Work from home forever? Businesses are divided on that

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The work-from-home movement is gaining steam in Silicon Valley as a flurry of companies — big and small — are embracing remote-working policies beyond the pandemic. But even as some executives extol its virtues, other tech leaders aren’t so sure, opening a growing divide inside the industry over the future of work. It’s a worthy debate.

On Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his company will start allowing some existing employees to work from home permanently. He said Facebook will also “aggressively open up remote hiring” for engineering talent in areas it doesn’t have an office, saying as much as 50% of the company’s employees could eventually work remotely within 10 years. In similar fashion, Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke said his e-commerce software company will allow its employees to work from home indefinitely, adding he expects that most of his staff will work remotely going forward. The days of “office centricity is over,” the executive posted on social media. The two companies join Twitter, which said last week it will let employees work from home as standard practice as well.

Not everyone in technology is on board. Take-Two Interactive Software CEO Strauss Zelnick said on an investor call this week that he believes sustained strong productivity will get more difficult the longer people are forced to work from home, adding that “there is no substitute for in-person collaboration and connection.” That follows comments from Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella, who expressed concern in an interview with the New York Times last week that early positive remote-work productivity metrics may mask underlying deficiencies, in terms of managing and mentoring employees. He also raised worries about potential burnout and mental-health issues. “Maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?” he asked.

There’s something to be said for this pushback. Sure, there are many pluses to offering off-site work flexibility — including better employee retention and the ability to hire from a more diverse talent base in other geographies — but corporations should realize the work-from-home trend isn’t a panacea. In fact, there are significant drawbacks and challenges that shouldn’t be overlooked.

As Zelnick pointed out, there are unquantifiable benefits derived from being in the same physical location. Scheduled videoconferencing meetings don’t engender the same spontaneous creativity compared to the many back-and-forth brief conversations during a typical day at an office. And nothing beats face-to-face interactions for building the relationships and trust required to persuade your colleagues on big decisions.

It’s notable that even as Facebook projects confidence and forward-looking thought leadership in its charge toward its new work-from-home culture, it is implementing the change slowly. Zuckerberg said only the company’s senior engineers with strong performance reviews will be initially allowed to apply for remote-work flexibility, adding it will be a measured transition before extending the policy to non-engineers.

To be frank, it wouldn’t surprise me to see many of these companies slow down their transitions to remote working. After all, the world is only a few months into this massive remote-work experiment. The initial productivity benefits may dissipate and significant negative consequences may well appear over time. Best not to rush into any drastic decisions.

Bloomberg News