"People don't like communting—so what?" Such was the aggressive, and very public, response that Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan Chase’s chief executive officer and billionaire titan of Wall Street, made to the suggestion that hybrid working might be here to stay. That was in May 2021; a year later, he had changed his tune, acknowledging in his annual shareholder letter that at least 40 per cent of the employees at America’s largest bank would work partially remotely, with 10 per cent based entirely from home.
Dimon is one of a clutch of leaders who have recently been forced to renege on a previously inflexible stance on remote working; another is Apple’s Tim Cook, who recently admitted that his insistence on a post-pandemic return to the office had been misconceived, after he faced employee resistance and some high-profile resignations. A few militants are still sticking to their guns, among them Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon, and Elon Musk, who made headlines in June when he demanded that Tesla staff spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office ("If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned," he wrote in a leaked email). Most, however, are following the more progressive example of CEOs such as Jane Fraser of Citigroup, whose decision to introduce a permanent hybrid model as early as autumn 2021 reflected her determination to outlaw "anachronistic cultures" in the financial sector. (It is worth noting that Warren Buffett recently took a $3 billion stake in Citigroup, in what feels like a show of faith in Wall Street’s only female-led bank.)
Hybrid working, then, looks likely to remain the prevailing approach on both sides of the Atlantic—but how will it evolve in a way that is both innovative and inclusive? For Dr Grace Lordan, an associate professor at London School of Economics whose research focuses on the future of work, the key is to "give people as much autonomy as possible over their own tasks, and then have them come together at crucial points as a team for social connections, for guidance, or for things that require more than one person’s brainpower". Her view of proposals such as the four-day working week, trials of which have just got underway in the UK, is that they are ultimately outdated, relying as they do on the assumption that there is a direct correlation between productivity and time spent on the job. "Unless you’re on an assembly line, the amount of time you work hasn’t actually been shown to link with your outputs," she explains. "Leaders need to let go of wanting to know what their team are doing every second of every day, and focus on what they’re achieving—otherwise, as a manager, you’re failing the people who work for you."
The Harvard Business School professor Prithwiraj Choudhury, who has studied a range of businesses experimenting with flexible ways of working, has concluded that the most likely ratio for success is 25 per cent face-to-face time to 75 per cent remote. "For that 25 per cent, the spirit of the meet-ups should be essentially social," he says. "This isn’t about locking ourselves in office cubicles. It’s about having team lunches and dinners, collaboration sessions, mentorship opportunities—all of those rituals that help us make memories together.’
In some cases, companies could dispense with having a permanent office space entirely, instead renting out co-working areas or private members’ clubs for their teams to come together at key points in the year. Indeed, the concept of "work from anywhere", which assumes that an employee’s physical location has no bearing on their productivity, has already been embraced by businesses such as Airbnb, which allows staff to live and work in any of 170 countries for up to 90 days a year in each location, without their salary being affected. There are, of course, questions around how to collaborate effectively with colleagues working in different time zones, but Choudhury believes many of these issues can be resolved through the effective use of technology. "For instance, why not create a Slack channel for problem-solving?" he suggests. "Anyone can use it to ask a random question, and then the next person opens Slack and can respond with their thoughts—it’s like a virtual watercooler chat, except with more than just the people who happen to be on your floor of the office."
Certainly, technology opens up the opportunity to revolutionise remote working, with virtual offices being the next frontier. According to a 2022 Accenture report, 98 per cent of executives believe technological advances are now more influential than economic, political, or social trends in informing their longterm strategies, while 42 per cent anticipate that the metaverse will have a transformational impact on their business. New platforms such as Virbela, an immersive environment designed to connect remote workers, and Meta’s VR app Horizon Workrooms are gaining traction, while Nike employees can now visit Nikeland online to explore buildings inspired by the brand’s real-world headquarters and see its products displayed in a digital showroom. There are barriers to overcome before such experiments enter the mainstream—not least the fact that women have been shown to be more prone to motion sickness in a metaverse setting than men, presenting a real risk of workplace discrimination—but the potential for deeper online interactions is significant.
Yet, in the race to be the first to adopt new technologies or offer the most generous flexible-working packages, is there a risk that we lose sight of what really motivates employees? Patty McCord, who was widely credited with reinventing corporate culture during her 14-year tenure as Netflix’s chief talent officer (shelving unnecessary HR policies and the annual performance review were among the actions she took), argues that trying to outperform on tech or benefits is pointless. "What people actually want is to be valued for the job they do and know that they matter, but still we keep piling stuff on top of stuff, competing for perks," she says. "My biggest message is, why don’t we just leave people alone and let them work?"