learn by sitting beside more experienced colleagues and watching them work. That’s hard, if not impossible, to do remotely. “I am concerned that we would somehow believe we can basically take kids from college, put them in front of Zoom and think that three years from now they’ll be every bit as productive as they would have had they had the personal interaction,” said Ronald Kruszewski, Stifel CEO.

The consensus is resounding: While it was easier to go remote faster than most people would have ever imagined, that doesn’t mean it’s great.

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