It’s the story of a man named James, a woman named Julie, and everyone else grappling with the new world of office work that Covid unleashed almost exactly three years ago.
James Long is a seasoned financier in London who founded a clean energy financial advisory firm called Longreach Capital in 2019, just before the pandemic hit.
One of his first hires was 30-year-old Julie Gimenez, who was then in London working on infrastructure investments for one of Europe’s largest banks.
As Britain locked down, Long remained in London and Gimenez moved to a sunnier city in southern Europe. She’s still there now and Long is still in London, working in the St James’s Square office several days a week.
Gimenez comes to the London office at least once a month for a few days and often travels abroad for work meetings. The business is doing well. He arranged one of the UK’s largest green hydrogen funding deals in the last 12 months. But his working arrangements are what Long calls “an ongoing conversation” and Gimenez calls “a hot topic.”
They agree that some jobs need to be done in person, like meetings with clients, and some are easily done remotely, like paperwork to close a deal. They also agree that it is good for younger staff to work face-to-face with more experienced people.
But there is less agreement on a third category of tasks such as designing a presentation for an upcoming meeting with a client or internal team meetings.
Long says, “I tend to say that most things have to be done physically, but I appreciate that there is room for remote work.
Gimenez, however, says the pandemic has shown how efficient and productive she can be when she’s free to focus deep at home, away from the distractions of the office. “Now that I know that, it’s frustrating to have to meet in person when I know it’s not going to help me with what I’m working on.”
She also thinks a lot of time is wasted on planes for business meetings that could easily be held online. Long thinks a big part of working life is about showing up.
So, who is right ? Three years after hybrid or remote work took off, do we know if it is undermining or increasing productivity? Were people like Elon Musk right to order workers back to the office or else?
Answers are beginning to emerge – for certain types of work in certain types of businesses. They were exposed in a recently revised report from the National Bureau of Economic Research paper co-authored by Stanford University economist Professor Nick Bloom, whose advice on hybrid working is widely followed by companies.
Studies before and during the pandemic have shown that the productivity of call center staff working from home has increased by around 10%.
But not everyone works as a call center employee, and another study graduates working in shifts at an Asian IT company found their productivity dropped by at least 8% after being abruptly sent home when the pandemic hit.
However, these staff went from working entirely in the office to working entirely remotely and, as Bloom’s article says, there was no randomized control group, so the results are difficult to assess.
Other answers come from a randomized trial of managers and non-managers at a large tech company that Bloom conducted in 2021 and 2022. One group worked from home on Wednesdays and Fridays. The other stayed in the office full time.
The result? There was no evidence that hybrid working from home significantly increased or reduced productivity. But workers liked it and attrition rates fell by a third.
The bottom line, Bloom told me last week, is that people who say working from home hurts productivity are often talking about working entirely remotely, which can affect productivity — but can also attract staff and reduce office costs.
Companies must calculate this trade-off. But for managers and professionals, Bloom says evidence shows that a mix of working from home and in the office is a win-win. “It doesn’t make sense to go back to five days a week.”
Ultimately, that means a lot of people, like Longreach’s Long and Gimenez, are willing to keep pushing and challenging each other to slowly create a new way of working.