In the past year, millions of businesses have transitioned to working from home. Many of these businesses have had plans to retain this operational model permanently – but a great deal of these changes were intended to be temporary measures to accommodate the pandemic. 

Similarly, many new businesses emerging in the modern world begin with a remote work model; it makes financial sense for young, cash-strapped businesses to save money and remain agile. But they have long-term plans to move to an office and construct a more conventional work environment. 

In both cases, leaders are tasked with making an important decision: is it better to stay working remotely or transition back to a traditional office? 

Transitioning to a Long-Term Remote Work Model 

If you’re currently enjoying the benefits of remote work, you might consider making it a permanent fixture in your organization. It’s tempting to simply keep things exactly as they are, so you can keep running smoothly, but there’s a better approach. 

Many businesses transitioned to a remote work model in a hurry, merely translating and reimagining existing processes for a slightly new environment. While functional and sustainable, this model may not yield the best possible results. Instead, its better to design your workflows and operational model from the ground up with remote work in mind. 

For example, if you’re used to having round-table meetings every Wednesday morning, you might have simply changed those meetings to occur over Zoom instead of in person. But if you’re designing new workflows from the ground up, you might be able to replace that meeting entirely with a check-in on a project management platform. 

Heading Back to the Office

Heading back to the office will present some challenges of its own, especially if you don’t currently have an office to go back to. If you and your team are used to working remotely, working in an office will be a major challenge for both productivity and morale. On top of that, you’ll need to find a new location that can accommodate your team. 

Hybrid Models

Keep in mind that you don’t have to exclusively transition to a fully remote model or a traditional office. You could also try to adopt some kind of hybrid model, taking advantage of the best of both worlds. 

This is tricky to pull off in practice, since you’ll essentially be managing multiple instances of your business simultaneously. However, you may be able to divide things efficiently based on something like: 

  • Roles. You might allow some of your team members to work from home, while others are required to be in the office regularly. 
  • Population segments. You could also establish a traditional office in your home city, while engaging with a much bigger remote workforce that is distributed across the country (or across the world). 
  • Days/hours. You may also split working from an office and working from home according to days or hours. For example, you might allow the team to work from home Thursday and Friday while coming into the office Monday through Wednesday. 

If you do this, your best bet for preserving employee morale is giving them some level of autonomy; in other words, let employees be in control of as much of their work environment as possible. Allow them to choose how they prefer to work. 

Key Factors to Consider

So how are you supposed to make this decision? 

You’ll need to spend some time reviewing the data available to you, including both objective metrics and subjective feedback. 

Consider: 

  • Productivity changes. One of the most important variables will be changes in productivity. After transitioning to working from home, how has productivity changed? Are your team members able to complete more tasks in a given period of time? Are they more likely to achieve their goals than before? It’s hard to argue with the benefits of remote work when your business is literally more profitable in a remote environment. 
  • Morale changes. You’ll also need to think about the morale changes within your team. Many people appreciate the opportunity to work from home, skipping the daily commute, getting more free time, and having the chance to create their own work environment from scratch – exactly how they want it. Happy workers will be willing to work harder for your organization and will be much less likely to leave. That said, there’s no guarantee that working from home has led to a morale increase; lonely and/or dissatisfied workers may benefit from going back to the office. 
  • Customer/client experiences. Has there been any meaningful impact on your clients and customers? For example, are customers benefitting from a faster response time when they reach out to your customer service team? Or has there been any slowdown since transitioning to working from home? Would you be able to provide more services to clients directly if you had a physical establishment for your business? 
  • Remote work infrastructure. If you’re utilizing digital platforms to do most of the heavy lifting in your business, your exact location probably won’t matter much. If you have project management platforms in place, solid workflows for remote work, and plenty of communication channels to support remote work, there’s less of a reason to go back to the office. If you’re struggling in the remote work world, an office environment may be superior. 
  • Employee feedback and opinions. How do employees feel about the idea of going back to the office? Is there a consensus that working from home is better? Or are people missing the idea of working together in an office again? Be sure to collect opinions from all your team members and examine the data both quantitatively and qualitatively. 
  • Scope of current workforce. Where are your team members currently located? If 90 percent of your team is operating in the same city, because you used to work in the same office building, the transition to an office will be much easier than if you’re working with employees and contractors all over the world. 
  • Existing office resources. Do you currently have an office to go back to? If so, the transition would be much easier. If you need to look for a brand new building, you’ll have to spend a lot of time and money finding the right place. 
  • Security. You’ll also need to consider the security of your operations. With the right tools and practices, remote work can be perfectly secure – but if your setup is currently optimized for a traditional work environment, you’ll need to make some major changes to be successful. 
  • Ongoing office costs. How much would it cost to maintain a traditional office environment? There are many costs to consider, including the office lease, the cost of utilities, and the cost of maintenance and upkeep. Is it really worth the money just to have people in close proximity to each other? 
  • Teambuilding dynamics. How are your team members working together and getting along? Has there been a significant drop in camaraderie and/or team dynamics since you’ve been working from home? Is there any other way you can repair this? 
  • Future flexibility. Thanks to IoT and other advanced technologies, it’s getting easier and easier to transition between traditional and remote work environments. But it’s still important to think about the long-term future of the company. What’s your vision for the next 10 years? Will you have the flexibility to make changes in the years to come? 

Some of these factors will be more important to your business than others. It’s important to understand your top goals and priorities before doing the analysis and making the final call. 

Remote work and traditional office-based environments each have their advantages and disadvantages; be careful not to make a decision based on your preconceived notions of how these work environments function. Analyze objective data wherever you can, consider every option available to you, and make gradual changes until your work environment is everything you need it to be. 

Nate Nead

Nate Nead is the CEO & Managing Member of Nead, LLC, a consulting company that provides strategic advisory services across multiple disciplines including finance, marketing and software development. For over a decade Nate had provided strategic guidance on M&A, capital procurement, technology and marketing solutions for some of the most well-known online brands. He and his team advise Fortune 500 and SMB clients alike. The team is based in Seattle, Washington; El Paso, Texas and West Palm Beach, Florida.