Companies that adopted permanent remote-work policies during the pandemic are doubling down on their commitments to flexibility while major companies like Google and Twitter call employees back to offices this month.
But it's only a matter of time before in-person requirements become passé, says Annie Dean, who leads distributed workforce strategy at Atlassian, an Australia-based software company. "This conversation will seem very outdated as the next generation of leaders rises in the workplace," she tells CNBC Make It, adding that "in the future, work is not a place. It can happen anywhere."
In August 2020, Atlassian introduced a work-from-anywhere policy that allows its 7,388 employees to relocate to another city or country where the company has an established presence. Employees can "choose whether they come into an office or not — full stop."
To be sure, Atlassian as a business benefits from the needs of distributed workplaces. It's behind tools like Jira and Trello that help teams work in the cloud. Dean says working remotely helps the company build better products for other teams like them: "We want to solve the problems before the customer, and build technology to sustain this shift across the global economy," she says.
She adds that Atlassian's "Team Anywhere" policy has helped the company grow. It's hired nearly 2,000 new staffers since introducing the policy, and nearly half of new hires live two or more hours away from an office.
The company isn't getting rid of offices but instead investing in building one in Austin to open this summer and new headquarters in Sydney for 2026. "This isn't taking away office space for people who want to be there," Dean says.
Some leaders are walking back on flexibility as key to the future of work, despite support of it early in the pandemic. About 50% of leaders say their company already or will require a return to in-person work full-time in the next year, according to Microsoft research that surveyed 31,102 people around the world.
Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently shared his views on why in-office work is better, saying "I don’t know how you build great management" virtually.
Dean isn't worried about most workers' ability to adjust to remote work but recognizes managers who've learned to lead in-person will need to be taught new skills. "Change is difficult," she says, and "investments need to be made to help people who developed management skills in the old paradigm to transition to a new paradigm."
As younger generations rise through workplace leadership, Dean says "digital collaboration natives won't struggle using Confluence and Zoom and Miro and Slack altogether. This asynchronous format this will be completely second-nature to them, just like chatting around the water cooler felt second-nature 20 years ago."
With all that said, "we're not pretending to have all the right answers" about the future of work, Dean says. "Anyone who says they do isn't aware of the full story."