To paraphrase a famous UK singer, I want to tell you a story.
While I was working for Sabre and then EDS, the corporation adopted an approach to remote working by employees where, if you lived 40 or more miles from your defined work location, and you could obtain leader approval, you were allowed to work from home for 4 days a week, only having to be in the office for meetings one day a week.
This was not a full Work From Home employment agreement. However, a small number of employees did have Work From Home agreements, and in that scenario, the corporation also provided and paid for home computing infrastructure, including internet connectivity, monitors and printers. In practice, a number of employees who lived less than 40 miles from the office location also began to mostly work from home, on a “nod and wink” basis with their leaders. After a while, at least 5 people in my group were working from home, but only 2 people in the group really qualified under the 40 mile rule.
There was a period, in the 2006-2007 time period, where, for reasons that were none too clear, the new EDS leadership decided to enforce the 40 mile rule strictly. As a result, all but 2 of the group members who had been working from home were told they had to be working from their office locations 5 days a week once more. This was not a popular edict. At least 1 person in the group, one of the business analysts, left the company for another job.
After I ceased to support a local client (American Airlines) in 2007, I moved to the America Testing organization, and went on the road for a while. I was re-classified as a Remote worker, meaning that when I was not on the road, I worked from home. Most of the time I was on the road, so working from home was a pleasant, albeit temporary, respite. (contrary to what many people believed, my life as a consultant did not comprise an endless series of stays in luxury hotels, surrounded by Captains Of Industry and voluptuous pouting women. It was a whole lot less glamorous than that).
In practical terms, I have been a Work From Home person since 2008, except when consulting assignments required me to be on the road at client locations.
By the early 2010s, a significant percentage of EDS employees were working from home full-time. Part of the reason was that EDS had closed a number of city offices because there were too few people in the city to justify the retention of a physical office. They simply gave their employees in those cities money to purchase home computing infrastructure, and those employees moved to working from home.
During the transition from EDS to HPE, we suddenly were told that we had to be working from an EDS location. As a result, I started going to the Plano HQ for 2-3 days a week when I was not on the road (which was not often). The reason for this, it was explained to me, was that the selling price of EDS when sold to HP depended to some extent on real estate occupancy, so the order had some down to pamper presentation and maximize the sale price of EDS.
After the transition to HPE, there was another relaxation of the work at home rules.
Then one day, there was a sudden change in the HPE era, with Meg Whitman now the CEO. Suddenly, an edict went out that people needed to be working from an HPE office location. Consultants such as me were exempted, but many employees were told that they had 2 options: work from an HPE office, or be laid off.
For employees who had moved to home working because there was no longer an HPE office in their city, the choice was stark; move house or leave the company. Unsurprisingly, many employees chose to leave rather than uproot themselves and their families. Or they refused to move, and were WFR’d. The choice tended to depend on which action was the most financially compelling.
Employees living in cities with an HPE office reverted to working at that office, although some of them rapidly learned that in order to be in good standing with leadership, all they had to do was “clock in” by entering the building 4 times a week. So I soon heard of legacy EDS employees who would go to the former EDS Plano HQ, clock into the building, say hello to a few people, and then go home and work at home for the remainder of the day.
Then the rumor spread that the building measurement processes were counting not only whether you were in the building, but for how long. So, for a while, I would go to Plano 2-3 days a week and work there every day, when I was not on the road. I was on the road about 50% of the time. This was not a good use of time, since it is a 1.2 hour drive from my home to the Plano office. I used the time to catch up on conversations with colleagues to take the pulse of the Testing delivery organization. But it was up to 2.5 hours that could have been spent on better use of my time on the planet.
When the legacy HPE business was merged with CSC and we became DXC, the rules on remote working were slowly relaxed again. What I realized was that every time there was a takeover or merger, leadership would insist on employees being in an office, to keep real estate occupancy rates high and help to justify that the buildings or building leases were assets, not liabilities. I was officially assigned to a new DXC office in Dallas, but I have never been there.
More recently, of course, Covid changed everything for a lot of people. Right now, I work from home, and I expect to work from home for the rest of calendar 2021. My wife is in the same situation, having begun to work from home in April of 2020, once it became clear that Covid was taking root in Texas. Her employer has already postponed a return to office work twice. Currently they have no timetable.
There has been a lot of discussion recently in the media about how employers will try to treat employees in the future if and when the Covid-19 pandemic recedes. There is speculation that many employers will try to force employees back to office locations. This makes no economic sense for either the employer or the employee:
- The employer has to provide office space and amenities for the employee
- The employee has to give up time, and money to travel to and from the office location
There may be other cost considerations for parents such as child care (I can tell from what I hear on conference calls that a lot of parents of young children are using working at home as the chance to perform their own small child care).
So, if you are an employer, and you suddenly demand that your employees take a pay cut, and give up possibly 2 hours of their day to commute? Somehow I don’t think that will ever lead to a positive aggregate result.
My prediction is that the climate for employees who either want to force home-workers back to an office, or recruit people on the basis that they will mostly or entirely work from an office, is not going to be favorable. This survey tells you a lot about employee attitudes at the present time. An employer who gives an employee a $30k raise to work from an office (when they are incurring the cost of the office space) is, bluntly, bonkers.
This transition period will take time. Some corporations are locked into building leases that they may not be able to get out of in the short term. But the New Normal for many employees that do not have to interact with other employees face to face, or interact with the public, is not going to be the same as the Normal that existed prior to 2020.