For many years, workers have longed for the ability to do their jobs from anywhere but the office. And at best, some employers have responded by allowing people to work remotely one or two days per week (sometimes only in the summer) for interim medical/family reasons.
Then came COVID-19, and in just a few short weeks, millions of jobs that employers had previously said needed to be done in-office or were far too sensitive for security reasons to virtualize or and required in-person collaboration…all of a sudden (and almost miraculously) became remote roles!
Necessity is the mother of invention, and in the face of the pandemic, HR, IT, and other departments were able to figure out a way to have their people work remotely.
For a while, executives proudly reported to their boards, their customers, and to the media that things were mostly business as usual. Meanwhile, a newfound ability to work from home in sweatpants and away from the confines of a cubicle seemed like an enormous upgrade for many people. And ever since, employees everywhere have been considering some major life changes, such as moving to lower-cost parts of the country/world if WFH could be a permanent arrangement, as some firms like Twitter have announced.
However, not many of those people have effectively considered second-level order consequences, like what happens if compensation is no longer anchored to a major metropolis or if competition for new roles pits candidates against talent polls spanning the country or even the world.
But even if we put all that aside, here’s the little secret that nobody is talking about: For many people, including management, WFH ain’t really workin’.
Now, that’s not to say that remote work can’t work. It’s just that right now, we’re all pretending that this current iteration of WFH is functional, productive, and sustainable. In reality, it isn’t.
Since March, I’ve been toiling away from my Manhattan apartment, connecting virtually with CHROs, HR business partners, employees, and executives from across the country. For the most part, the transition to remote work has been simply a matter of ensuring that your employees have a running laptop and some collaboration software. Think of this as the absolute “minimum viable product” way of doing WFH. The way things worked in the office (synchronous) has been duplicated in the WFH context — notably, without sufficiently taking into account parents needing to feed and teach their children, younger people living with multiple roommates, adults needing to care for sick elders, or even couples living in small urban apartments.
This haphazard approach has resulted in a bewildering, anxiety-producing, and unsustainable work model that we’re all just standing around and pretending is completely fine — or even an upgrade! But due to the absence of a commuting buffer, many people I speak to now share the same blurry sensation of never knowing when their work day begins and ends. In addition, Slack has essentially become a baby crib-like monitoring device, maximizing context switching and tanking throughput and covering up a huge lack of trust between employees and management.
Behavior through digital interfaces has also removed some of the basic human decency and empathy of work life, with workers sharing more cutting, aggressive (even hostile) remarks. My friends and colleagues also share how — without the rituals, culture, and connection that come with being in a physical, “real” workplace — they feel disconnected, lonely, excluded, or “just like a cog in the machine.”
Meanwhile, burnout is now a greater collective threat. We typically associate burnout as a highly individualistic experience based on unique circumstances, yet now many of us are hitting (or have hit) a wall at the same time. Our brains simply cannot stand to take anymore stimuli, unfamiliar decisions, or uncertainty.
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Given the dire economic condition and the bleak prospects of finding a new job, however, workers are reticent to complain. I have a strong hypothesis that traditional employee listening tools (such as engagement surveys) aren’t truly capturing real sentiments, as they tend to re-use benchmarked questions that likely don’t tap into the unique challenges of today. Other companies don’t even bother to capture any sentiments, choosing to postpone surveys during times of duress to avoid poor scores.
Plus, many organizations have only tested this configuration of mass-scale WFH while proverbially “treading water” (e.g., laying off staff, cutting costs, slowing projects, and sustaining prior service levels). We really won’t know just how much of a productivity hangover we have from remote work at scale until a few more months or quarters. Nor will we get to see how effective remote work is once companies have shifted to playing offense (e.g., launching new products, making and integrating acquisitions, expanding/growing rapidly) as the economy recovers and the pandemic subsides.
Will the slap job we’ve done in creating WFH 1.0 still hold up under more pressure and stress? I fear not.
By now, you might think I own a bunch of commercial real estate, or that I’m totally “old-school” and believe that having everyone in the office is the only way to drive results.
Nope! My team has been 100% remote since I founded my company. The experience has forced me to unlearn how to manage based on my prior office-based experience. Now I’m a firm believer in remote work. But remote work only works when it is implemented by design, not by default. From my experience in leading my company (contrasted with my prior work for a number of large global brands in towering office complexes), I can tell you without a doubt that remote work requires asynchronous communication, lots of software tools, different processes, a higher level of talent, and a culture that’s built on far more trust.
So what can we do to make remote work more sustainable, inclusive, and effective? A lot! But the key to solving a problem is to first recognize that we have one — and then spend the majority of our efforts on understanding that problem before we jump into making fixes.
As we now head into the second half of 2020, let’s make sure to pay closer attention, be more curious, test assumptions, gather data, and think critically to figure out if this is truly going to be the desired “future of work” that we’ve been dreaming of for so long.