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OPINION: Thank heavens for remote work. It has been an extraordinary boon in a dark time – what would have happened to the world economy without it? And who will want to give it up? Are the billions working alone in home lockdown dreaming of a return to cubicles or open-plan offices?

I doubt it.

Oh wait! The CEO of Goldman Sachs said remote work “is not ideal for us and it’s not a new normal… it’s an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.” He was concerned about organisational culture: “I am very focused on the fact that I don’t want another class of young people arriving at Goldman Sachs in the summer remotely.”

So sorry, but I think he is wrong. Remote work has given people everywhere a taste of a different way of living, not just working.

In the future, working arrangements are going to be more about accommodating people’s real lives and less about regimented, patriarchal command-and-control cultures. Here are four reasons I think work for some of us (those whose work isn’t bounded by the need to be physically present) is never going back to ‘normal’.

Remote work has given people everywhere a taste of a different way of living, not just working.
  1. Existing workplace cultures in large, office-based firms and government agencies are just not very nice. Never mind the rhetoric from the top, bullying is endemic in the NZ Public Service, as evidenced by reports herehere and here. Sadly, measures of employee engagement consistently show that having staff who are committed and who enjoy their jobs makes a company an outlier. Moreover, talented people are voting with their feet: the percentage of business school graduates who go into finance firms (like Goldman Sachs) has fallen every year for over a decade, while those who join tech firms has grown.
  2. The myth that an unsupervised employee is an unproductive one has been busted. Firms can no longer hide behind the fiction that people are less productive if they choose to work from somewhere other than the office. Research has consistently shown working from home and more flexible hours increases output per worker.
  3. The business case for a multi-generational, multi-ethnic workforce with diverse perspectives and orientations is overwhelming. However, the current practice of insisting that people live in expensive cities like Auckland to work in structured, school-like environments 20 floors in the air, far away from their tūrangawaewae and whanau isn’t exactly inclusive. Limiting the talent pool to 25 square kilometres outside your office tower is going to seem dumb in the future.
  4. There has always been a class system inherent in work – NZ corporate leaders and senior managers earn about 45 times what an average worker does – and those at the top have enjoyed flexible working arrangements for decades. Having worked longer hours to save companies and their jobs through the pandemic it’s hard to see talented people putting up with executive calls to give up autonomy and control to return to how things were.

Working from home is no picnic. Many people report feeling lonely and bored and trapped stuck. What they want is some choice and autonomy about when and where and with whom to work.

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My own company gave up our Wellington office and opted for flexible space in a co-working hub because the crew preferred greater flexibility and control. Winsborough people go into the office to catch up with colleagues, plan, and work with clients. And we do the same from home. Forcing talented people to work any other way suddenly seems outmoded.

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