The future of work: Utah business leaders mixed in to remotely solve the personal dilemma

The worst global lockdowns and restrictions caused by COVID-19 are now mostly in the past, but the effects of those long-term disruptions continue to affect the environment where most adults spend most of their time – the workplace.

And while the pre-pandemic version of where we toiled our working hours mostly depended on a particular physical space, that assumption has been thrown off forever. Now, for those fortunate enough not to be in frontline jobs without place options, the work atmosphere varies from those who enjoy lives quite far away, and never set foot on company property, to those who split their days or weeks on some variable home and office quotient, and yes , those who were forced to grind it every day again in the ol’ cabin.

But, as this major involuntary experience unfolds in the workplace, has anyone figured out what really works for the employees and companies they work for?

That was the question in front of about two dozen Utah business leaders at a roundtable discussion hosted by online retail giant and Deseret News at Overstock’s Midvale headquarters this week.

There is certainly no consensus on the optimal work environment and Utah companies adopt approaches as diverse as the products and services they offer.

Jonathan Johnson, CEO of Overstock, who moderated the roundtable discussion, used himself as an example to illustrate the dilemma facing managers when it comes to evaluating where anyone is best to do their job, and do it well.

Johnson noted that the working days he spends at his home are highly efficient and productive, as correspondence takes place, Zoom meetings are conducted, and he checks all the boxes on his daily to-do list. But days spent in the office have different results, but are equally important.

“At the end of the day in the office, I sometimes look back and think, ‘I didn’t get anything done,'” Johnson said.

At outdoor equipment maker Cotopaxi in Utah, leaders have embraced a workplace philosophy shift that was unexpected but now carries measurable benefits, according to the employees themselves.

Davis Smith, co-founder and CEO of Cotopaxi, poses for a photo at Cotopaxi’s headquarters in Salt Lake City on March 14, 2018.

Spencer Akwam, The Desert News

Before making the shift sped by pandemic restrictions, Cotopaxi co-founder and CEO Davis Smith said he was behind the concept of the everyday workplace personally. But, in practice, the benefits of remote work have revealed themselves.

“I was a firm believer in working in the office,” Smith said. “I’ve never worked at home, I discouraged employees from working at home and then that completely changed.

“In August 2020, we decided we were a remote company first.”

Smith said his main interest in making the change was to bring new employees into the mix who didn’t first have the opportunity to build relationships in a personal environment that could be transported to a distant world. New, highly intentional ways to enhance team building and bonding have become part of the revised and first remote Cotopaxi way of doing business, and Smith said there is a lot of data to reflect on how well it’s working.

Not only does it increase productivity, but internal surveys reflect Cotopaxi employee morale at levels any business leader would celebrate.

In a recent LinkedIn post, Smith shared the latest findings from the annual sentiment assessments, noting that 76% of Cotopaxi’s current roster of about 300 employees were hired after the company switched to a remote workplace policy.

• 87% rated their sense of belonging as +8 (47% rated it 10).

• 91% rated their sense of purpose as 8+ (52% rated 10).

• Seventy-eight percent say they are more productive than working remotely. 6% reported being less productive.

• Fifty percent say they work more hours than pre-pandemic hours. Thirty-seven percent reported that their workload has not changed. Note: When commuting time is factored in, people work fewer total hours.

• 91% prefer to work from home and 6% prefer to work from the office (0% say they want to work from the office 100% of the time).

Other Utah business founders and CEOs at the roundtable are also finding success with a far-first approach, and a few are working to find a balance in blended programs that set some expectations for showing up in the office alongside work-from-home opportunities.

To be sure, exposure to remote work has fundamentally reshaped expectations on the part of the worker into the equation. According to a survey conducted by McKinsey and Co. Recently for more than 13,000 global employees, 40% found flexibility in the workplace as the number one reason for staying in a job, and it barely lags behind earnings by 41%, according to the BBC. And in a March 2022 Gallup study of more than 140,000 American employees, 54% of remote workers and 38% of hybrid workers said if their companies stopped offering the flexibility to work remotely, they would look for work elsewhere.

The worker morale revealed in the survey data is not lost on companies that view the offer of remote work options as a powerful recruitment tool. Thanks in large part to the historically tight US labor market, which, despite persistent, record-breaking inflationary pressures, continues to create more jobs than is available to fill them.

But some executives are finding niche audiences for policies that are a bit at odds with a workforce that has collectively taken remote work for a spin and found it a comfortable and compliant journey.

Joseph Woodbury, co-founder and CEO of the peer-to-peer self-storage marketplace in Utah, said his company has embraced an agenda that is intrinsically flexible but also requires in-person presence four days a week. And while the policy encountered some early resistance, Woodbury said it turned out to be a blessing.

“I was told by investors, when we embarked on this journey, that this would be a major drawback in hiring, and it has been going on for about six months,” Woodbury said. “But, in the past 12 months, this has become the biggest hiring advantage for our company. This has been the easiest 12 months in the history of the neighbor to hire talent.”

Woodbury said Neighbor has closed several employee contracts through office visits as new talent has been responding positively to the energy of a very busy and struggling office.

While the discussion at Overstock HQ reflected a comprehensive array of new ideas about creating the best workplace of the future, one veteran entrepreneur noted that the new world of resilience is set to help bring about positive change in one of every company’s biggest challenges – diversity of forces. working.

Cydni Tetro, CEO of e-commerce platform Brandless and co-founder/chair of the Women Tech Council advocacy group, noted that the pandemic has had a broad disproportionate negative impact on women, driven in large part by widespread shutdowns in childcare facilities.

A report from the American Chamber of Commerce this spring found that men and women experienced a 3% decline in workforce participation at the height of the pandemic. But after more than two years, men returned to work at a higher rate than women. As of April of this year, women’s labor force participation was still a full percentage point lower than it was before the pandemic, meaning an estimated one million women are missing from the workforce.

But, Tetro believes that the new world of flexible workspaces will create greater and better opportunities for both currently working women and those making their way into the job market.

“The effects of COVID-19 have forced everyone to work from home as family life has collided with the world of work and this has completely transformed the way we see flexibility in the workplace,” Tetro said. “The epidemic affects women disproportionately. But they’re back in the workforce and we’ll see more upward movement because you don’t have to be in the office all the time. You can be away, or be in the office when he’s working, cut out family time and find that balance.”

Corrections: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the neighbor required employees to work from the office two days a week. The requirement is four days a week.

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