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Peter Cappelli is director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources and author of The Future of the Office. “When you think about the last two years of essentially being out of the office,” he muses, “It’s astonishing we are doing as well as we are.” Yet the key, in Cappelli’s mind, is “to look back on working remotely and ask what we’ve learned.”

As keynote speaker for the Tommy Vines (B.S.’79/B) spring lecture, Cappelli did ask – and answer — many of those hard questions, frequently posting on-screen polls designed to elicit the experience of the 250 Zoom attendees.

Q:  What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?
A:  On-site working vs. remote working vs. some sort of hybrid version.
*Note:  any way you look at it, the pandemic caused a 27% increase in meeting time.

Q:  Are we back in the office yet?
A:  Yes and no — 70% in the London financial district; 40% throughout the U.S.
*Note:  there are important regional differences in the U.S. due to regulations and cultural norms (i.e., Texas vs. California).

Q:  If remote seemed to work, why not keep doing it?
A:  It didn’t work for all industries or all employees, and it hampered career growth.
*Note:  it won’t feel the same when we are not “all in this together.”

Issues for Employers

“If you can’t make a clear case for employees coming back into the office to work,” says Cappelli, “there will be trouble if you make them.” (Currently 76% of employers want employees back in the office, but only a third of those are consulting their employees in making that decision.) Companies think they can reap benefits by employing permanent remote workers: they can reduce office and parking spaces and save on office expenses. Yet “hoteling” has been a failure. Scheduling meetings is difficult with workers in different places and often, in different time zones.

Worse, “it lays a lot on supervisors.” Supervisors must be in regular touch with remote workers to fill them in on whatever it is they are missing in the office. Most worrisome of all is that statistics show many employees who prefer remote work are women with caregiving responsibilities. This essentially creates a two-tier workforce, which Cappelli warns “may set you up for a remote class action lawsuit.”

So now what? Can employers pay less? Hire better? Retain more? Silicon Valley firms are currently imposing10-20% pay cuts for the privilege of working remotely. And even when employees get what they think they want, they are not loyal. Leaving a job is easier when workers have no social ties or connections at work.

Issues for Employees

“You choose to work remotely, you pay a price in your career,” observes Cappelli. New hires learn best by being in the office. “Promotions, engagement, commitment, career advancement – historically they are all lower when workers telecommute. You get ahead by social contact, the information you pick up in the office. It’s not fair, but it’s real.”

Meanwhile, workers need to focus on the clear industry patterns now emerging. Big corporations and investment bankers want their employees to work in the office. Google’s former chief of human resources believes its company executives hope to slowly reacclimate workers to fully in-person work. Many law firms have embraced the remote/hybrid model. Although it’s not clear that works for them, they feel they must do it because their job market demands it. And across the board, some businesses have invested in “tattleware” to check the amount of time a remote employee is working — thus totally negating any kind of employer/employee trust.

In short, there are no easy answers. Every company does it differently; they are all feeling their way. The future of the office is indeed in flux, and there will be many tradeoffs both employers and employees will simply have to accept throughout the years to come.

Watch the full lecture here 

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