Remote work: How the pandemic is reshaping the office of the future

Having shifted to remote work, more businesses are considering a future with lower-cost office models that give employees choice in how and where they work. Good news: It's a win-win
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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced today’s businesses to envision a new kind of workplace – one that raises the quality of life for employees while lowering operating costs and driving growth.

In recent years, attracting top talent has often involved perks like gourmet cafeterias, game rooms, nap pods, wellness programs, and unlimited free snacks. But now that employees have tasted flexible work hours, more family time, small-team collaboration, and a lower cost of living, we’re in the midst of a major sea change.

Most traditional workplace campuses evoke an era built by early telecom companies like Bell Labs and GE in the 1960s and earlier. They convey the message that work requires a purposeful, elegant space where employees spend a day (or more) before commuting home – often located hours away.

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Today, the idea of a monolithic work hub is under serious pressure. As more companies see distributed workforces delivering little to no loss of productivity or revenue, a return to the workplace as we knew it seems increasingly unlikely. Instead, I foresee businesses adopting lower-cost models that provide agency to their employees in how and where they work.

From remote work to satellite offices

Historically, most American businesses have been headquartered in densely populated, expensive cities known for a particular industry. Financial companies, for example, have long measured success by their proximity to Wall Street. More recently, technology has enabled that industry to expand outside of New York City and into places like Dallas, where the cost of living is lower for employees and corporations can take advantage of lower taxes.

The same is true of Silicon Valley, where many tech workers can’t afford to live anywhere near their company’s primary office. This has caused many major players in the industry to move out of the Bay Area and into smaller, more affordable cities like Denver, Baltimore, Charlotte, and Austin.

But why stop there? Now that many businesses have shifted their employees to a remote work model – if only temporarily – keeping the same “corporate headquarters” model and relocating workers to less expensive cities seems like a half measure.

A better solution for both businesses and employees would be to implement satellite offices where workers already have roots. The price for talent goes down, employees are able to contribute meaningfully to their own communities while collaborating in small, local groups, and operating costs for the company plummet.

By decentralizing the workforce, companies can attract talent anywhere in the world.

Virtually all businesses include at least some employees who can reasonably do their jobs where they live. And while a sales and support role may be better suited to shift to remote work than, say, a factory-line worker, technology constantly enables new opportunities. By decentralizing the workforce, companies can attract talent anywhere in the world.

[ Are you giving colleagues what they need right now? Read also: 10 essential soft skills for the remote work era. ]

Cutting the commute

Still, not every company sees the future of work this way. Even in the past few months, plans have been hatched, ground broken, and rent paid for massive corporate campuses and office buildings in some of the most expensive cities in the world. And for the biggest companies, this strategy could still work, luring talent from suburbs and small towns with the promise of opportunity and big-city living.

The drawback is whether employees can afford a good quality of life living in these cities. Consider New York City, Jersey City, and Los Angeles – three major industry hubs where commute times can top nearly 90 minutes per day. That’s time people could spend with family or friends, taking classes, or enjoying their favorite recreational activities.

By alleviating commutes and enabling flexible schedules, employees can save money and enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle – and who wouldn’t choose those over free soft drinks and a billiards table?

By alleviating commutes and enabling flexible schedules, employees can save money and enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle – and who wouldn’t choose those over free soft drinks and a billiards table?

Reimagining campus life

Few companies can provide a state-of-the-art facility in a dynamic American city while paying their employees enough to support a high cost of living. But this ideal could be fading as remote work shifts the values of employees. Businesses that can tap into these new attitudes and champion their employees’ interests won’t need to build the biggest and best office to attract and retain talent. As factors like family, community, charitable work, and environmental sustainability become increasingly important to employees, they will expect businesses to develop work environments and programs that support these interests.

For example, Zoho recently moved its U.S. headquarters from Pleasanton, California, to Austin, Texas. We helped employees relocate to Central Texas, where the median home cost is 200 times lower than much of the Bay Area.

To accommodate our rapidly growing workforce, we purchased a large plot of land south of Austin. Instead of developing a massive corporate campus, we decided to start an organic farm and renovate an existing farmhouse on the property into a small office. The land now features orchards, a pond, and vegetable gardens overseen by employees. The idea is to create a meeting place for workers across department lines to collaborate but also to experience beauty, sustainability, and tranquility.

This campus serves as an open-air location where employees throughout Texas can work if they choose to, but it’s not mandated. We plan to open rural offices throughout the country so our employees can work how and where they want. This is already happening for Zoho employees in India, where commute times can be brutal and close family relationships are a high priority.

Why the time is now

Typically, during tough economic times, people feel that they have fewer options, not more: Commutes spike, work hours increase, and people relocate. But the pandemic has been a catalyst for change, aligning business goals with employee needs like never before. Countries like Canada and India have already embraced a hub-and-spoke workplace strategy that prioritizes employee health and happiness over having the biggest, best office in town. As American companies follow suit, they will unlock new employee potential and tremendous operational benefits.

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation. ]

As Chief Evangelist at Zoho, Raju Vegesna plays a leading role in presenting Zoho's message to the business market worldwide.

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