Four-day weeks, async work, and the office as the new offsite: How 2021 changed the way we work forever

Work changed in 2020 because it had to. Work changed in 2021 because people realized that it can.

Chairs at a conference table

The past calendar year, not 2020, arguably did more to reshape the workplace.

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It’s February 2020: COVID-19 is starting to spread from China to Europe and Asia, forcing companies to send workers home. It will only take a few weeks before the virus hits Silicon Valley and forever changes the workplace.

But at least when it came to work in 2020, companies were all in it together. Now, not so much.

Switching to remote work was intimidating, but it was a relatively easy decision given that everyone except frontline workers needed to do it. Plus, people generally knew very little about the virus and how it spread, and vaccines were still far in the future. The workplace changed in 2020 because it needed to; now, the workplace is changing because people realized that it can.

Many employees are working remotely not only because it’s safer; but also because it’s convenient and less distracting. And now companies are rethinking the workweek, the growing role of HR, flexible PTO, the importance of inclusivity at work and many, many other issues.

The past calendar year, not 2020, arguably did more to reshape the workplace. Here’s a look at some of the biggest questions organizations are now weighing, why they've become a debate and where experts think the workplace is heading in the new year.

Remote work is here to stay. What are you going to do about it?

That’s a question for execs, but if we’re being honest, employees and the ongoing pandemic seem to be making the call.

Aside from the barrage of office reopening delays, companies are slowly coming to terms with the fact that the office now serves a different purpose. On one hand, the COVID-19 crisis isn’t going anywhere soon, forcing companies like Google and Microsoft to push back their return-to-office plans indefinitely. On the other hand, top talent is choosing to stay at home even if there’s an office to go to. The office is for getting together and building culture, not necessarily for getting stuff done.

The future of work boils down to creating a “ digital headquarters” with online tools meant for collaboration, not a back-to-office plan, according to Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield. For other companies, like Gusto, it means letting workers decide where they work. Danielle Brown, Gusto's chief people officer, said employees can spend time both in the office and at home, they can work entirely in the office or they can work fully remote.

“We knew we weren’t going to go back to the way things were pre-pandemic where we were primarily in office every single day,” Brown told Protocol. “As we were talking to employees, we asked employees, ‘What is it you want? What is the thing that’s going to work best for you?'”

Employees have got the power. Are you listening to them?

Whether they’re advocating for internal change or protesting back-to-work plans, workers now have a lot of sway. Naturally, HR departments are getting bigger and more involved in decisions ranging from pandemic protocol to retention efforts.

Patricia Mathews, a consultant at Workplace Experts, said the role of HR professionals is now taken much more seriously than before the pandemic. “I have seen the caliber of HR professionals grow from someone who can move papers to, ‘Let's have someone who can be part of the leadership organization.’” The reason for that change boils down to the relationship between the employee and employer: It’s not one-sided anymore.

Over the past year, companies have grown their HR departments with new roles like head of Remote, a role GitLab has hired and Gusto is looking for. Gusto’s Brown said the position helps the company consider building an equitable workplace for people working remotely, in the office, across time zones and from different sites.

“It’s not going to be equal, it’s not going to be the same, but it’s going to be equally successful, equally engaging, equally rewarding and equally fun,” Brown said. One way the company has tried to place employees on an equal playing field is by reworking benefits: Employees previously received a travel stipend to celebrate their first year with the company, but they can now use the stipend for any purpose, like a spa day or different adventure.

On an administrative level, HR leaders are more recognized than ever before. But sometimes, employees don’t even look to execs for change. When there’s strength in numbers, employees have pushed for everything from more transparency in salaries to better protocols for handling workplace bullying and harassment. Companies are paying attention to those conversations, but at the end of the day, some employees don’t just want their own workplaces to change; they want to shift the whole tech industry toward a different way of working.

The workweek will never be the same. How are employees getting their jobs done?

Everyone loves a good long weekend, and for a while, it was a special treat. But companies have increasingly realized they can get their workweek done in less time.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only a few companies had a four-day workweek. But the number of companies implementing a shorter workweek took off over the past couple of years. Joe Ryle, a campaign officer at 4 Day Week, told Protocol back in August that switching to remote work helped propel the four-day workweek. “People are now realizing that [five-day workweeks are] not the way we should be living our lives."

Other companies like GitLab and Calendly have talked about asynchronous work, where meetings are pre-recorded and employees get time for deep work. The idea of async work coincides with the logic behind the four-day workweek; if employees are trusted to get their jobs done with focused, uninterrupted time, maybe 40-hour workweeks aren’t necessary after all.

Sahil Lavingia, the founder of digital marketplace Gumroad, said the model reduces stress and allows people to build work around their lives, “not the other way around.” He tweeted: “It's a very low stress environment. Many of us don't even have Slack installed. Yet, we're shipping the best software we've ever shipped, and growing faster than ever. Funny how that works!”


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