Jennifer Bonnett on the future of work

Jennifer Bonnett is the Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA) and the Executive Director of The Creative Coast. In 2002 she was the Chief Technology Officer and entrepreneur of a company that worked with numerous venture-backed and angel-backed startups. As the CTO it was her job to get “butts in chairs.” With over 600 employees, it was her job to make sure that they were productive and working as many hours a day as possible. She picked office locations based on where restaurants were nearby so employees could walk to a quick lunch instead of getting in a car and possibly getting stuck in traffic. 

Fast forward to 2020. The world has changed. Last year, Jen began studying the future of work and remote work after she was sent home  on March 12, 2020 with a potential exposure to COVID and told to shelter in place. This was before COVID testing was available and when very little was known about COVID. After Jen went through a funk for two or three days, she started thinking about what this meant for the future of work and her job trying to recruit technology companies to move to Savannah, Georgia. What she came to realize was that in the middle of a pandemic, companies probably weren’t going to move their headquarters. So instead of focusing all of her engergy on bringing companies here, she began thinking strategically about how she could leverage the time and build a tech ecosystem in Savannah. Through SEDA, she instituted a set of incentives to convince people that were told that they could work remote, possibly forever, to move to Savannah and stay for at least two years. If they did so, SEDA would pay for the move. Savannah received tremendous press from these incentives. Jen has had over 50 interviews with the various media outlets, including the New York Times, Inc. Magazine, Fortune, Forbes, and The time she spent learning about the new normal of remote work, led Jen to become an expert on the topic of the future of work. Throughout her research, here is what she found.

Learning to Work Remote During the Pandemic

In mid-march of 2020 (pre-COVID), we went from 32 million US people (about 20% of the U.S. population) working from home  to over 100 million U.S. people  (62% of the population) working from home. In addition, nearly 14% of the U.S. population was let go or furloughed and went on unemployment in this time frame (March and April of 2020). These employers didn’t really know how it was going to work or have the tools for it, but they sent everyone home with less than 48 hours notice. 

Now 14 months later, studies say 42% of people are still working from home. We are seeing vaccines being rolled out. Nearly 40% of the U.S. is at least partially vaccinated, and max ordinances and restrictions are being lifted left and right. The Texas Rangers have full stadiums with no restrictions. The Oscars were live this year. Bars and restaurants are totally open with no restrictions. At the same time we’re having a significant labor shortage. The labor shortage especially has hit the tourism industry and restaurants hard, but it’s also hit the individuals that we have called essential workers – the grocery store folks, the warehouse workers, etc. – because they’ve worked this entire time, and they’re burned out. 

What’s Going on with Remote Work Currently?

Over 70 companies have gone public and said working from home is fine for the future indefinitely. Big companies, mostly tech companies, have given up their office spaces. Basecamp has given up their offices. Twitter and Square have said go home, and stay home forever if you want. Facebook has identified that they are opening their offices, but over 80% of their employees are probably going to be working from home in the future. One of the outliers (not a tech company) is Nationwide. They actually released several office buildings and told their employees to work from home for the future. So, people and companies are embracing this. A lot of them are tech. A lot of them are newer companies. And, a lot of them already had remote workers or had tools in place, like Slack, to communicate while they were home at the same time. A recent study by PwC showed that 75% of all employers expect people to be back in the office by July. Yet, 18% of employees say they never want to go in the office again. So we have this disconnect. On top of that, employers are struggling with how to bring people back safely. We have some adoption to the vaccine. Executives and employers are excited about this adoption. At the same time, we have to keep in mind that there’s still variants, and that not everyone’s getting vaccinated, and the vaccine may actually have a very short shelf life to the amount of time that it protects us.

Top Challenges Executives Expect in Bringing People Back to the Office

Some of the top challenges executives expect in bringing people back to the office include how to make people feel safe.

What do we do about child care? A significant portion of child care facilities have closed down due to covid and may not ever reopen because they were struggling.

What do you do if you’re in a big city where everyone comes to work on a subway? Will people ever feel comfortable with that type of transportation again?

And then some employees simply just want to stay home. Some executives want to stay home.

What Do Employees Want?

87% of employees said that they want to work from home at least one day in the future, and one in three has said that if you force them to come back into the office every day they, will quit. At the same time, you’ve already got an issue where 26% of all workers say that they’re considering leaving their job currently based on the way that the company handled culture and that’s heavily ranked in the millennials and the Gen X-ers – your core workforce today. In fact, those generational groups are giving employers a C as to how they managed covid. At the same time there’s a little bit of a disconnect because two in three remote workers believe that their career is better when they have in-office time so they want some time in office so that people can see how they’re performing and they can move up the ladder and have mobility in their career. 

We have to remember that for the most part, remote worked. 71% of employees said they were just as productive if not more productive at home. 83% of employers felt that it worked right. Remember, this is not work from home or work from anywhere as we’ve been doing it during a pandemic. Work from home in a normal world might mean you go to a co-working space a couple of days a week. It might mean that you go to a coffee shop a couple of days a week, and it might mean that you go to the office a couple of days a week. You have the opportunity to get out of your house. You’re not in your house 24/7 trying to homeschool, do your work, and clean and care for your family. As we look towards the future we have to remember that work from home, and/or work from anywhere is not the same as working from home during a pandemic.

The Future of Work is Dramatic Flexibility

Here’s a great quote by Brent Hyder, President and Chief People Officer at Salesforce. “An immersive workspace is no longer limited to a desk in our towers; the 9-to-5 workday is dead; and the employee experience is about more than ping-pong and snacks.”

I can remember as a Chief Technology Officer buying Herman Miller chairs and three monitors for my best developers, and that’s how I got new employees in the office. Well, they’ve now got that set up at home. They don’t want to come in the office so how am I going to incentivize them? How am I going to reward them if I tell them they have to be in every day?  We have to rethink how we measure performance and how we incentivize our employees. Dramatic flexibility seems to be the answer.

Why do employers need to allow flexible work environments? Employees have the upper hand. A really great employee that you need that is a great team player, has tremendous skills, and is a key asset for your organization will likely quit if you tell them they have to work in the office 8:30 to 5 every single day starting August 31st because somebody else will hire them and allow them the flexibility that they desire. We’re going to have to treat employees as individuals and not make rules and hard rules that break the individual’s right. We’re going to have to learn to truly measure people by performance, not necessarily whether they’re in the office or not.

Next Steps for Employers

We established that employers have been given a C by millennial and Gen-X employees regarding how they’ve maintained everything so far in the pandemic so we have a chance to fix that C and make it an A if we consciously decide how we’re going to build our corporate culture. It’s not about desks or people at desks.

I do believe hybrid is the new normal, and I do believe that a lot will change. The future is sitting down and being strategic and thinking about how to create your culture for your office. Some things that you can think about are how the office space is going to be used. What’s important? What activities need to be done in the office versus can be done remotely? Do you downsize some of your office? If so how do you handle the office space? Are you hoteling it as shared office? How do you think about doing that fairly? How do you maintain corporate culture in a hybrid environment when some people are in the office and some people are not?

It’s a time to listen to employees as a mass. It’s a time to listen to employees as a division, as individuals. Employers need to be open. Employers need to be flexible. They need to think agile, but they also need to figure out how to structure their business such that the next crisis that comes down the pipe, be it a hurricane in my region, be it another pandemic, be it a variant takes off and is not covered by the vaccine…how can their business be agile such that the company can move quickly, adapt, keep corporate culture in place, keep employees in place, and move forward. Mostly, I think the key to all of this is communicate, communicate, communicate, communicate!