Steve Bandrowczak is president and COO for Xerox Corporation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
In the weeks and months since pandemic restrictions first shut offices and businesses down, many have touted remote work as the future of work. Even some business leaders, like Shopify’s CEO Tobi Lutke, have suggested offices were outdated and unnecessary while others — like Facebook, Twitter and Groupe PSA — are shifting to embrace a hybrid remote/office work environment. Many employees have wholeheartedly cheered the relief from long commutes and have welcomed the increase in productivity from having extra time not spent in a car, bus or train.
But that doesn’t mean office life as we knew it is gone forever. While technology enabled businesses to swiftly shift tens of millions of employees to remote work, our shared experience this year has revealed that there are still drawbacks to relying entirely on a remote workforce.
As this global remote work experiment heads into its eighth month, it’s becoming increasingly clear the office will endure. But it must also continue to evolve as a hybrid work model that provides more flexibility to work, both in the office and elsewhere.
We uncovered early signs of this thinking back in May when Xerox conducted its first Future of Work Survey. Speaking with information technology decision makers across public and private sector organizations in five countries, they were already planning for the eventual return to the office to some extent. In fact, despite citing increased confidence in remote work, 82% of business decision makers surveyed expect to be back in the office within 12 to 18 months on average. Those signals have only gotten stronger in recent weeks as some companies, like Facebook, for example, have expanded their respective office footprints.
And it’s not just business leaders wanting to return to the office. Increasingly, employees are missing the connection with colleagues and the ability to get away from work when they’re home. One frequent theme I’ve been hearing from my own employees anecdotally is, “I don’t mind working from home. I mind living in my office.” This situation has been especially hard on parents who are managing remote work while helping their children learn through remote school. A recent study from Microsoft, for example, showed that brain waves associated with stress and overwork were higher for those attending meetings remotely. It noted substantial “concentration fatigue” as people struggled to stay glued to their screens and read cues correctly.
In the office, problem solving around a table together, informal run-ins in the break room and even having difficult one-on-one conversations in close proximity teach us how to work through conflict, read a room, understand the nuances of the people we work with and open up to each other. Personal connection is a feature — not a bug — of the office environment. And there’s no virtual substitute for it. Of the IT leaders we surveyed, 95% agreed, indicating in-person, face-to-face communication is critical both for personal development as well as assessing and interviewing potential employees.
Companies will only survive and thrive if they keep up with the speed of change, and in-person connection matters here, too. Over my 30-year career, I have always begun initiatives involving significant change by getting all project leaders in one place. In-person communication, vision and buy-in to change are critical to business success.
If the pandemic has had any positive role, it revealed areas where businesses need to invest to increase collaboration, automate workflows and free up humans to work on higher-quality challenges.
I’ve been back in the office several days a week since July, as have many of our senior leaders at Xerox. Overall, around 80% of our facilities are open and about 50% of our employees are back in the office. Many of our employees are taking a hybrid approach that has them splitting their time between home and the office. This too, has created some challenges to ensure people can fluidly move from work office to home office without technology hiccups.
We know a hybrid professional environment can run smoothly, especially when the right technology is in place — chiefly cloud-based solutions for communication, collaboration and remote IT. Cloud is the logical choice for enabling ‘work from anywhere’ fluidity — connecting teams and improving speed and ability to work together. When we couple cloud with digitization and process automation, employees will be freer to focus on more strategic, creative and ultimately high-impact work, no matter where they happen to be.
After the past few months, there is a more balanced viewpoint about the hybrid workplace across the C-suite. Executive leaders who hadn’t previously worked from home have now personally lived it for months. They know it’s possible to be productive when working remotely — but they’ve seen the downsides, especially for teams that are in growth or transformation mode. We’ve learned a lot this year about how to flex and thrive in uncertain times. The new work environment will blend the best of both worlds.