Despite work-from-home hype, CEOs want employees in the office

Because of Covid-19, a vast number of companies and other institutions have been scrambling to put infrastructure in place for working from home.

Although people have been somewhat pleasantly surprised that current technology has made it easier than they thought, I think the romance of working from home is wearing off — quickly!

Clayco has about 900 team members that have office desks, mostly in Chicago and St. Louis, but also at our satellites in Atlanta; Philadelphia; Newport Beach, California; and Columbus, Ohio. We work all across North America, with projects in 35 states currently.

Our company — an integrated real estate development, design and construction platform — is a microcosm of typical major office users around the world. It has about every type of worker there is.

Because our business is diversified geographically, we have enormous expertise in virtual meeting and working remotely. If there were a company that could easily make the transition to working from home, it would be us.

But, frankly, it’s incredibly inefficient, and most business leaders I speak with are starting to hate it, in contrast with many advocates and talking heads now promoting a new way forward.

No replacement for personal meetings

Let us remember why we gather in the office. This is where teams come together to strategize, collaborate, and generate social interactions so that the office becomes an idea factory. Seeing is believing, and being able to manage people directly will always be critical.

The working relationship between leaders/mentors and up-and-comers, along with small group lunch meetings and personal trainings sessions, cannot be replaced by Zoom happy hours.

Call centers are a great example of low margin businesses with large numbers of personnel that could easily use their technology and have all their employees working from home, if it made sense. They would be the first early adopters. There’s a reason they don’t do that, strictly from the standpoint of productivity and supervision.

These teleworkers are jammed in buildings in the United States, India or China because these businesses have proven metrics that if it’s not measured it’s not managed.

Granted, a few companies have remote call center employees. But only a few. It’s simply a fact that working in a densely packed call center provides the maximum productivity.

C-suite company leaders are eager to get their employees back to the office and get their teams together again as soon as possible.

Accounting companies, financial services, trading firms and others have long used technology to measure performance and can easily track the productivity of almost every employee in their firms.

In my personal outreach to C-Suite Executives like Ron Kruszewski at Stifel and Daniel Cooke at BMO Harris, I’ve heard descriptions of a reduction in actual activity at each site and a decline in morale from people finding themselves in isolation, where the novelty of having kids playing in the background on video has worn off.

“We are all feeling a bit disconnected right now," said Cooke. "Everyone is looking forward to getting back to working and collaborating at the office. There are challenges in mentoring, collaborating and communicating while being remote and virtual. Remote working is highlighting how much we miss going into work and interacting with our colleagues and clients.”

Lessons from working at home

Although I’ve read reports that the technology companies are keen on the idea of their newfound flexibility to work remotely and apart, my personal outreach to clients at the big three has revealed the opposite.

This also applies to companies that focus on the creative. These types of companies -- like our own architecture and design practice, as well as marketing, advertising, publishing, science and research firms -- rely and thrive on the daily, interactive brainstorming, white boarding and strategizing that build on themes one step at a time. They are examples of how these important tasks simply cannot be done in multiple remote settings.

As someone with great workplace strategy expertise, I completely reject the notion that a big movement to working from home is the future and is imminent.

However, we are learning a couple of applicable lessons from working at home during the COVID-19 crisis.

First, most global businesses were able to mobilize and use current available technology to quickly assemble their troops and obtain some semblance of business as usual. This showed that technology can foster interaction and allow companies to move the ball forward, especially where the majority of the workforce had not previously worked remotely.

Second, we can likely find a way to measure what every single person does and understand the productivity differences of working in the office versus at home.

If we find that working remotely has a loss factor of 10% or 15%, for example, we could live with that kind of inefficiency when the weather is bad and creates unsafe driving conditions, or a person with a mild cold or cough could opt to work from home, or even if we go to some type of staggered system, like working four days in the office and one day work at home. This would give corporations tremendous flexibility that we weren’t sure we had before.

Bottom line: Both the virus and working from home are bad for business!

This article was first published in The Chicago Business Journal.

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