Has Remote Work (WAH) Already Become A Fad?
It’s kind of funny. In the last 120 days companies have gone from “remote work is not encouraged” or “you can work remotely on Friday” to “You can work remotely forever (Twitter)” or “We are a remote-first company(Coinbase)” or “We don’t need you back for a year or so (Facebook, Microsoft, Google).”
While I am very sympathetic to these trends (working from home has been a great experience for me), I think we’re over-rotating a bit. While it may seem “cool” to be a remote-work company, it really isn’t. Let me share some of the discussions I’ve been having with HR leaders from all over the world.
1/ Some employees just don’t want to work at home.
Some employees are single, they have small apartments, or they have lots of distractions at home. They actually like coming into the office.
In fact, most young people I meet are “sick of being home all day” and want some social interaction again. There’s no reason they should be “forced” to work at home, once we figure out how to make the workplace safe, sanitary, and protected.
Joe Wittinghill, the head of Talent and Learning at Microsoft, just told us that most of their younger workers are itching to come back to the office. They’re living at home with roommates and can’t wait to get out. And a whole series of companies (Quicken Loans, Google, and others) have summer interns – and they know these important programs need face to face time.
Remember when “WAH” (Work at Home) moniker was a joke for “I’m taking Friday off?” Well that need still exists.
As exciting as it sounds, WAH is becoming a bit of a burden. We’re working a lot of hours (most employers tell me their WAH employees are taking no vacation at all), we’re stuck on Zoom all day, and we aren’t taking care of our bodies. The NY Times reports that some companies are now installing monitoring software because they don’t trust us. That isn’t a good trend either.
In fact we are spending so much time sitting there is a new industry of experts ready to teach us how to stretch, stand up, and go for a walk. I’ll tell you a secret: we already knew that walking around was good for your productivity. Why do you think the company cafeteria is located on the other side of the campus? Hitachi actually studied “happiness” among their employees and found that the most productive, happy engineers walked around the most.
2/ Sometimes employees need to work in groups.
I’ve now had almost 120 days of full-time work at home and I spent almost 7 years as a “nomadic” work at Deloitte. There were lots of times when we needed to get on airplanes and sit down and work face to face.
Yes, you can do a lot on Zoom but you cannot spend all day on video – it’s exhausting and unproductive. I know that in my case I always find myself walking up to the whiteboard and drawing a picture. It’s the way my mind works. Yes I could do that online, but it just doesn’t work well when you’re iterating, designing, or modeling a problem.
Today I talked with the CHRO of one of the world’s leading apparel manufacturers and she shared that the designers and manufacturing managers need to sit down and look at fabrics, shapes, colors, and various cuts to do their jobs. They can’t take that all home.
One of my friends works for a semiconductor company and he has a $2 million testing machine in his office. He is not likely to take that home, at least not very easily.
And if you work in professional services, IT, security or other consultative jobs you have to meet with your team to coordinate who’s doing what and compare results.
I remember one of the CHROs for a tech company told me the security department was finding people in the lobby taking their displays, computers, keyboards, and desk chairs home. Is that really necessary? You get my point.
3/ Many people cannot work at home. For a variety of good reasons.
White-collar workers can work from home, but what about everyone else?
If you’re a nurse, service attendant, housekeeper, manufacturing engineer, airline pilot or flight attendant, production supervisor, contractor, or provide any other type of service in your job you can’t just sit around the house. This makes up more than 2/3 of the US workforce, and these folks won’t just “work remotely.” Thus the huge amount of effort going into making workplaces safe.
Yes, we hate the commute, and we’re saving a lot of time by commuting to our desks at home. But it isn’t for everyone, and it seems arrogant to make blanket “work at home” policies when some of us just don’t have jobs that work at home.
Even companies that give people lots of flexibility have found problems. Google and other tech companies tell many stories about how the “remote workers” are left out of decisions, ignored, or just discounted. It’s the worst type of discrimination, and it reduces psychological safety. Yes, we’re working very hard to prevent this, but my experience shows that only when you have time to go out for a drink with the team do you really get to know each other.
4/ Managers and leaders like to be around people.
If you’re a manager, team leader, or executive you know quite well that your ability to communicate is one of your most important assets. I”m doing a big leadership study with DDI and we found that more than 2/3 of all leaders want to spend more time with their people. Why? Because they feel a desire and need to listen to their issues and help them get their jobs done.
Yes, you can do that over the phone, but as any remote manager knows that only goes so far. Sometimes it’s nice to get to know someone face to face, and I would say that in leadership it’s mandatory. At least occasionally.
5/ Some Workplaces are beautiful, inspiring spaces.
Finally, let me add the obvious. Some workspaces are absolutely beautiful. The Deloitte office in Toronto was a gorgeous work of art, built around wandering stairways, glass, light, and wonderful open places. I loved hanging out there. These spaces create energy, they give us space, and they improve our productivity.
And don’t forget that they can be energy efficient and healthy. When we ask people to work at home we’re assuming that they can afford the utilities, lighting expense, IT support, and wear and tear. Believe me I worked at home for 20 years: I had to replace chairs, carpets, and lots of IT stuff. That’s a real expense and someone is bearing the cost.
What’s The Answer? Giving People Options.
What’s the real answer? It’s pretty simple: give people options. What most companies are now doing is making “coming into the office optional, except when necessary.”
Yesterday I talked with the CHRO of a large electric utility and they have 30 day “on-site quarantine shifts” for urgent operational workers. They set up special living facilities so you can go on-site, get tested for Coronavirus, and stay in a residential working facility for 30 days – then go home and take a 2-week break. This lets them work together closely on urgent operational roles, stay safe, and still have a life.
At Deloitte and Accenture, you can work anywhere. We had tools that let us walk into an office and the mobile phone “found us an open desk.” The software identified your location and then told you which desks were “not reserved” so you could just sit down and work. In the COVID-free world, this would be fantastic: just space people out and when the building is “full,” the reservations aren’t available.
While most HR leaders are struggling to write the new playbooks and rules for remote work, let me encourage you to think logically. Yes, right now working at home is an exciting new idea, and we’re all getting lots of fun out of Zoom meetings, seeing inside other people’s homes, and watching dogs, cats, and children walk by. But this let’s not go crazy, this is not perfect for everyone or forever.
I am reminded of the fad we just finished: the “open office fad.” Over the last decade every office has had its cubicles removed, desks pushed closer together, and we’ve all been crammed into small spaces because “accidental connections” are such a cool way to innovate. Ugh. We knew this was a veiled way to reduce office space and save money (this is why every Silicon Valley company bought expensive soundproof phone booths!).
Now let’s be rational. People want to work the way that feels best to them. Some people like to pile their stuff on one desk, create a little “home away from home,” and hide out in the office. My old business partner used to have his own refrigerator, food supply, exercise equipment, and music in his office.
Others want to drift like nomads and work wherever is best. Salespeople, customer service agents, and many consultants love this life.
Some of us have beautiful home offices and we are empty-nesters, so we can hang out and work at home for hours at a time.
And some of us love to be in the office so we can meet with each other, debate and hash out our problems, and innovate as a team.
All of these models are important.
Let’s just be flexible, and not get too over-excited about WAH. It isn’t forever and it isn’t for everyone.
PS. Check out my new podcast, I’m going to work on this and I’d love to hear what topics you’re interested in.