Do You Dare Not Return to the Office?

Zillow’s CEO is warning that the future of work could create a ‘two-class system’ where those who come into the office are viewed as better employees


  • Zillow CEO Rich Barton discussed the future of work during the company’s Q4 earnings call.
  • A hybrid model could create a “two-class system” that negatively impacts remote workers, he said.
  • Others have echoed his concerns. GitLab’s CEO called a hybrid model “the worst of both worlds.”

Throughout the pandemic, the buzzy phrase in corporate America has been “hybrid model” – as in, a new way of working that involves both remote work and coming into a physical office a few days per week or month.

And while that model seems like an elegant solution for life post-coronavirus, there may be a hidden downside for employees, Zillow CEO Rich Barton warned.

During the online real estate company’s fourth-quarter earnings call on Wednesday, Barton discussed how Zillow managed the shift to remote work throughout 2020 and what he’s expecting for the future. While Zillow has been successful operating as a “cloud-headquartered company, “the company does plan to have some employees return to its offices, and that can present challenges, Barton said.

“We must ensure a level playing field for all team members, regardless of their physical location,” Barton said. “There cannot be a two-class system – those in the room being first-class and those on the phone being second-class.”

What Barton is alluding to is that idea that employees who choose to report to the office either some of the time or full-time could be viewed as more dedicated and more engaged than those who choose remote work. Over time, managers may begin to view the employees they can see working in person as more productive than those who they only see over video chat.

Other chief executives agree. Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of code-collaboration firm GitLab, described a hybrid model as “the worst of both worlds” in a piece for Wired last summer. Sijbrandij warned that remote employees won’t feel included and will have a more challenging time communicating than their peers who report to the office.

Over time, employees at companies who choose the hybrid model will feel a shift from “remote-first” to “remote-allowed,” he said, which creates a world where “remote employees are not penalized for working outside the office, but are also not proactively integrated into the fabric of the company.”

Sijbrandij described the old, pre-COVID model of working as being one that rewards attendance rather than output and that many companies will be unable to let that go.

His solution? An entirely remote workforce. GitLab, a $2.75 billion startup, has been remote-only since it launched in 2011. It currently has about 1,280 employees in 66 countries around the world.

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