We can almost feel it. Soon the worst of the pandemic will be behind us, and we can get back to visiting family, friends, and attending in person events. Walking into a packed room will not feel the same for a while, but I very much look forward to it. Since March of 2020, MERAK staff have been working remotely. Ignoring the physical isolation, we are very fortunate that the shift to remote was not disruptive and work carried on normally. Early impressions of working remotely were captured in this previous blog. This blog is going to look forward and explore the importance of a physical space as non-essential businesses will soon be reopening.
It is safe to say that when we go back to normal it will not be an exact replica of pre-pandemic life. The forced transition to remote work all at once was an epic experiment, a once in a lifetime dream for social scientists. The predominant idea regarding productivity was that if employers and supervisors could not see staff, the staff were not being productive. This assumption was proven false and I have yet to find reporting of organizations shifting back to a full-time office model as soon as it is possible to make back productivity losses.
Employees are just as productive working remotely as in the office. Everyone is unique, but I noticed a few themes that could explain why remote work does not impact productivity. The first is that some employees are more productive at home as there are fewer distractions at home. The second is extended workdays, using time that would have been for commuting to work, or for those more distracted at home, working extended hours to make up the difference. Lastly, is pandemic boredom, there is only so much video streaming and home baked bread one can consume. With the blurred and extended workdays, the risk of burnout is real and will be a challenge going forward.
If productivity, on average, is not impacted, what do employees think? Most individuals in my social circle absolutely love working remotely for a diverse set of reasons. The most common theme has been around flexibility. The ability to quickly take care of personal responsibilities during working hours instead of letting it all pile up for the end of day or weekend has been a massive benefit. Also, little perks like online purchases delivered to the home instead of the office, taking a break to tackle quick chores, or giving that little bit of extra attention to kids and pets. Instead of fitting life around work, life and work priorities are shared. Many of us have seen an improved quality of life through the many hours gained by no longer commuting. For the average commuter, it is fair to assume that remote work gives the worker an extra hour a day. Many individuals might just have a few moments at the end of the day for themselves, an extra hour (not at the cost of sleep) is huge.
An interesting trend as people get settled with remote work lifestyles is placing significant attention on their personal workspace. While I am completely disconnected from regular TV, I can imagine that we will be flooded with home office makeover TV series and YouTube channels. I see the office flex of the future will be communicated through fancy webcam backdrops. Flexibility extends to the times of the day one works, some people have discovered they are more productive in short sprints and have split their workday into segments or two blocks containing a morning and evening shift. And let us not kid ourselves, work mullets with, “business on top and whatever works on bottom” is awesome.
From the employer’s perspective, with non-essential businesses closed, they are currently paying for a space that is not being used. Some organizations have invested large sums of capital, care, and attention to make employees feel comfortable at work. Adding amenities like kitchen spaces, lounges, sunrooms, gyms, day care, green spaces, etc. Likewise, the same care and attention in providing a diversity of workspaces to ensure every employee can find the right space to work productively, whether cubicles, private rooms, open tables, and small nooks. Let us not forget the effort that goes into planning collaboration spaces and office events. Lastly, the emergent behavior that results in everyone sharing the same space; I very much miss lunch time euchre and the conversations that came with it. All these administrative expenses are going to waste if employees are not coming to the office.
With a fully remote model, not tied to the talent pool of a local geography, employers can access anyone with a reliable internet connection. Global scaling is no longer dependent on expansion of physical spaces but expansion of reach through personal networks of employees. Additionally, employers could split the difference and offer a hybrid policy, scale down the office to a shared space or share office space with other organizations. The primary benefit of working remotely reported by my social circle was choice, so a hybrid solution seems obvious. Though to get employees to come back to the office, providing amenities not easily available at home is going to be a determining factor for employees weighing the value of staying home versus commuting in.
If employees would prefer to work remotely and employers can save a ton of administrative costs, why have an office? Is there value to having a policy where employees are expected to come in? There are some not so obvious benefits of an office and to expect them to primarily work at the office. Firstly, an office is not just a place to work. Work is where adults make a lot of their new friendships. While it is entirely possible to build meaningful relationships while never being in the same space, a remote friendship is different. Despite being able to connect virtually with family, friends, and colleagues have you noticed that random conversations with strangers during the pandemic last way longer than normal? Ever just stay on the line with a telemarketer for the company? We are highly social creatures and physical socialization is critical for good mental health.
An office space extends socialization beyond immediate work collaborators. There is no equivalent to water cooler chat or passing a colleague in the hallway in the digital space. Physical spaces shape culture. Without a foundational location it is much more difficult to shape culture. With remote work, culture is now shaped by the micro-communities that form among close collaborators. Video calls miss critical body language that would be easily registered during an in-person meeting. If an organization were to go to a hybrid or fully remote model, socialization and the ability to shape culture will suffer.
Remote work is feasible, providing an additional choice for leaders, and this is great. However, I fully expect in a few years that the hidden costs will slowly emerge over time as we gain more experience in this new normal. In the meantime, I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to experience the pants-less work revolution.