Veteran tech executive John Chambers, once the longtime CEO of Cisco, said the coronavirus crisis which forced businesses to embrace a remote workforce has shown that working-from-home can lead to more productivity.
But he also cautioned that the work-from-home trend can backfire for businesses that embrace it blindly, including through leading to less cohesive organizations.
"When work from home gets carried to an extreme, most companies really struggle with it," he told Business Insider.
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In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, former Cisco CEO John Chambers pivoted easily to working from his Silicon Valley home, adapting to back-to-back business meetings via video conferencing instead of in-person.
"It's fun learning how to do this with hundreds of people," he told Business Insider in an interview in March. "I'm pushing everybody to go digital and video everywhere. Because unfortunately, I think we're going to need that in this nation for a while longer than we anticipate."
But six months into the coronavirus crisis, Chambers — who now leads the venture capital firm, JC2 Ventures — warns that companies need to be deliberate when approaching a more permanent shift to work-from-home.
Tech giants have quickly embraced remote work, with Facebook, Twitter, and Atlassian even telling employees that they can work from home indefinitely. But Chambers cautioned that blindly embracing the trend on a permanent basis could weaken an organization's culture and even lead to less productivity.
"When work from home gets carried to an extreme, most companies really struggle with it," he said in an interview in early August. Instead, he recommends a "blended version" of remote work where companies still maintain physical workplaces.
He envisions a system where employees are able to "pick a location where they can work and maybe come in one or two days a week."
"One extreme or the other will probably not work," he said.
The benefits of a remote workforce are undeniable, Chambers said: Many businesses thrived in a situation where employees and executives "no longer had to drive an hour to work" and videoconferencing has become a quick and convenient way to communicate,
"For the first time, your customers and your partners were really accessible that way, whereas before if you wanted to do a video session with a partner, it was a work of art to get set up," he said. "So productivity did take off well."
Wall Street analysts and investors have started tracking the shares of tech companies that benefiting from the pivot to remote work. The so-called "work from home stocks" coverage different tech players that have made it easier for businesses to adapt to remote work, including Microsoft, one of the dominant cloud platforms, Slack, the collaboration and communications platform, and Docusign, the virtual signature platform.
But "culture and communications" are important in building a strong company, and this could be harder to do if most or all employees are working remotely.
Chambers cited the experience of Cisco, the tech behemoth he led for two decades and which, during his time, allowed some employees to work remotely for extended periods.
"It worked well for a period of time, especially if they were already Cisco employees into our culture," he said. "But after about two to three years, most of them did not work well. The people got further away. They weren't as familiar with the culture. They didn't get to know their peers. Then you get lonely."
To be sure, companies have shown that it's possible to maintain a highly-productive workforce even if everyone is working from home. But Chambers said there's always a risk that some employees can feel disconnected from the rest of the workforce "where you don't see what your peers are doing."
"Then I think for a number of these areas, productivity will drop," he said
Other tech executives have voiced similar concerns about the working-from-home trend.
"The tribe is really important," Nutanix CEO Dheeraj Pandey told Business Insider in a May interview, noting the importance of having employees routinely gathering in a workplace.
But he also noted how the work-from-home trend has taken off, saying, "Employees have tasted blood and they like what they see in working from home. They believe it's commute-free. They believe it's highly-flexible."
Pandey said his company is exploring options "without drinking the Kool Aid of everything remote."
Like Chambers, he cited what appears to be an emerging consensus around a "hybrid" model in which employees are able to work remotely while maintaining some workplace operations. It's the framework embraced by ServiceNow whose CEO Bill McDermott told Business Insider recently, "It's going to be a hybrid world."
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