I got my second Pfizer Covid shot today, which means that I’m now part of the growing post-Pandemic population. Having been more or less in quarantine from the middle of March of 2020, I’m more than ready enough to leave behind the masks, to visit the coffeeshop and the barber and the gym, to be able to go into a restaurant without trying to eat around a 3-ply paper facial covering.
Concerns remain, of course, including strains of COVID-19 that seem to be resistant floating around, but we are also reaching a stage where the health care system is less and less likely to be overwhelmed by the virus, in whatever form it takes, which has always been the primary purpose of the lockdown. Here in Washington State, most restrictions should probably be dropped by the middle of June 2021.
However, in the next several months, it is very likely that the following scenario will be repeated over and over again. The company that you work for sends out email notices saying that, with the pandemic now in the rearview mirror, workers will be expected to return full time to the office, or face being fired.
Some people will do so without reservation, having missed the day-to-day interactions of being in an office. Many of them will be managers, will be older, and will likely be looking forward to being able to see everyone working productively just like the old days. While a broad oversimplification, let’s call them Team Extrovert. They thrive in the kind of social interactions that working in the office brings, and they enjoy the politics that comes from having a group of people forced to work in the same area daily.
The members of Team Introvert, on the other hand, are awaiting such emails with dread. For the first time in years, they’ve actually managed to be very productive because there have been far fewer unnecessary interruptions of their day, they could actually work later into the evening, could do so in an environment that they could control (more or less) and in general, could make the most of the time that they had.
Going back to work was going to mean giving up that flexibility. It will mean once again finding babysitters to get their kids to daycare or school, and dealing with a medical emergency will mean hours not working. It will mean losing a couple of hours a day in commuting on top of the eight-hour days that they work, will mean that if they are in meetings all day they will also have to spend the evenings getting the work done they couldn’t get done during the day. It will mean dealing with the unwanted sexual attention, the disapproval of the office gossips, the uncompensated late nights.
The last year has been a boon for work researchers, as one study after another has field-tested several key assumptions about the work-life balance:
False: Technology Is Too Immature
“The technological underpinnings necessary to work from home were insufficient to being able to support it.”
Zoom came out of nowhere as a free-to-use telepresence platform to largely dominate the space in under a year. Market leaders in that space stumbled badly as they failed to recognize the need to be able to provide no-cost/low-cost telepresence software in the first months of the Pandemic. Microsoft pivoted quickly to provide similar software Teams for organizations that worked with their increasingly ubiquitous online Office suite, and Slack picked up the slack (in conjunction with a whole ecosystem of other tools) to fill out the collaboration space.
One significant consequence that’s now fully coming into fruition: Otter.ai – an online transcription service using machine learning-based algorithms, has now partnered with Zoom to enable auto-transcription (including figuring out who is speaking) and embedded call-to-action items into their generated output. This means that one of the most onerous tasks of conducting a meeting – creating an accessible record of the conversation – can happen automatically.
The upshot of this is that due to the pandemic, online teleconferences have suddenly become searchable and by extension manipulatable. The impact of this on businesses will be profound, if only because every meeting, not just those few that can afford to have a stenographer present, creates a referenceable record. This also has the potential to make meetings more productive, as it can help a manager identify who is actually providing valuable input, who is grandstanding, and who is being shut out. This form of collaboration is much harder to replicate in person.
False: Collaboration Requires Proximity
This is the watercooler argument. Collaboration, or so goes the story, is centered around the watercooler, where people can meet other people at random within the organization, and through conversations, learn about new ideas or work out problems. Admittedly, today the watercooler is more likely a Keurig coffee machine or it’s equivalent, but the idea – that collaboration occurs due to chance encounters between different people when in informal settings – is pretty much the same.
The problem with this is that it is a bit simplistic. Yes, ideas can come when people meet in informal settings, one of the reasons that conferences are actually pretty effective for stimulating new ideas, but the real benefit comes primarily due to the fact that the people involved are typically not in the same company, or in many cases not even in the same industry. Instead, during these encounters, people with different viewpoints (and different cultural referents) end up discussing problems that they have, and the approaches that they used to solve similar problems in different ways.
The key here is the differences involved. This is one of the reasons that consultants can be useful, but the more they become embedded within an organization, the less valuable their contributions. They are valuable primarily because they represent a different perspective on give problem, and it is the interaction that consultants have with a given, established group that can spark innovation.
Collaboration tools, such as Slack, provide both a way for disparate people to interact and provide a record of that interaction that can be mined after the fact. This kind of chat is largely asynchronous while being more immediate than other asynchronous communication channels such as email. Not surprisingly, programmers and technical people, in general, take to this form of collaboration readily, but members of Team Extravert (who tend to do better with face-to-face communication) often avoid utilizing this kind of collaboration because it doesn’t work as well for establishing social dominance, and because it isn’t synchronous.
False: Working in the Office Is More Secure
The idea that working in an office would be more secure than working remotely is a compelling one, since even a decade ago that would likely have been true. However, several changes, some pre-pandemic, some intra-pandemic, have changed that landscape dramatically.
For starters, by 2020, a significant number of companies had already begun moving their data infrastructures to the cloud, rather than using on-prem services. Sometimes the reasons came down to cost – you were no longer paying for physical infrastructure – but part of it also came down to the fact that cloud service providers had a strong incentive to provide the best protection they could to their networks. Most of the major data breaches that took place in the last ten years occurred not with large scale providers such as AWS or Azure, but with on-prem data storage facilities.
Additionally, once the Pandemic did force a lockdown, all of those supposedly secure on-premise data stores were left to sit idle, with skeleton crews maintaining them. The Pandemic hastened the demise of stand-alone applications, as these became difficult to secure, forcing the acceleration of web based services.
The global decision to move towards https: in 2017 also had the side effect of making man-in-the-middle attacks all but non-existent, and even keystroke analyzers and other sniffing tools were defeated primarily because the pandemic forced workers to distribute, making such hacking tools much less effective. Similarly, one of the biggest mechanisms for hacking – social hacking, where spies would go into company office buildings and note passwords and open ports or would conduct dumpster diving in company trash bins, was foiled primarily because the workforces was distributed.
Hacking still exists, but its becoming more difficult, and increasingly, companies are resorting to encrypted memory chips and data stores, and not social engineering, to keep data secure. Now, it is certainly possible that an enterprising data thief could make a surreptitious run of laptops at the local coffeeshop, but again, this is a high cost, low profit form of hacking.
False: Remote Workers Are Less Productive Than Onsite Workers
This is the tree falling in a forest principle: If people are not being watched over, how do you as a manager know that they are actually working rather than browsing the Internet for porn or otherwise wasting time. The reality is that you don’t. The question is whether you should assume that they will do the latter without some kind of oversight.
One of the most significant things to come out of the Agile movement is the shift in thinking away from allocation of hours as a metric of completion to whether or not the work itself is being done. DevOps has increasingly automated this process, with the notion of continuous integrated builds, which works not just for developing software but for assembling anything digital. In general, this means that there are tangible artifacts that come out of doing one’s work consistently, and a good manager should be able to judge whether someone is working simply by looking at what they are producing.
Indeed, this notion of an audit trail is something that remote workers are well aware of. With most productivity tools now tied into some kind of auditable dashboard, a manager should be able to tell when there are problems without in fact actually needing to see the people involved. However, for some managers this ability is a two edged sword, as their managers have access to the same dashboards, the same drawdown charts, and the same bug reports, rendering their oversight role redundant. This points to a bigger problem.
A number of recent studies have shown that when people have clear goals and targets, direct oversight can actually be counterproductive, because the workers, far from doing their best work, become worried that they are being judged unfairly for taking risks that could provide benefits. Put another way, this heavy oversight makes it harder for them to concentrate, which is what they are being paid for in the first place. In this light, the worker is branded a criminal who is setting out to deliberately steal from or sabotage their employers. Not surprisingly, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as these employees leave to find better employment under less stringent oversight, causing disruption in their wake.
Managing a remote workforce is different, and can be especially difficult when one’s definition of management comes down to ensuring that workers are engaged and on task. There are comparatively few jobs, especially in-office jobs, that require 9 to 5 engagement. People need time to think, to plan, and to re-engage in interrupted tasks. This is especially true when dealing with mental activities. Context switching, reorganizing thoughts and concentration to go from one task to another, takes time, and the more the need for concentration, the longer such context switching takes.
One interesting phenomenon that has taken hold during the Pandemic has been that many businesses now concentrate their meetings during the middle of the week, rather than scheduling them at random through the week. arguably, this can be seen as creating a longer weekend, but in practice, what seems to happen is that people tend to use their Mondays and Fridays (or one of the weekend days) as days to concentrate on specific tasks without interruption. This helps them accomplish more with less stress. Workers still may provide a written report at the end of the day (or the week) summarizing what they’ve done, but this becomes part of a work routine, rather than an interruption, per see.
False: On-Site Work Improves Company Morale and Employee Loyalty
I’ve attended a few company picnics, holiday parties, and corporate retreats over the years. They are supposed to enliven morale and increase esprit de corps, but, in reality, they are fields filled with social land mines where you interact as little as possible with anyone that is not in your immediate group for fear of running afoul of a Senior Vice President or, worse, the Head of Human Services.
Company culture is an artificial construct. It does have its place, but all too often the putative company culture is set out in an employer’s handbook that everyone is supposed to read but few actually do. The actual company culture is mostly imitative, where one follows the whims and actions of the senior stake-holders in the company, even if these are potentially toxic.
Ironically, as the pandemic fades as a factor, corporate get-togethers may actually replace being in the office as the dominant mode of interaction. There are signs that this is already happening, especially as corporations become more distributed.
False: Everyone Wants To Return To The Office
Managers tend to be extroverts. They prefer face-to-face interaction, and in general are less likely to want to read written reports, even though these usually contain more information about how the projects are going. In some cases, written reports also make it harder to achieve deniability in case something does go wrong, though in this case you could argue that this is just a sign of bad management.
However, a significant percentage of the knowledge worker-based workforce are introverts. Introverts make up roughly 30% of the population, but that 30% corresponds to writers, designers, artists, programmers, analysts, architects, librarians, scientists, musicians, and other people who spend much of their time working in comparative solitude. When you factor this in, the number of people who are actually likely to be in offices probably comes closer to 55-60% of everyone who was in an office before.
This changes the dynamics of returning to the office (not returning to work itself, as none of these people deliberately stopped working) considerably. Most were more productive in the last eighteen months than they have been in years. Because they could work with minimal interruption (and that mostly asynchronous) and because they could control their environment, those largely introverted workers were able to use their skills more effectively.
Additionally, without the need to hire locally, companies could hire people anywhere. This had some unintentional side effects, as workers in San Franciso and New York migrated in droves towards smaller communities that were within an air-flight commute if need be, but were no longer forced into paying seven digits for a small house. A lot of companies made such positions contingent upon onsite-post-covid, but that provision may be impossible to enforce, especially as tightening labor markets in this critical sector make it a no-brainer for many people to opt to work elsewhere that has a more liberal work-from-home policy.
A recent Linked-In study made the startling discovery that, in their survey of members, if given a choice between working from home and a $30K bonus to return, 67% said they would prefer the work from home option. While this isn’t necessarily scientific, it hints at the reluctance that many people have to going back to the daily grind.
Are We At a Tipping Point?
As workers come reluctantly back to the office, there are several points of uncertainty that may very well derail such efforts.
- The pandemic is not yet over. One of the principle reasons for the initial lockdown was to keep the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. In those places where the lockdown was followed closely, this never happened. In those places where it wasn’t, the healthcare system was overwhelmed. With multiple variants still arising, and a vaccine that likely still needs additional tweaking, the prospect of the pandemic continuing (or flaring back up) for at least another year is not out of the question.
- Social resistance. Ironically, there are now many people who have taken to heart the social restrictions, and it will still be months, if not years, before, the habits ingrained into people during the pandemic are overcome.
- The threat of lawsuits. If a person goes back into the office, contracts COVID-19, and is left dead or crippled, is the employer liable? This really hasn’t been tested in the courts yet, and until it is, employers will be reluctant to be the first ones to find out.
- Worker mobility. Similarly, a tightening job market and two demographic trends are seeing many people retiring in 2021, fewer people entering the job market, and the natural consequences of ignoring employee loyalty playing out with more defections to new opportunities.
- Tech Trends. The technology for doing work from anywhere is clearly in the direction of distributed work. This means that financially, the benefits of bringing people in-house are far outweighed by distributing that same workforce.
What Do Managers Do Now?
If your company has not already been planning a post-pandemic strategy, hoping that things will return to normal, it’s likely getting almost too late to do so. Things will not return to the way that they were pre-pandemic, simply because the pandemic has accelerated where we would most likely have been ten years from now to today. This means that the post-pandemic organization is going to look (and act) very different than what it was in 2019.
There are several things that can be done to make the transition as painless as possible for all concerned.
Is The Office Even Required?
A number of companies had been skirting the edges of going fully virtual even before the pandemic, and as the lockdowns dragged on, decided to make the jump to a facility-less existence. The move cut down considerably on business costs, and when the need to meet in person (or meet with clients) came up, these same companies would rent out hotel conference space at a considerable savings. These companies and others like them are crunching the numbers to see if having the extensive physical presence is really all that necessary any more.
Evaluate Worker Safety
The pandemic is not going away. Rather, we are reaching a stage where COVID-19 is becoming manageable and survivable for most, albeit still a very dangerous disease for some. Before workers can return to the office, establishing a vaccine screening protocol should be considered carefully, with workers who are not yet vaccinated being considered high risk for return, and social distancing protocols should likely be taken into account for some time even when lockdowns are rolled back. It may also be worth bringing back employees in staggered tranches, with enough time between these (at least a month) to determine whether or not the virus is still spreading locally.
Identify those positions that absolutely must be on premises at all times, those that need to be on premises 2-3 days a week, and those that can work comfortably remotely. Be critical about your assumptions here: a facilities manager needs to be available or have back up, but an analyst or programmer usually does not. If someone is already working remotely and are at a physical remove, leave them there. After six months, re-evaluate. Chances are pretty good that you might you need fewer people onsite than you think.
Make Management and Reporting Asynchronous
To the extent possible, make tracking and reporting something that does not rely solely upon face-to-face meetings. Whether this involves utilizing Zoom or Teams-like meetings more, Slack, various DevOps tools or distributed office productivity tools, take advantage of the same tools (many of them part of the Agile community) that your teams are already using to communicate in an auditable fashion. Additionally, every day, each person should include a log entry at the end of the day indicating where they are, what they are working on, and what issues are needed. It is the responsibility of the managers to ensure that if conversations DO NEED to happen, that they are facilitated.
Move Towards 3-2-2
Move as many of your meeting as possible towards the center of the work week – Tuesday through Thursday – then treat Monday and Friday as concentration days, with minimal meetings but higher expectations. Demos and reports should always be held during a midweek-block. Similarly, identify core hours for availability during the week for team collaboration.
Onboarding, whether of a new employer to the company or to a different group, is when you are most likely to see new hires quit, especially if badges or other access issues delay the process. Identify an onboarding partner within the group who is responsible for helping the newbie get access to what they need in a timely fashion, and who can help these new hires get ramped up as fast as possible. While this is useful for any new recruit, it’s especially important in distributed environments.
When possible, buddy up coworkers in the same team so that they are also in the same time zone. If your operation is on the US East Coast but you have workers in Denver and Seattle, then those workers should be paired off. This provides an additional channel (and potential backup) for communication, while at the same time keeping people from having to work awkward hours because of time zone differences. This holds especially true for transnational teams.
You are hiring people for their technical or creative expertise, not their time in seat. You can track hours through other tools (especially agile ones) for determining how long tasks take for planning purposes, but by moving to a goal oriented, rather than hour oriented approach, you reward innovation and aptitude rather than attendance.
Make Goals Clear
On the subject of goals, your job as manager is to make sure that the goals that you want out of your hires are clear. This is especially true when managing remote workers, where it is easier to lose sight of what people are doing. You should also designate a number two who can work with the other team members at a more technical or creative level but can also help ensure that the goals are being met. This way, you, as a remote manager, can also interface with the rest of the organization while your number two interfaces with your team (this is YOUR partner).
Hold Both Online and Offline Team Building Exercises
Start with the assumption that everyone is remote, whether that’s a desk in the same building, a coffeeshop, their house, or a beach with good wifi access. Periodically engage in activities that help promote team building, from online gaming to coffee klatches but that don’t require physical proximity. At the same time, especially as restrictions ease, plan on quarterly to annual conventions within the organization, perhaps in conjunction with conferences that the organization would hold otherwise. Ironically, it is likely that these meetings will become more meaningful because in many cases the only real contact you otherwise have with the organization is a face in a screen.
Don’t Penalize Remote Workers Or Unduly Reward Onsite Ones
Quite frequently, organizations have tended to look upon remote work as a privilege rather than a right, and it is a privilege that comes at some cost: if you’re not in the office, you can become effectively invisible to those that are. This means that when establishing both personal and corporate metrics, that you take this bias, along with others, into account to determine who should be advanced. Additionally, if your goal is near to full virtualization, it’s worth taking the time to identify who is most likely to be against such virtualization and understand their objectives. There are people who want to build personal fiefdoms who see virtualization as being deleterious to those ends. That too can contribute to corporate culture, and in a very negative way.
There are signs that many parts of the world are now entering into a period of overemployment, where there will simply not be enough workers to fill the jobs that are available. The pandemic has forced the issue as well, accelerating trends that were already in place by at least half a decade if not more. Because of this, company strategists who are relying upon the world going back to the way things were before are apt to be shocked when they don’t.
Planning with the assumption that work from anywhere is likely to be the dominant pattern of employment is likely to be a safe bet. For most organizations it provides the benefit of being able to pull upon the talents of people without having to physically disrupt their lives, giving them an edge against more traditional organizations that can’t adapt to that change. With better productivity and collaboration tools, the mechanisms increasingly exist to make remote work preferable in many respects to onsite work, but it does require management to give up some perceived control and discomfort with adaptation. Finally, the workers themselves may have the final say in this transition, voting with their feet if they feel there are better opportunities with more flexibility elsewhere.
Kurt Cagle is the Community Editor of Data Science Central, and the Producer of The Cagle Report, a weekly analysis of the world of technology, artificial intelligence, and the world of work.