Matt Artz with his daughter Lily (from left), wife Julie, and son Gabriel (Photo courtesy of Matt Artz)

Matt Artz, who leads the workplace-evolution process at Salesforce, recently noticed that he had been bringing a slightly eccentric touch to his Zoom calls with colleagues. He was taking a personal interest in the houseplants they were tending in the background. But he doesn’t overanalyze the gesture. “In many ways, this is the equivalent of the first five minutes of a meeting, when you talk about what you did during the weekend,” he said. “I think there are some humanizing elements [to Zoom].”

Earlier this year, Artz’s company announced a new policy called “Work from Anywhere,” in which the company’s more than 50,000 employees would have three choices in how they can structure their work life: a flex schedule (working in the office one to three days a week), fully remote, and office-based. Artz, the VP in charge of this transformative project, spoke about the impact of hybrid work on families in a one-on-one conversation with Fast Company staff editor Lydia Dishman at From Day One’s August virtual conference, “Learning From a Crisis About What Working Parents Need.”

At the beginning of a new school year, the outlook for working parents is as uncertain as ever, thanks to the arrival of the Delta variant as a new chapter in the pandemic. As a leader, one of the things Artz has had to do is determine how things are really going for employees with diverse family lives. People with younger children can’t just plop their children in front of the virtual-classroom interface and entrust them with placidly following along with the teacher's lessons. Single people, living alone, shoulder a completely different, albeit not less significant burden by dealing with forced isolation.

Yet, when it came to dealing with mental-health issues, disclosing the challenges became hard: not everyone wants to tell their boss that they're not on the job from 3 pm to 5 pm every day because they have to be the primary caregiver. A method that Artz found effective was sending surveys and questionnaires at a company level. One of the questions was “have you had a mental-health challenge in the last year?” Thirty percent of the global workforce said yes, which led Salesforce to pursue a more robust investment in wellness education.

Speaking on families and the workplace, from left: moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company and Matt Artz of Salesforce (Image by From Day One)

The surveys had workplace implications as well: 13% of the global workforce reported seeing the office as a “refuge,” meaning that it was the place where they took shelter from their home environment for a host of reasons, from the lack of air conditioning in many European homes to a hostile home environment. As a result, many Salesforce offices around the are now operational.

As the father of two teenagers, Artz has personal experience with the sudden merger of work life and home life. “Step one was finding a place in my home where I could actually work with minimal distraction,” he said. Artz settled on his and his wife's bedroom. “There's a lot of cons in having your workplace and the place where you sleep within feet from each other. Resisting that temptation was a challenge.” What's more, Artz’s wife had been working from home since before the pandemic, so she had managed to fashion a semblance of balance between work and family life. But the dynamic changed once the whole household was confined in the same place all day. “Kids had no concept of what my schedule looks like and what meetings can get interrupted,” he said. “And if I am taking a meeting with the doors closed, I don't get the sense how often they're interrupting my wife vs. me,” he added.

As Salesforce puts its offices back into operation, the policy of flexibility will have at least two aspects, he said, revolving around both around time and location. In terms of schedules, “There's going to be a more asynchronous work approach,” he said, in which employees do their work at the time of day that fits their needs. In terms of where they do their work, the approach has generally evolved into an “as-needed flexible behavior,” focused on specific projects that require employees to be in the office, for example sprints or end-of-quarter projects.

Given that both time and location will be partly discretionary, leaders will be the ones to set the example. If a leader comes into the office every day, their direct reports will tend to do so as well. “Our [chief HR officer] moved to Orange County and won't come back unless it's needed. So that's a good signal. How the leaders behave is going to affect people.” Salesforce is based in San Francisco, and Artz lives in the Seattle area.

Regardless of the back-to-the-office strategies, though, Artz sees teleconference software as a transformative technology. He observed that, in the span of a year, software like Zoom improved drastically: better audio quality, less strain on the laptop CPU, and the possibility to have the digital background cover up a less-than-tidy room. Unless everybody is going to be in the office, Artz said, it's going to be one face for one screen–a kind of digital equity. Gone are the days of one camera taking in a whole conference room.

Even so, Artz is cautious about equating performative, digital trust with the value of a face-to-face, body-language connection. In fact, while an “as-needed flexible” policy might require people being in the office rarely, completely getting rid of corporate real estate is not going to happen for most companies. People still want a connection to the office, Artz said with confidence.

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.