One thing is clear about the (remote) workplace of tomorrow, CEOs agree: ‘You don’t need to be in the office to be entirely creative’


With employees streaming back into the office, CEOs are still grappling with how to handle return to work. Questions remain over which workers need to be in the office, how to handle compensation, and which productivity metrics can best measure the effectiveness of policies.

Speaking at a breakout session at the Fortune CEO Initiative conference on Tuesday titled “Preparing for the workplace of tomorrow,” a room full of CEOs acknowledged the hybrid reality. When asked who is working five days in the office at this point, only one of several dozen held up their hand. And as panelist Joe Preston, the CEO of New Balance, said: Collaboration does not need to happen in person. Still, Preston was clear that he is requiring every Tuesday through Wednesday in the office.

With designers for its shoe brand spread around the world, New Balance has experience managing a distributed workforce. In the U.S., the shoe maker’s three-day policy mirrors a study done by the Pew Research Center from early 2023 that found that 41% of U.S. workers are on a hybrid schedule. The room of executives was largely hybrid, although one other panelist differed. Peter Goldstein, the chief technology strategist for the staffing platform Toptal, batted down the refrain he heard from executives about employees soaking in training when they are physically in the office. “You can only rely on osmosis so far,” he said. They were joined by Janeen Gelbart, co-founder and CEO of Indiggo, a management software developer.

“You don’t need to be in the office to be entirely creative,” Preston said, arguing that building culture is the important reason for requiring workers to commute in to their cubicles.

‘Fabric of being human’

Preston took over as the CEO of New Balance in early 2019, and the company brought in a record $5.3 billion in revenue in 2022, with Preston predicting that the figure could hit $10 billion within the next few years. That growth has come with an expansion both domestically and abroad, with New Balance breaking ground on a $65 million facility at its Maine factory over the summer.

While Preston has resisted bringing U.S. workers back to the office five days a week, he said on Tuesday that he believes having a hybrid model is important, especially for younger generations of employees and entry-level staff.

“There is something about people coming together that I think is part of the fabric of being human,” he said. “I don’t think it’s healthy just for everyone to be home alone for 40 to 50 hours a week.”

He still acknowledged that no one wants to come back five days a week, and joked that he even questions the need for being in the office when he’s driving to work.

“Apprenticeship of young kids is important,” he said, adding that mentorship is important for all ages.

Younger members of the workforce seem to be in agreement. According to a report from Morning Consult, Gen Z is leading the pack in wanting to return to the office, with 90% who prefer the office citing productivity as a reason. Similarly, a Stanford economics professor found that workers between 20 to 29 years old were the least likely to prefer working in an entirely remote model.

Regardless of the preference, workers are in agreement on one thing: They want companies to pay for more benefits. Data from the video conferencing company Owl Labs found that 94% of workers are willing to return to the office if their bosses pay for services like commuting costs, childcare, and food.

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