Back to the office will not mean back to normal

WHICH DESK? Will there be two workforces in the future, one working from home, the other at the office? Facebook is looking at the options.
WHICH DESK? Will there be two workforces in the future, one working from home, the other at the office? Facebook is looking at the options.
Image: REUTERS\ Elijah Nouvelage

Experiments in remote working are fine, but most people want to return to their desks — even if video calls are likely to continue.


Mark Zuckerberg’s prediction that within a decade about half of Facebook’s staff will be working from home represented the biggest commitment to remote working of any company to date.

But at the same time, the social network’s CEO confirmed what many people suspected: most of his employees actually want to get back to the office.

Zuckerberg said that while a fifth of employees were extremely interested in full-time remote work, and more were open to the idea, slightly more than half of Facebook’s staff wanted to start working in an office as soon as they could.

I have driven the 50km from San Francisco to Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters — a route taken by thousands of employees — enough times to know that the commute is not enviable.

It is an hour on a good day, more than two at rush hour.

Working there also requires putting up with sky-high local housing costs, so the fact that even Facebook's internet-savvy staff want to go back says a lot about the office's pull.

In other companies, expect the number who want to go back to be higher.

Zuckerberg’s prediction of a half-remote workforce is unlikely to be replicated across different companies and industries in the long term.

Even fewer are likely to follow the example set by tech companies Coinbase and Shopify, which last week said the majority of employees would never come back to the office.

But inevitably the experiments of the past few months, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting white-collar workers inside their homes, will lead to permanent changes.

Most companies are likely to allow more working from home for some, or at least on certain days. Even a minority starting to work remotely will lead to widespread changes that are felt by everyone, even those who do go back to their desks.

As far as employers are concerned, the biggest risk is that their staff split into a two-tier workforce — the office class and the work-from-home class.

Perceived discrimination against either group when it comes to career opportunities or pay differences means a potential wave of lawsuits.

The divide could be particularly stark because it is likely to be a generational one: graduates and city-dwelling twentysomethings are more likely to gravitate to the office; older suburbanites with family commitments and established social circles will embrace working from home.

Companies will therefore attempt to give staff the same experience whether they are at home or in the office.

That means more work and interaction taking place online, where there is a level playing field.

Meetings that once took place in boardrooms will now happen on video calls, even if most of the attendees are in the same building.

Each person will have their own webcam and tile on a computer screen, in order not to ostracise those who are not in the office.

Far more communication is likely to take place on tools such as Slack and Teams than in person, even for those within eyeshot of one another.

Digital gurus have a name for this: remote-first.

Darren Murph of tech company GitLab, whose staff worked from home even before the pandemic, says it means treating the office as just another place to work digitally, not a company's physical hub.

He says that going back to pre-pandemic working patterns would turn those outside the office into “second-class citizens”.

Last week, software company Box announced that while it would retain its offices, it planned to move to a digital-first model in which meetings took place online, rather than on the floor of its headquarters.

Aaron Levie, its CEO, said the physical and virtual office would be seamlessly stitched together.

The open-plan wave of the past few decades, in which individual offices and then cubicles were replaced by bullpen-style floor plans, already look under threat as we try to social distance on our return to the office.

If we are going to spend more time on video calls — or, if another Zuckerberg prediction comes true, virtual reality — it could reverse open-plan altogether.

Alternatively, employers may have to build rows of privacy pods.

Either way, predictions that more working from home will mean a surplus of vacant office space appear to be wide of the mark.

Other norms are likely to change.

Remote workers will fear that fewer opportunities for schmoozing at the water cooler will limit their career opportunities, or that they are seen as less committed because they are not sitting in traffic to make it to work.

Presenteeism could count for less, since office-based staff will have less reason to linger at the end of the day when part of the workforce is not there at all.

Perhaps the more likely scenario is that employers will shift to a more sinister digital surveillance, in which workers’ every keystroke is tracked.

Few companies are like Facebook.

Most of us who worked in offices before this pandemic are likely to go back. But it will be far from back to normal. —  The Telegraph