If You Can’t Work From Home, The Tech’s Not To Blame

By Marc Ellenbogen, Chief Legal and Human Resources Officer at Foursquare. 

Summer is now long past, and we’re into the Fall work culture. And with buttoned-up autumn’s arrival, a big fight is brewing at workplaces around the country. Many executives are pushing for a large-scale return in-person, or at least hybrid work. Employees, on the other hand, are now accustomed to and enjoy the flexibility of remote work.

There’s not a lot of common ground.

Yet executives have historically had the upper hand in most workplace debates, this one is not as simple. Every company is different and has its own logistical challenges, meaning the “best” approach to work moving forward is up for debate and the answer should be carefully tailored to individualized business needs.

One thing is certain, however. Executives trying to dodge the argument entirely by claiming technology does not support a “work-from-home” approach are on shaky ground. Whatever their reservations, technology is not the issue.

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Employees can be just as productive at home as they are in the office, and likely, even more so.

I admit, I am biased. Foursquare, recently announced that employees are welcome to work from home or to come to an office at their discretion. We understand the pros and cons of working remotely and in-office and wanted to offer our employees this autonomy.

Nevertheless, the tech industry is continually adapting products for a work-from-home world. I continue to witness this first-hand, sitting on both the legal and HR teams for a tech company building products that data scientists use to solve massive queries from their home offices. The industry will continue to make work from home even more seamless.

Let’s start with software. Software as a Service (SaaS) companies have ensured that their products work with less powerful at-home set ups. Even the most complex programs no longer require an ultra-fast internet connection or powerful hardware. Zoom, for instance, can run on as little as 1.5 Mbps, well below the average speed in the U.S., which is 42.86 Mbps. The same is true of Google Suite, Microsoft Teams, and most videoconferencing services. Higher order programs, from location data visualization tools to visual design suites and real-time collaboration tools, can also perform exceptionally well in a home office setting.

Similarly, SaaS companies have brought remote security up to par with in-office security, mostly by making good “cyber hygiene” the default option. Most notably, companies have built organization-wide password managers (which create more complex passwords and/or demand two-factor authentication) into their programs. These effectively eliminate the temptation for individuals to be loose with their passwords and aborgates the need for IT professionals to nag employees until they do the right thing. SaaS companies have also learned to push updates briskly, so vulnerabilities are short-lived.

Hardware companies have done their part too; indeed, they’ve been doing their part for decades. The price of laptops went down 96% (while the laptops became 1000 times as powerful) between 1994 and 2016. At home setups, then, are not the financial burden on companies (or even individual employees, if companies go with a “bring your own device” model) that they would have been a generation ago.

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This isn’t to say there are not some compelling reasons to come back to the office. JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, for instance, argues that in-office work is better for “spontaneous idea generation” and “hustle.” University of Texas-Austin Professor Art Markman argues that being in the office creates “goal contagion,” where everyone works towards the same goal instead of individual ones. An in-person environment may also make it easier to onboard new employees and build culture (though that is up for debate).

Employees value having a voice and being in the know, especially in today’s environment. If executives believe returning to the office is essential to the future of the company – so much so that they are willing to demand employees return over the employees’ wishes – they should say as much. An executive who is willing to own the effects of their demands deserves respect.

Let’s leave the technology out of it, however. Whether working in a corporate office or a bedroom desk, the tech industry has employees covered. That’s one thing we can rely on as the return to office debate continues.


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