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Farewell to the Office?

A recap of FORTUNE and the Future Forum’s first “Reimagine Work” summit

Posted November 19, 2020 by Maddy Cimino

Reading time 7 min

On November 12, FORTUNE hosted its first “Reimagine Work” summit roundtable in partnership with the Future Forum. The session, titled “Farewell to the Office?” focused on the role that physical offices will play in the world of hybrid work. Panelists included Diane Hoskins, Co-Chief Executive Officer of Gensler; Nickle LeMoreaux, Chief Human Resources Officer, IBM; Atif Rafiq, President, MGM Resorts, and Kirthiga Reddy, Partner, SoftBank Investment Advisors and Board Member, WeWork. 

Other panelists included: 

Moderator Michal Lev-Ram, FORTUNE Senior Writer, kicked off the discussion by asking participants what the office environment will be like moving forward. The panelists agreed that a hybrid virtual-physical future is what most are planning for to meet employees’ demand for flexibility. However, what “hybrid” looks like and who wants it differs widely based on the organization and on individuals’ roles.

Who’s in favor of the office? It varies. 

At IBM, it’s Senior executives want the office. 

“Senior executives told us they were less productive when working remotely. If you think about it, if you’re a senior executive and you need something done, you walk out of your office or your cube and make requests. The middle layer of the organization is now telling us, ‘We’re so glad not to have those distractions anymore, and we’re more productive now because executives have to be more thoughtful, rather than giving us random requests.’ This is clearly not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ situation.”

Nickle LeMoreaux
Chief Human Resources Officer, IBM

Millennials and Gen Zers are the ones with the most demand for the office, according to research by Gensler and SoftBank Investment Advisors. 

“Our research shows senior leaders are more interested in the hybrid model than millennials and Gen Z. It’s a question about who’s going to come into the office, and what mentorship they get.”

Diane Hoskins
Co-Chief Executive Officer of Gensler

“We see companies that, while they will allow more work from home, will also want to provide access to facilities that are a shorter commute. We need more flexibility for workspaces, at times for individual work, but mostly for team collaboration. Gen Z does not want to be a Zoom generation—82% feel less connected when they’re not in the office.”

Kirthiga Reddy
Partner, SoftBank Investment Advisors

Many people were already unhappy with the current state of their office environments. 

“The big question in the minds of our clients is ‘what are the more durable and lasting impacts?’ Clearly, the workplace is changing. Satisfaction with workspaces has been declining in line with densification and increasing noise levels for years. Some of the points about the inhumanity of workplaces has been real. This is the moment to create spaces that are a win for companies and for people.”

Diane Hoskins
Co-Chief Executive Officer of Gensler

No “one-size-fits-all”

All of the panelists noted that the office will have to be customized for every company and situation. At all of the panelists’ companies, the hybrid model is starting to take shape. 

Being in 150 countries, we’ve been explicit that there can’t be corporate edicts. We track results and work country by country, city by city. We have some countries that are 90% back to work, and many, many others hitting a second wave or still in the first that are essential workers only…Not since the Industrial Revolution have leaders had to think about work design, about individual tasks and deciding which tasks get done face-to-face and what gets done remotely using all the virtual tools we have.”

Nickle LeMoreaux
Chief Human Resources Officer, IBM

Atif Rafiq, President, Commercial and Growth at MGM Resorts International, notes that every company and situation is different, but that the employee experience has to come first.  

“Remote work has opened up to question every aspect of the work experience; it all needs to be unpacked. The corporate office was the yardstick. It was face time, it was your calendar. But even before COVID, that wasn’t sustainable. We need to think about the employee experience. This is an opportunity to get the most out of your people as a company. Human psychology will come into play; your ability to take flex time shouldn’t impact your career. The person who can afford face time shouldn’t be the one who can get ahead because they can curry favor with the boss.”

Atif Rafiq
President, Commercial and Growth at MGM Resorts International

Although everyone is grappling with how to set up offices so that people can do their best work, there is little question that all models will require ways for teams to get together in person episodically. 

“There’s a mythology that at virtual companies no one gets together; even remote-first companies like Gitlab and Automattic still need time together episodically to rebuild relationships. Regardless of model, there’s got to be some back and forth that we need to test out—finding ways to keep that sense of belonging and connection.”

Brian Elliott
Vice President, Future Forum

Intentionality matters

The theme of intentionality permeated the conversation. Only with purpose can leaders successfully shape collaboration and culture. It will take new policies, processes, and tools, and the effort will be ongoing. 

“We must have said ‘intentional’ a hundred times, but bringing intention to what work gets done, when it gets done and being intentional about the environment you’re creating for all employees, not just one group, is essential. Empathy is a big piece of this.”

Nickle LeMoreaux
Chief Human Resources Officer, IBM

“The point about providing ‘think time’ for people is really essential—the amount of planning our people are doing is insane. The velocity and volume of change is persistent and non-stop; every day is like three normal days prior to COVID. If you don’t let people out of the fixed routines like meetings, it’s not going to work. You’ll face burnout, and worse plans and reactions. Work isn’t just attending meetings. Let’s get away from that.”

Atif Rafiq
President, Commercial and Growth at MGM Resorts International

Lead by example

In addition to acting with clear intentions, leaders will need to set the tone from the top and model behavior. Jenny Johnson, President and CEO, Franklin Templeton Investments, describes her experience in leading remote teams and setting the tone from the top. 

“When I was running our technology group, I didn’t have a single direct report that was co-located with me. In my view, I’m a relatively new CEO and if I create an environment where everybody has to be co-located, then I will have failed because my clients are global. We have had to get good from an HR standpoint about training and recruiting people who are good at managing people remotely.” 

Jenny Johnson
President and CEO, Franklin Templeton Investments

“There’s a higher level of intentionality you need to bring to rethinking work as an executive. If the C-Suite all shows up five days a week, does it become a faux sense of flexibility for other people?”

Brian Elliott
Vice President, Future Forum.

“How you lead your employees is very critical in this situation. I’ve constantly told people to take what time they need off. I lead by example, taking time off myself. It’s a mental health issue, and it’s real.”

Judy Smith
President and CEO, Smith & Company

Leverage technology and agile methods

Participants emphasized the importance of adopting new technologies and agile processes as well. 

“Intentionality and being purposeful is key to connectivity, collaboration, and culture. But no matter how much we think about it or any company is thinking about it, they’re probably not doing enough. For example, we revamped our intranet and launched a mobile version; we have three touch points with senior executives each week, whether an All Hands or a partner ‘ask me anything’ distributed on video and shared on Slack.”  

Kirthiga Reddy
Partner, SoftBank Investment Advisors

“We’re having to talk about our performance management systems, and reward systems, being about outcomes and not activities. We’d been talking about that before, but this has been the crisis that made it happen. Not who’s in the office, how many hours, but the data on outcomes — we’re finding that using the data is liberating in focusing us.”

Nickle LeMoreaux
Chief Human Resources Officer, IBM

“It’s about creating space for collaboration and creativity, but it’s also about creating time. We’ve done a few things that have been resounding successes. We do not have meetings on Friday, and people are grateful. It impacts well-being and creates space for work. We also take every last Friday of the month off and treat it as a holiday. It’s taken time, but we’ve seen the positive effects.”

Rob Moons
Vice President, Global HR Business Partner, Levi Strauss & Co.

The bottom line is that now is the time to create office environments that are a win for companies, and for the people who work for them. To learn more, you can tune into the insights from the entire session below.