This column originally appeared in The Tennessean.
There is a post-pandemic debate brewing in companies large and small across the country, and both sides have dug in.
After 15 months of an unplanned forced experiment in remote work, many businesses are re-opening their offices and are now faced with an important decision: Should employees still be allowed to work from home?
There are strong opinions on both sides.
As we all made our way through the pandemic, some companies saw increased productivity and improved morale as workers saved commute time and gained more flexibility by working at home. Others, however, saw a measurable drop in productivity and a decrease in morale with employees feeling more isolated and distracted while stuck at home every day.
For most, remote work has been a mixed bag. Some employees thrived while others struggled—there was no clear winner. What to do next is a tough call.
The first office our computer consulting company occupied was a converted storage closet in an old building that smelled of Windex and floor wax. Despite it being only one room, it was an accomplishment to have a real business address instead of just a post office box. Upon signing the lease, our tiny consulting firm was now big time (only in our own minds) with three small desks and our company name hanging on the door.
Soon after moving in, we hired a great software developer who lived in White House, Tennessee. Commuting to Nashville each day, he would fight an hour’s worth of traffic every morning and every evening in order to work in our office/storage closet as he pushed hard to keep our customers happy.
Most days he was programming alone in our office/closet while the rest of us were out at our clients’ sites supporting their tech needs. After three months he gently mentioned that he was spending two hours a day commuting back and forth to work, where he spent the rest of the day in a closet by himself. He suggested that he might be more productive if he just worked from home.
As it turned out, he was right.
With less commute time, he had more time to work. And needless to say, he was happier working at his kitchen table than he was working in our closet. It was a win-win for him and for our company—we realized that working from home was a good thing and questioned whether we needed an office at all.
But in business nothing is ever that simple.
The next person we hired hated working from home. On those at-home days, she complained of cabin fever, loneliness, and a lack of structure that she required so she could be at her best. Our tiny windowless office was not as nice as her apartment, but it was a place she needed in order to thrive.
After talking it over with our small team of four, we came up with our remote work policy—“office optional.” Rather than leadership dictating a policy, each person in our company can simply decide for themselves what works best for them.
We figured that each of us is unique. Some of us are more productive in the office, some work more efficiently at home, and some need a combination of both. If our goal is to optimize our collective time, we needed to account for each of our needs as individuals.
As our firm added more people and grew out of our storage closet, we continued to see a mix of preferences on where people wanted to work. Pre-pandemic we had about a third of our employees working from our office every day, a few that mixed it up, and a majority that worked from home all the time—so we are still office optional nearly 25 years later.
As the pandemic (hopefully) winds down, this remote-versus-office debate does not need to be an either/or. For most organizations, it can be both.