Ever since I started my blog in January of this year, I’ve been writing about how the world has changed forever since COVID turned our lives upside down. More specifically, I focused on how the workplace will never be the same. No more weeks of 5 days in the office. Long gone were the daily 4-hour round trip to the office. Leaving my house at 7am and returning 12 hours later would soon be a distant memory. Huge corporate headquarters would be replaced by small satellite offices near our homes that we could pop into if needed. The employees had spoken and for the first time they were heard. Enough was enough. The story was further cemented as the world’s largest companies started announcing “Work From Anywhere Forever” policy. While this change was forced upon us by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, technology allowed us to survive and thrive from a productivity standpoint. Thanks to tools such as video conferencing, cloud software, fast Wi-Fi and 5G, we were able to do everything at home that an office used to need.
To be clear, I still longed for face-to-face meetings and felt claustrophobic in my home. I wanted the best of both worlds, which is why I was convinced that the office world would become hybrid. Almost every article I wrote mentioned the word hybrid. I didn’t think in terms of opinions, for me this was a fact.
However, as we entered the weekend of July 4 and the vaccine is thankfully available to the masses (at least in the US), I had come to a very uneasy realization. I honestly have no idea what’s going to happen in September.
The offices reopened at the end of May. I started traveling again for work. In the past 2 months I have been to New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Atlanta. Each city seemed busier than I expected, and traffic had certainly returned, but there was another similarity each city shared: The offices were empty. Few workers had returned. The explanation everyone gave was the same: “It’s summer. In September everyone will be back.” Maybe that’s true, but anecdotally, most of the people I talk to off-the-record have really gotten used to working from home. Many of them, myself included, have started doing things that would never have been possible if we commuted to town every day, things like coaching our kid’s sports team, or having dinner with the family every night, or taking classes on topics we’ve always been interested in. These seemed like pretty basic things that we should always have been able to but the reality is they were impossible in the previous world my kids have always begged me to coach their teams and as much as i wished there was a 0% chance that I could have done it before COVID As a kid my family ate together every night but that’s a luxury that happened maybe once a week with my wife and kids And this blog, which turns out to be something I really enjoy doing, would never have happened eurd if I hadn’t had the extra time at home that resulted from the pandemic.
Then there is the other side of the equation. Many of the companies that were the first to say they’d keep their distance forever have changed course. Some suggest they want their employees in the office more often, and many others are demanding it. The purpose of this article is not to pick a side. I appreciate both points of view. If a company thinks productivity is declining and they need to be accountable to shareholders, who am I to tell them how to run their business? However, it is understandable if credibility is lost when a decision made not too long ago is reversed as impulsively as it was made.
Nobody knows what to do
Some companies have final plans that they have announced, but the majority of companies don’t know what to do. They’ve sent out countless employee surveys, formed committees, and looked at what their competitors are doing. They want to keep productivity at the highest level and they want to maintain their carefully crafted culture, but they also don’t want to lose talent to another company that is more flexible. They socialized plans and then changed those plans and then changed them again. Those same executives who make these decisions don’t even know whether they want to go back to the office or not. Nobody knows for sure what to do.
Impossible to turn back
Many companies face even greater challenges when it comes to returning to the office. During the pandemic, it was common for companies to hire new employees regardless of their geographic location. Believing they would be forever at a distance, companies hired talent purely on the basis of fitness. Now that they’re rethinking their plans, and all the workers hired for the pandemic are centrally located in one city, and most of the new hires are scattered across the country (or even the world), it’s logistically impossible for everyone to have to return to the office. . Having two sets of rules (one for local workers and one for remote workers) can be a recipe for a cultural nightmare.
When I try to predict what will actually happen in September, the analogy I can best use is what happened when my kids went back to school. My children (13, 11, 7) have gone through a phased approach. In March 2020, the schools were closed and they went 100% remote. They stayed that way until the beginning of September 2020, after which they switched to a hybrid schedule (2 days in the classroom / 3 days away). Masks were required and after a few weeks the whole process seemed normal. Then, in April 2021, the school returned all children (still wearing masks) 5 days a week. My kids kicked and screamed the first week but then 5 days a week started to feel normal. At the beginning of June, the mask mandates were lifted. For a few days it seemed strange to them; they instinctively put on their masks when they left the house, then quickly took them off when they realized they weren’t needed. Within a week, everything seemed normal to them. They will return to school next September with the memory of how school ended, and distance learning, hybrid classes and masks will be a distant memory.
Part of me thinks the office environment will behave the same as schools, but there is a huge difference between school and work. You don’t have a choice of where you go to school (assuming you go to public school), but you do have a choice where you work. Schools don’t encourage students to choose one over the other, but since employees are the greatest asset of any company, the whole system works with perks, incentives and poaching.
Maybe companies will eventually go other ways; some require a full return to the office and some remotely first. If that happens, it won’t be long (perhaps a year or two) before the research is complete and the numbers prove that one option produces significantly better results than the other. This is a potential scenario, but with companies living and dying by quarterly results, most executives don’t have the luxury of testing something out for a year or two. If they bet on the wrong strategy, it will most likely be their replacement in charge by the time they try to change course.
This has become a very divisive topic. Many employees take the position that they will never work for a company that requires them to be in the office 5 days a week. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase recently said:Most professionals learn their jobs through a student tracking system, which is nearly impossible to replicate in the Zoom world. Over time, this disadvantage can drastically undermine the character and culture of the company”. I’ve been in the PropTech space my entire career, so my network of contacts is mostly made up of people in the real estate and VC communities. There is passion and conviction on both sides of this issue, and honest points are put forward to support both points of view, which makes this process extremely disorienting. In the end, only one side can be right. My Twitter feed is filled with really engaging tweets like the one below:
Even though I have no idea how it will end, I do think it would be a shame if everything goes back to the way it was, without business taking advantage of this unique opportunity that has been presented to us. COVID was a terrible thing, and I’m not trying to cover up all the lives that were lost or affected by it. But there are positive lessons to be learned from all life events. I like to work. Contributing to the success of a company gives me immense purpose and satisfaction. But I also really enjoy dining with my family, going to recitals and sporting events, and spending no more time on the bus than with my loved ones. I don’t know how this will all end and I don’t believe anyone knows for sure. But September is only 8 short weeks away, so there isn’t much time to find out.
I’m excited to announce a few updates to PropTech and the future of real estate.
We’ve simplified the name to “PropTech Future” and below is our new logo:
In addition, this week we are launching our new website where we will host our PropTech Startup Pitch competition open to all Pre-Seed, Seed and Series A PropTech startups. We’ve assembled a jury of some of the most recognized VCs and PropTech Executives. Great prizes and exposure for the winner. Although more details are coming out soon, kindly fill this in Form to reserve your spot in the match.
Finally, keep an eye out for our next article featuring an in-depth interview with a partner from the leading PropTech VC: Fifth Wall. This was one of the most exciting interviews I’ve had the pleasure of conducting.