What Will Happen in September?
From the time that I started my blog in January of this year, I have been writing about how the world has changed forever since COVID turned our lives upside. More specifically, I have focused on how the workplace will never be the same. No more weeks of spending 5 days in the office. Long gone were the daily 4 hour round trip commutes to the office. Leaving my house at 7:00am and returning 12 hours later would soon be a distant memory. Massive corporate headquarters would be replaced with small satellite offices near our homes that we can pop into on an as-needed basis. The employees had spoken, and for the first time they had been heard. Enough was enough. The narrative was further cemented as the world’s largest companies started announcing “Work From Anywhere Forever” policies. Although this change was forced on us by a once in a lifetime pandemic, technology enabled us to survive and thrive from a productivity standpoint. Because of tools like video conferencing, cloud software, high speed WIFI, and 5G, we were able accomplish everything at home that in the past would have required an office.
To be clear, I still craved in-person meetings, and I felt claustrophobic in my home. I wanted the best of both worlds, and therefore I was convinced that the office world was going to be hybrid. Almost every article that I wrote mentioned the word hybrid. I wasn’t thinking in terms of opinions, to me this was fact.
However, as we entered the July 4th weekend, and the vaccine is thankfully available to the masses (at least in the US), I had come to a very uncomfortable realization. I honestly have no idea what is going to happen come September.
Offices started opening up again at the end of May. I began 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 would have expected, and traffic had definitely returned, but there was one other commonality that every city shared: the offices were empty. Very few workers had returned. The explanation that everyone gave was the same: “It’s the summer. Everyone is going to return in September”. Maybe that is true, but anecdotally speaking, most people that I talk to off-the-record have gotten really used to working from home. Many of them, myself included, have started to do things that would never have been possible when we were commuting everyday to the city. Things like coaching our kids' sports team, or eating dinner every night as a family, or taking courses on subjects that we have always been interested in. These seemed like fairly basic things that we should have been able to do all along, but the reality is that they were impossible in the prior world. My kids have always begged me to coach their teams, and as much as I would have loved to do so, there was a 0% chance that I would have been able to do it prior to COVID. As a kid, my family ate dinner together every night, but that is a luxury that maybe happened once a week with my wife and kids. And this blog, which turns out to be something that I really enjoy doing, never would have happened if I didn’t have the extra time at home that was a result of the pandemic.
Then there is the other side of the equation. Many of the companies who were first to say they would be remote forever, have started reversing course. Some are suggesting that they want their employees in the office more often, and many others are demanding it. The purpose of this article isn’t to pick a side. I appreciate both viewpoints. If a company believes that productivity is slipping and they need to answer to shareholders, then who am I to tell them how to run their business? However, it is understandable if credibility is lost when a decision that was made not so long ago was reversed as impulsively as it was made.
Nobody Knows What To Do
Some companies have definitive plans that they have announced, but the majority of companies do not know what to do. They have sent out numerous employee surveys, formed committees, and watched what their competitors are doing. They want to keep productivity at the highest levels and they want to preserve their carefully built cultures, but they also do not want to lose talent to another company that is more flexible. They have socialized plans, and then changed those plans, and then changed them again. Those same executives that are making these decisions don’t even know if they want to return to the office or not. Nobody knows for sure what to do.
Impossible to Reverse
Many companies have even larger challenges when it comes to returning to the office. It was common during the pandemic for companies to hire new employees regardless of geography. As companies believed that they would be remote-first forever, they hired talent purely based on fit. Now, as they rethink their plans, and all of the employees hired pre-pandemic are centrally located in one city, and most new hires are scattered across the country (or even the world), requiring everyone to return to the office is logistically impossible. Having 2 sets of rules (one for local employees and one for remote employees), can be a recipe for a cultural nightmare.
When trying to predict what will actually take place in September, the closest analogy that I can draw from is what took place with my children’s return to school. My kids (13, 11, 7) went through a phased approach. In March of 2020, the schools were shut down and they went 100% remote. They stayed that way until the start of September 2020, and then they went to a hybrid schedule (2 days in class / 3 days remote). Masks were required and after a few weeks the entire process seemed normal. Then, in April of 2021, the school brought all of the children back 5 days a week (still wearing masks). My kids kicked and screamed for the first week, but then 5 days a week began to feel normal. In early June, the mask mandates were lifted. For a few days things seemed odd to them; they instinctively put on their masks when they left the house, and then quickly took them off when they realized they weren’t required. Within a week, everything seemed normal to them. They will return to school this coming September with the memory of how school ended, and remote learning, hybrid classes, and masks will be a distant memory.
Part of me thinks that the office environment will behave similarly to schools, but there is a massive difference between school and work. You do not 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 are not incentivizing students to choose one over the other, but with employees being the biggest asset of any company, the entire system works off of perks, incentives, and poaching.
Perhaps companies ultimately proceed down different paths; some requiring a full return to the office and some remote first. If that happens, it won’t take long (maybe a year or two), before the research is completed 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 who is in charge by the time that they try to reverse course.
This has become a very divisive topic. Many employees are taking 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 job through an apprenticeship model, which is almost impossible to replicate in the Zoom world. Over time, this drawback could dramatically undermine the character and culture of the company”. I’ve been in the PropTech space for my entire career, so my network of contacts are primarily made of folks in the real estate and VC communities. There is passion and conviction on both sides of this issue, and fair points are being made to support both positions which is making this process extremely disorienting. At the end of the day, only one side can be right. My twitter feed is filled with really compelling tweets like below:
Even though I have no idea how things will play out, I do believe that it will be a shame if everything returns to exactly how it was, without the corporate world taking advantage of this unique opportunity which was provided to us. COVID was a terrible thing, and I am not trying to candy-coat all of the lives that were lost or affected by it. But there are positive learnings that should be taken from all life events. I love working. Contributing to the success of a company gives me immense purpose and satisfaction. But I also really enjoy eating dinner with my family, and going to recitals and sporting events, and not spending more time on a bus than I do with my loved ones. I don’t know how this will all turn out, and I don’t believe that anyone knows for sure. But September is only 8 short weeks away, so there isn’t much time to figure it out.
I am excited to announce a few updates for PropTech and the Future of Real Estate.
We have simplified the name to “PropTech Future” and below is our new logo:
Additionally, we will be launching our new website this week which is where we will be hosting our PropTech Startup Pitch Competition open to all Pre-Seed, Seed, and Series A PropTech Startups. We have lined up a panel of judges made up of some of the most well known VCs and PropTech Executives. Amazing prizes and exposure for the winner. While more details will be coming out shortly, please complete this Form to reserve your spot in the competition.
Lastly, keep an eye out for our next article which features an in-depth interview with a partner from the leading PropTech VC: Fifth Wall. This was one of the most exciting interviews which I was lucky enough to have the privilege of conducting.
Glen, in addition to great content, one of the things I appreciate most about your blog and writing is your candor. - The "I don't know what will happen" was refreshing to read. We are all trying to figure this out on the fly and like most things, the market will do what it will do. Things have changed for sure, we just don't know how much yet. BTW, I'm writing this from a plane and have headed back into the office for a few days a week, but we're waiting for September as well!