The Big Question: Is Remote Work Here to Stay?

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Green Carmichael:   With the pandemic subsiding in the U.S., the great workplace transition has begun. Many companies, particularly on Wall Street, are throwing open their doors and calling employees back to their desks. Other companies are embracing remote work or hybrid arrangements and cutting the size of their office footprints. You’re the former chief talent officer at Netflix and now a human-resources consultant and author of an influential book on workplace culture, “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility.” A lot of employees who’ve been working remotely this year are now wondering, “Wait, what's the point of the office?” How do you answer that question?

Patty McCord, former chief talent officer, Netflix Inc.: There are wonderful things that happen when we’re together as humans. There’s energy that can’t be replicated on a Zoom call. I was talking to Reed [Hastings], the CEO of Netflix, and he hates working remotely —  hates it. He’s like, “Nobody argues, there’s no passionate discussion, you can’t feel the energy in the room.” For personal interactions, it’s also just better if I can look you in the eye and go, “Uh, you know, girlfriend, you kind of screwed that up. What happened?”

But I hope, in my heart of hearts, that we do not ever go back to normal, because we’ve learned to at least stop and think about what happens in the office. At the beginning of the pandemic, people realized that the meeting with 19 people, where only three people talk? That could have been an email.

SGC: Some companies realized that. But others tried to replicate every meeting over Zoom.

PM: The companies that had the hardest time were the companies that tried to replicate work in the office. Others started adapting immediately without even thinking about it. We didn’t roll out a global initiative about experimenting with working from home. We just jumped in and figured it out. No one knew how to do this. There was nobody we looked to and went, “Oh, well, we should do what Google’s doing because they’re the coolest company on the planet.” This experimental way of living and working was really healthy, and we can keep doing it.

SGC: What about burnout? Can we have the flexibility of remote work without having the burnout that we saw this year?

The Big Question: Is Remote Work Here to Stay?

PM: I think the answer is a hybrid model. It seemed like, for a lot of people, that barrier between work and home wasn’t there anymore. It was just, “I’ll work all the time.” It’s time we all learned how to set those barriers. Now is a great time to step back and say, “OK, what worked and what didn’t?”

SGC: So what have we learned? Does it take different skills to be productive in a remote environment?

PM: Almost every company I talked to said they recognized employees they didn’t pay attention to before: people who just quietly put their head down and delivered. I talked to a woman who’s the VP of sales at a Fortune 100 company. She’s hard-driving, charismatic. And she said, “The craziest thing happened. I had a matrix of skills for what made a great salesperson in my organization — able to control a room, a lot of energy and charisma, confident, blah, blah, blah. And it completely flipped during the pandemic.” She said that her best salespeople were the ones she had been literally about to fire — the quiet ones who would just get on call with a client and listen. Now she’s rethinking the whole workforce.

SGC: Some managers and leaders have found it harder to manage a hybrid or remote workforce. Do you think that’s one reason they want to get people back in the office?

PM: I talked to lots and lots of companies last year, and CEOs asked me, “What’s the best thing I can do right now?” And I told them, the two most important things for them to do are 1) Listen, and 2) Create the time to hear it. The watercooler conversations — as if we still had water coolers — those conversations had to be planned, and so people paid more attention to them. I hope that carries through. Hopefully now we’ve created a discipline where we sit down and talk about how it’s going. So maybe that’s what CEOs are longing for: not having to be so disciplined about those things.

SGC: Big financial firms are really pushing to get people back in the office. Does that surprise you?

PM: Not at all. It’s a control issue. I’m going to give them a smidge of credit for being somewhat driven by regulation. But setting that logic aside, these are top-down, hierarchical, micromanaging, leader-driven, check-on-people-don’t-trust-them-they-might-screw-you companies. And they’ve been doing it this way for 100 years. I just don't think they trust people, even after all of this. And I think that the companies that do, they’re the ones that are going to win.

SGC: Some tech companies have really embraced remote work. If tech offers a very flexible model, and finance offers a much more controlling model, how does that change where talented people choose to work?

PM: I think we’ll see a lot of movement in the workforce. People will make choices about where they work based on how they can work and the freedom that they’re allowed to have. The companies that are going to offer a lot of flexibility are going to be more attractive.

Traditional companies are kind of a starting point for a lot of people in their careers. Sometimes they say that when you start out in your career and you work for a traditional company, it’s kind like of you learn to read music, but then you after a while, you get to play jazz. At least in my career, starting in very traditional companies made me realize what I don’t want to do anymore. So I think this has given us a lot of opportunity to be reflective and say, “How do I want to work? How can we work differently?” 

SGC: Before the pandemic, some companies tried to make their offices very home-like, or even better than home. And now people have been working at home and it’s very comfortable — and there’s no commute! How are offices going to compete with that? Will they double down on perks?

PM: I hope not! I mean, you know, it’s fascinating to me to have spent the last 10 years in the Bay Area, post-Netflix, realizing that, oh my God, the world did not end when there was no longer a bartender on staff. Who knew?

SGC: Is there something you miss from your time at Netflix?

PM: Being part of a team. Particularly a team of really smart people who challenge my thinking. The thing I miss about working in a company, most of all, is debate. I miss being wrong more often! I love being passionate about something and then having my mind changed. And I think that’s what we’re talking about [when we talk about missing the office]. We just don’t articulate it very well.

SGC: One argument for bringing people back to the office is the importance of the “watercooler conversations” you mentioned earlier — the random, fleeting interactions that might spark creativity. But is this true? Is that how creativity works?  

PM: When I was at Netflix, I always said the only perk I wanted to have was showers. Because everybody says, “I had this great idea in the shower this morning.” If we ever got stuck in a meeting, I’d want to be like, “Everybody in the shower! Don’t come out until you have a good idea!”

Meetings are a great place to discuss decisions, make decisions and communicate. But that spark of the idea very often happens at the beach, or in your backyard, or in the middle of the night walking the baby around. Creativity often happens when we’re alone. We need a little space where we can dream.

Yet I’m glad that people are going to be together again. There’s an energy that’s really important, particularly in the phase of work where you’re inventing something — it’s not the spark of the idea, it’s the debate about the idea that makes the idea stronger. That’s the stuff that provides energy and motivation. But once you’re at the phase where it’s like, “All right, everybody get to work,” there’s no reason why we have to be sitting in rows and cubicles.

SGC: Even if we struggle to articulate it, everyone seems to agree that there is some benefit to unplanned human interaction at work.

PM: What people are really saying they miss is that human connection where you go, “Oh, your puppy must be huge by now!” or “Do you still have a cat?” Or I run into you and say, “I was just talking to somebody in marketing, and they have this new campaign you should talk to them about.” Both of those things are really important.

SGC: So is the point of the office really to build trust in each other?

PM: Actually, we built trust that we never had before this last year. People got it done. They got it done without anybody checking on them. We had to trust each other. What people have learned from this is, maybe if we just say, “Get it done by Friday,” people do. That’s what I want companies to know. If you focus on deliverables, and you focus on what you need to accomplish, and you focus on who’s doing it, that’s all you need to measure. 

I’m trying to talk to people and say, look, if it wasn’t important in the last year, it might have never been important. So don’t go back to normal. Don’t go back, don’t go back, don’t go back. Go forward.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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