When Apple’s director of machine learning Ian Goodfellow resigned from the company last month over its return to office mandate, it should have been a wake-up call for executives everywhere. In the post-COVID-19 world, the job feature that employees care most about is the flexibility to work from anywhere. There is an overwhelming amount of data to back this up. Yet, many executives would rather put their blinders on and pretend that things will go back to how they were before March 2020. Instead of giving their employees what they really want, they double down on elevated swag, pandering mission statements, and open bars to lure employees back to their fancy new offices.
These executives believe that their efforts are building a brand that will draw employees. But what they don’t realize is that things have changed. Today, a company’s office policy is its brand—full stop.
This was explicitly acknowledged by a group of Apple employees last year in an open letter to CEO Tim Cook about the company’s return to office policies. These Apple employees spoke for knowledge workers everywhere when they wrote:
Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple. This is a decision none of us take lightly, and a decision many would prefer not to have to make.
If a company like Apple—which has one of the strongest brands ever created and is among those with the largest market caps in the world—can’t retain talent due to its return-to-office policy, do you really think other businesses will fare much better? I doubt it. Executives who don’t acknowledge that all the branding tricks in the world won’t work without a flexible work policy are going to hemorrhage talent until their business bleeds out. On the flip side, companies that embrace flexible work arrangements as a core element of their brand identity will enjoy a once-in-a-generation hiring opportunity by attracting talent away from businesses that ignore their employees’ needs.
A company’s decision about its work arrangements is above every other business function. For example, high employee satisfaction is directly correlated with high productivity, which often hinges on whether they are granted a flexible work arrangement. Moreover, dissatisfied employees will reflect negatively on the company itself, which can have a negative impact on sales, given the increasing importance that consumers place on the working conditions at their favorite brands. While external and internal branding efforts may once have been disconnected, they are now intimately linked. This means the choice of working arrangements will not just affect hiring, but productivity and revenue as well.
To be clear, implementing a flexible work policy does not necessarily preclude having an office or building an amazing culture. It’s fundamentally about giving employees options and the support they need regardless of the choices they make. This is the foundation of a brand that employees will want to work for. Everything else—the logos, swag, perks, website—is all window dressing.
This can be tough to swallow for companies who have spent so much time, money, and effort building their brand around “nice-to-haves” rather than the one thing employees actually care about. But changing course and building a brand around flexible work doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are a few changes that companies can make right away.
Reallocating resources from offices to events
A work-from-anywhere policy needn’t come at the expense of a great company culture. The key is to shift resources that would have otherwise gone to office leases and facilities management into experiences that bring employees together on a semi-regular basis. There are many forms this could take, ranging from an annual retreat to a quarterly get-together. The important thing is to strengthen bonds throughout the company by giving employees the opportunity to hang out together in a fun and relaxing environment.
Ditching perks for supplies
Many companies spend an enormous amount of money on perks that are rarely used. Instead, they should shift this spending to purchasing supplies for employees that will enable them to work from anywhere. This could be a mobile WiFi subscription, an upgraded laptop, a better desk for their home office, or a pass to a local coworking space. Better yet, just give the employees money to spend on upgrading their work from anywhere arrangement and let them decide how to use it.
Picking a policy and stick to it
Over the past few years, a number of Fortune 500 companies have switched positions on their return to office policy, which creates uncertainty and stress for their employees. The best way for a business to show they care about their employees is by being dependable. Regardless of whether a business decides to adopt a work-from-anywhere policy or wants their employees to return to the office five days a week, they must clearly communicate their expectations and stick to them. The rules should apply to everyone equally—an organization where leadership is allowed to work remotely and employees must come into the office will only stoke resentment.
There is a real opportunity in the Great Resignation for companies that build a brand based on a work-from-anywhere policy. Some companies like 3M, Twitter, and Dropbox recognized this early and proactively gave their employees the option to work-from-anywhere in perpetuity, and I’ve seen the incredible effects of embracing a work-from-anywhere lifestyle firsthand at my own company. Public relations, like many industries, is facing a labor shortage. Yet since we’ve transitioned to being a work-from-anywhere company, our quality of our applicants has soared. When we polled new hires on what brought them to our organization, they consistently named our flexible work policies as a major factor in their decision.
So, before you spend money on your brand, start with your policies of work.
Vijay Chattha is the founder and CEO of VSC, cofounder of the 100kPledge and WorldWithoutCovid, and general partner of recently launched VSC Ventures.