The world has gone remote. For some, the shift is temporary, while for others quarantine marked the official beginning of officeless work. Most of the focus has been on the psyche of newly-remote employees as they try to balance work with a world that seems to be spinning out of control or with companies who are fast-forwarding their digital transformation timelines by five years or more.
But the relationship between offices and businesses obviously goes much deeper.
When it comes to money, most of the discussion around remote revolves around the cost savings that can happen as companies move away from the 10-year leases that have hamstrung so many businesses. While rent is most often the largest cost after people, the money spent on offices go far beyond just the money paid to landlords each month. Offices come with line items like office functionality (furniture, security, aesthetics), labor (manage, service, clean), food, energy, and insurance.
Bigger than any office cost, even in the world’s most expensive cities, is the investment companies make in their talent. Your biggest challenge is that talent is finite and it is further constrained by geography if everyone in the company has to work out of the same office. As an example, Gartner believes the global knowledge workforce crossed 1 billion in 2019. The entire Bay Area has a population of 7.2 million and a knowledge workforce of ~1.8 million. Ask yourself what other parts of your business you would constrain your potential by 3 orders of magnitude? What happens when you don’t? What if you could hire anyone, anywhere?
While one of the most obvious benefits of moving to remote is the savings (in both salary and recruiting) that come with being able to hire employees across different locations, it seems to me that the opportunity is much bigger. What if, like most things when looked at from an opportunistic mindset, there were benefits that were far greater than any dollars you could save? What if being able to hire remotely was the biggest moat you could have as a company?
If talent is your number one asset, the measure of return on that investment is the amount of time it takes an employee to become ramped and productive. While lots of companies measure this for talent such as salespeople, the reality is that every single hire needs to be ramped to productivity and, unfortunately, until now that was highly reliant on physical offices. Specifically, shared space allowed employees to ramp each other up, particularly new hires. Here’s how it was summed up in a 2016 study on workplace productivity:
“Having a high-performing neighbor is a bonus for everyone. Employees who ranked high on either speed or quality boosted the performance of those within a 25-foot radius.”
Without in-person osmosis to rely on, the question of hiring, onboarding, and ramping employees just got a lot more complicated. It seems to me that the difference between the next generation of winners and losers will be their ability to get ramping done even without the crutch of shared space. It’s going to take more than standing up Slack or Teams and shifting HR-led trainings to Zoom.This will most likely create a whole new breed of productivity-based apps that are meant to keep people in the flow of their work, even when they are in a remote workplace.
If a company can achieve success in hiring, onboarding, and ramping remote employees, they will have a moat as wide as an ocean. All of a sudden they have a talent pool that is several orders of magnitude bigger than their nearest competitor.
Paying for the Re-Moat
Rent and the costs around it are generally recurring expenses. With the shift to remote, companies will have the opportunity to reinvest that capital to better compete. Where will those recurring dollars most likely go? I believe it will go into your software that can power and compliment your people. You might even find that going remote isn’t going to save you money on your recurring expenses, like many of today’s headlines prescribe. Instead, your investment might increase in order to maintain a stronger workforce that, in turn, can help you grow and scale your business.
We are at the beginning of what will most likely be a boom for employees as they see their lives improve through better investment in their workloads, while also allowing them more flexibility in how, where and when they do their job. Will remote and software lead to a new productivity boom for talent? I think so but, only time and a large investment in a new way of work will tell.