As someone who has never had much interest in education in the traditional sense — I lasted about five weeks before dropping out of college — most of my valued knowledge and experience has come from working with and around people.
So I believe there is no substitution for collective innovation that comes from people collaborating in a shared space. A work-from-home only policy doesn’t support that or the goals of inclusivity and diversity that we believe in.
One of the key differentiators for Clayco, which I founded and serve as executive chairman, is that the culture is actually developed by contributions from the people directly. The culture and contributions are built on an open-book platform with a focus on people first. To attract and retain the best and brightest, there has to be accountability and shared ownership in the strategy, the profit, and the culture. Since Clayco’s founding, there has been an enormous amount of listening. This has led us to "safety, inclusivity, and community" as our core tenets. Companies cannot build this type of organization with a WFH-only policy
According to the Harvard Business Review, much information sharing happens through short, informal discussions between people throughout a typical workday. That’s been my experience. These underrated office opportunities are the backbone of corporate culture and improve work satisfaction. No application or technology can imitate the connection and creativity sparked by being together and learning from each other face-to-face. Teams do their best work when they’re together in the office and where everyone can be represented and add to the company culture.
In Microsoft’s 2022 New Future of Work Report, researchers found that while remote work may improve job satisfaction, it can also lead to employees feeling socially isolated, guilty, and trying to overcompensate. After years of forced isolation due to the global pandemic, we have witnessed the negative impact on mental health when people cannot gather and share experiences. Feelings of isolation create emotional distress and can worsen existing health problems.
Developing connections between people takes time and effort and simply can’t be effectively done through a screen. Conducting all business and operations remotely online can also lead to digital burnout, feelings of anxiety, exhaustion, and apathy caused by spending too much time on digital devices. Returning to a physical workplace would mitigate this issue with more in-person interactions and a balanced workday. People feel safer.
Moving from traditional places of employment to home offices decreases productivity and further isolates individuals who are already struggling — whether that is mentally, physically, or for those who have difficulty achieving equitable representation. Prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion should be a fundamental of any venture. Giving people a voice, especially those who belong to underrepresented demographics in construction in every aspect of operations is the only way to foster innovation and positively transform our communities. Multicultural professionals, including Hispanic, Asian, and Black individuals, only hold 14% of senior executive and manager positions in corporate America. For the minorities who have fought so hard to have a seat at the table, WFH is another barrier and setback on their journey to find belonging. At Clayco, we are a melting pot of people from all over the world (46 languages are spoken across our teams). We are folks from all different backgrounds and educations and we cannot reach our full ambitions via virtual chat rooms in kitchens — we need each other and the offices, collaborative spaces and teammates pulling for each other to reach our full potential.
Black and Hispanic students entering the workforce also felt significantly less comfortable with remote jobs than White students, according to a WayUp survey in April 2020. This discrepancy could be due to limited space or access to technology, but digital inequality is becoming yet another hurdle in our quest to expand inclusivity. As employers and leaders, we must work diligently to close the gap in equity and resources throughout our communities, not widen it. People are not able to show their best selves while working from the grocery store line.
If we are to create meaningful opportunities for our employees and people within the neighborhoods we serve, we must do so by taking the time to get to know each other and combining our ambitions and resources to facilitate meaningful change. Leaders need to build diverse, respectful, and safe workplaces for all where individuals can accomplish their dreams with the support and innovative tools around them. For better health, opportunities, and business, it’s time to get back to the non-virtual office.
Bob Clark is founder and executive chairman of Chicago-based Clayco, Inc.