Is The Future In-Office, Remote or Both?

Where people work will influence what jobs are available.

Back in March, the assumption seemed to be that most white collar workers being sent home because of the coronavirus outbreak would be able to return later in the year. Many made statements about September or maybe December at the latest being feasible for offices to reopen and “normal” to resume.

Much like how movie studios keep pushing more and more films to the middle of 2021, companies are now beginning to eye July of next year as the soonest that’s going to happen. Most recently, Amazon announced employees can continue to work from home through June, though of course that is just for *office* workers. Warehouse staff, 20,000 of whom have contracted Covid-19, are still required to show up in-person.

With so much still up in the air – especially since the number of Covid cases keeps going up – it’s a good opportunity to review just what options are available.

Option 1: Back In The Office

That companies keep announcing new “return to the office” dates indicates that their intent is to eventually get everyone back under one roof. This is, of course, the norm that businesses have adopted since the middle of the last century as white collar work began outpacing factory, farm and other labor.

But those constantly changing dates and endlessly revised plans are playing havoc with employees, who not only can’t fully make their own plans but who feel the companies aren’t committed to making remote work situations work.

Last month public relations firm Edelman released the results of a survey showing just 14% of employees trust the executives and managers at their companies to make the offices they have largely abandoned safe enough to return to. As Axios points out, that comes at a time when public opinion polls show significant disagreement among many Americans over what constitutes required safety measures, from masks to temperature checks and so on.

One suggestion offered by a real estate company CEO is that businesses will have to lure workers back by creating more of a cool clubhouse environment. Part of his argument is that the environment needs to be one that makes workers want to get out of their homes and become part of the “inner circle” by doing so. Those who don’t take advantage of that situation, he warns, will run the risk of falling out of favor with management and be replaced by AI or just fired and not replaced.

That kind of threat is one that has hung over remote workers for a good long while. The pressure is on them to constantly be available, find their own ways to connect with virtual colleagues and so on. Because they can’t be monitored the old-fashioned way – by physically being seen by their bosses – remote workers are often judged by how communicative they’re being. And since they are not there to participate in office meetups and inside jokes, they can easily become the first to go when it’s time for layoffs.

The argument for getting people back in the office often includes some variation on the watercooler effect, that office environments allow for moments of spontaneous creativity or problem-solving.

That may be valid (even if it is likely widely overstated), but it overlooks how the modern office is almost intentionally designed to contain a multitude of distractions that impair worker productivity. At the very least, a one-design-fits-all-productivity model simply isn’t realistic. People will prefer it to be warmer or cooler, don’t like the color scheme, can’t function well with the approved equipment and so on.

Option 2: Work From Home

In the immediate wake of office closures in February and March there was a lot of, shall we say, chaos. A number of news stories and reports talked about how companies sent everyone home in a hurry with little thought of the equipment people were going to need, how certain logistics were going to work and what kind of expectations there were regarding employee personal lives.

It’s clear that even now, months later, many companies are just starting to figure out what a long-term distributed workforce will look like and how it might function. That adjustment comes well after employees themselves acclimated to the new reality. Interruptions by pets, children, spouses or some combination of all three went from “Wow, this is really weird for all of us” to “Barely worth mentioning” in no time at all. What was so unusual just six months ago is now commonplace.

Not only that, but work from home arrangements offer a number of quantitative benefits that companies would do well to latch on to. For instance:

  • Workers have expressed widespread satisfaction in part because they can more effectively manage both their personal and professional lives from home than they can in the office, where their every action is judged.
  • Because women in particular don’t have to make such an analog decision between family or work, the hit they often take in terms of promotions, raises and so on becomes less severe.
  • A smaller corporate footprint means it might be a lot easier for companies to actually meet their sustainability and environmentally-friendly goals, as paltry as they sometimes are.
  • Worker productivity goes up, despite the fear mongering that happens whenever remote work is discussed.

This is not to say that remote work is always the best option for either party. Many are simply not in a position to make that work for any number of reasons. Some have a difficult time balancing home responsibilities with their work life when not in an office setting. Still others simply don’t have an employer willing to make that kind of accommodation.

Option 3: A Hybrid Approach

It’s incredibly likely that while some companies will be outliers in one of the two directions above, but more could adopt a hybrid model that offers workers some flexibility and builds in protections to guard against remote workers being seen as second class employees. Even so, there are a number of issues that will need to be hashed out both by individual companies and the labor market as a whole:

What constitutes workplace benefits? Over the last 20 years the notion of what constitutes perks in the office has evolved from coffee and occasional donuts to organic vegan fair trade lattes and pan-seared aji. While that’s been used as a competitive selling point when trying to attract and retain talent, it loses much of that power when the interviewee isn’t planning to be in the office to enjoy them.

The question becomes even more stark when you consider that those office snacks may account for a significant savings in employee grocery budgets. Because they’re not in the office to take advantage of the cereal in the kitchen they’re buying their own at home. Nor can they use in-building gyms and other amenities.

On the one hand, employers could offer stipends specifically meant to transfer these kinds of perks to the home environment. They could set up food delivery services, or sign everyone who chooses to up for Peloton. Or…and I’m just throwing this out there…they could take that money and just add it to everyone’s paychecks.

What role will the office still serve? Since the beginning of the pandemic there’s been the assumption that if or when businesses reopen the open office design won’t survive the transition, mostly because it’s the antithesis of the recommendations on how to stop the spread of the virus. So if we’re assuming we’re destined to go back to cubicles and/or offices with some form of social distancing in place, the question then becomes why workers would venture back.

It’s pretty much assumed that the role of the centralized office will shift significantly in the next few years. But instead of becoming the Kool Kids Klubhouse suggested in the article linked above, one would hope that it could transition to the place employees come when they have to or need to, not somewhere they have to be in order to do the very basics of the job. There should be a specific reason for the office, such as a meeting that has to happen in-person instead of virtually. There should be space for people to work if they can’t or don’t want to be remote as well as space for those who have to come in for something on a certain day. But the idea that it’s the only location individuals are allowed to be on a regular basis was antiquated a year ago and now may be dangerous.

What will we require from our digital, local and transportation infrastructures? Following the previous train (sorry) of thought, if fewer people are going into a centralized office there’s less of a need to shape a huge percentage of our societal makeup around getting people to and from said locations.

Highways in particular are ripe for reconsideration. Months after the first wave of pandemic closures were announced there were reports traffic levels dropped significantly, with pollution levels also coming down as a result. Because many states fund road repairs with tolls, gasoline taxes and other car-related charges (which are a regressive tax on those less well-off), that funding fell dramatically. If more systemic change comes to how and where people work, that kind of change could become, at some level, permanent.

It would be nice, then, if we could refocus those efforts on reinforcing digital infrastructure. School closures and the subsequent shift to online learning has starkly exposed the digital divide that exists across the country, with 59% of low-income parents saying the lack of fast internet service at home means their child/ren can’t adequately complete their homework.

This isn’t to say that our physical infrastructure isn’t important, but it was a system built for the 20th century. How we prioritize projects as a society should reflect our priorities, and both internet access and mass transportation – not highways and such – should be at the top of our list.

How do we reshape the economy to fit the decentralized model? Much of what’s been outlined so far all boils down to this question.

The massive support economy that’s made up of coffee shops, convenience stores, restaurants, office supply retailers and more has taken a multi-billion dollar hit since closures went into effect.

If indeed there is a huge shift in the work world then a good number of things will need to be adjusted as a result. It’s not just coffee and auto repair shops. Think about how toilet paper wasn’t available anywhere for about two months because the home retail and office supply chains are completely different? That process will repeat at some level across most industries.

There is, of course, no single answer that will be adopted. Each company will have to figure out what management and staff are comfortable with and adjust as necessary. But just as good coffee and other perks have been used as competitive advantages to attract or maintain talent for the last 20 years, it’s likely that simple location and timing accommodation will take on that role in the next decade or two.

Job Losses, Like Coronavirus, Could Be Nearing a Second Wave

Of course the first wave never really ended, but let’s move past that.

This is what the official unemployment rate looks like, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (PDF), as mapped out over the last two years.

The problem has been exacerbated by the continued resistance of Congressional Republicans to pass another round of economic assistance, meaning smaller businesses in particular aren’t able to rehire or recall workers that may have been furloughed or laid off in the past several months.

Being unwilling to entertain the possibility of including aid to state and local governments, along with continued health-driven school closures is also having a massive impact on public education. Sector employment is already dramatically down and not likely to get better anytime soon given parents are keeping kids out of public schools while those who are wealthier opt for private education. That’s just one way the pandemic has exposed or heightened economic inequality and mobility, and the impact of those disparate educational systems is something we’ll feel as a society for decades.

While the current unemployment rate as of September 2020 stood at 7.9 percent, a fall from its recent high of almost 15 percent, it’s still double what it was at the beginning of the year and what it has been for much of the last four years. And that is not even a real number given people who have either opted out of the job market or who have come to the end of their unemployment benefits and therefore fall off the official roles.

When you add those individuals back into the calculations *and* include those who don’t even make $20,000/year, the total unemployment/underemployment rate becomes 54 percent for White Americans and 60 percent for Black Americans. That’s just one example of how the recession has hit non-white demographics more harshly and a recovery (such as it is) that has also been disproportionally bad for those same groups, widening the already substantial racial wealth gap.

Those who belong to a union, less than 12 percent of the U.S. workforce, are more likely to receive unemployment benefits, in large part because those unions have not only made sure such benefits are part of worker contracts but are also resources helping those filing for aid navigate what can often be a tricky and difficult system. Meanwhile, those who fall into the “long term unemployed” category – meaning they’ve been out of work for over six months – is growing rapidly and, because of their precarious financial status, are feeling more of the economic hurt than others.

As of now nearly 13 million Americans are unemployed. And, just as there’s a new wave of Covid-19 infections across the country that’s threatening school and business reopenings, there’s about to be a massive wave of additional layoffs that’s going to be felt throughout the economy. There are at least a few reasons why that seems likely:

First: As stated earlier, small businesses who have been counting on another Federal relief package are going to be disappointed as those talks remain, for lack of a better word, stalled. Without that assistance, they just can’t keep going. Unlike the biggest companies, which have only gotten bigger as they take advantage of opportunities afforded by everyone’s lifestyle and work life shift, small businesses are 1) stuck in an endless cycle of hope and disappointment when it comes to recovery, and 2) additionally hurt by cuts to Post Office services they rely on.

Meanwhile, those who work on Wall Street would like the recession to be over now, thank you very much, banks record record profits and the most wealthy citizens – those more likely to own individual stocks – have become even wealthier over the course of the pandemic.

If “trickle down economics” were really a thing, which it’s not, that accumulated wealth might be helping some of those in more dire need. Instead the working poor are pushed even closer to the brink of failure because of reduced hours, insufficient support and other problems and an eviction crisis across the country is hitting those most vulnerable harder than others.

Second: The rate of corporate failure is going to get worse. An increasing number of companies are only alive because they’ve gone heavily in debt to continue operating, becoming so-called “zombie companies.” If (or more likely when) government assistance to those companies ends, they’ll at least likely engage in even more significant layoffs or go out of business entirely. The Federal Reserve has slowed its rate of corporate debt purchasing, which may be a bad sign we’re moving in that direction.

Companies that have cut staff over the last several months aren’t adding or refilling positions as quickly as they were eliminated. Over 50% of those who have been laid off because of related closures are still out of work. Even high-wage jobs have stalled out recently as companies seek to do more with the people they have and those people aren’t in any rush to change their situation.

There’s little reason to think that will change if things continue in the current direction, especially if the number of companies that near or experience failure increases.

When the first coronavirus aid bill was being considered by Congress, many lawmakers – even Republicans – came out saying people needed help because they’d lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

The same logic holds true. Putting all of the above together, many of those individuals are still out of work through no fault of their own. They are subject to a system that isn’t hiring, or is only hiring so specifically the requirements are a veritable needle’s eye few will fit through.

What we’ve seen to date is largely a K-shaped recovery, one where the financial health of those at the high end of the economy improves while those at the bottom half see things continue to get worse.

This Isn’t Workers’ Fault

The number of jobs available is already nowhere near the number of people looking for work. If things keep getting worse, that ratio will only become even more disproportionate.

A recent article – one likely intended to be helpful – offered some tips to those seeking work on how to adjust their resume and explain an extended amount of time off, including because of layoffs resulting from pandemic-related business closures. There’s some helpful information there, and in a similar piece on rethinking resumes, around being clear and upfront about why someone was laid off and so on, but the question remains why an individual has to offer this kind of explanation in the first place.

Putting the pressure on the individual to explain why they’ve been out of work for an extended period of time in the current coronavirus-influenced environment seems laughable when you consider how closely the job market resembles the streets of Paris during the French Revolution.

Any gap in employment should be viewed by the company viewing a work history as “Oh…that was during 2020” and gauge accordingly. The individual may have been diligently looking for work and finding none was available.

Despite the “personal responsibility” mindset conservative leaders have imbued society with for the last 50 years, and unlike the public health crisis being faced, the work/jobs situation is one where the individual should have little to no blame. They are not the ones who have put companies in tenuous financial positions. Indeed, companies have justified paying workers so little for decades now in part by saying they needed to build up their savings for a rainy day. Now it’s pouring and we find that capitalism only kept things afloat for about a month and a half.

Workers of all kinds are about to once more feel that pain once more, just as they did 12 years ago as the Great Recession hit, only moreso and with the added worry that comes with living through a global pandemic.

Remote Learning Is Prepping Kids For Lack of Work Privacy

[Extreme Dr. Forrester voice] I know who you are and I saw what you did.]

Stories like this have been coming out with some regularity since late March as schools across the country invest in some mix of digital tools to monitor students during online classes and physical equipment to track them and take their temperature when or if they’re actually on school grounds.

The same kind of thing is happening in the workplace, as employers ramp up their monitoring tools, ranging from thermal scanners to take temperatures as people enter the office to bluetooth distance tracking to facial recognition. HR managers are now fielding all sorts of questions that used to be outside their purview, including those related to privacy issues arising from the kind of data collection that’s happening.

How useful such tools might be in the prevention of spreading Covid-19 or other viruses is questionable, usually cited as not being as effective as wearing a mask and washing your hands. Adopting those tools sometimes seems more like theater designed to make it appear as if a school district is taking steps to mitigate transmission amid a pandemic than to actually do something. Unsurprisingly, the costly systems are more likely to be implemented by private schools than their public school counterparts.

Those tools are, though, preparing the children for the reality they’ll be facing in the workplace as well as much of the rest of the world.

As I wrote on Productivity Lost:

Monitoring methods include keystroke logging, wiretapping, GPS tracking and Internet monitoring, which includes surveillance of employees’ web surfing, email, instant messaging and interaction on social networking sites.

Essentially, anything anyone does on a corporate-owned machine – be it desktop computer or mobile device – can and will be monitored. It all stems from the notion, which is not completely incorrect even if it is overreaching, that everything someone does while at work should be directed toward the benefit of the employer. All time spent should be in service to the company and its stakeholders.

While occasional legal challenges crop up, most of the time the companies wind up just fine, to the point that many have begun installing software on personal mobile devices that allow employers to track both their physical and digital activities.

Much of that monitoring and tracking is being done in the name of productivity, just as the tracking being done of students is being done in the name of keeping kids engaged and seeing when they’re not. What should be viewed as a privacy nightmare involving children unable to provide consent is actually just a preview of what they’ll face when they’re adults in the workforce.

Just as there’s little evidence temperature checks will impact the spread of disease, there’s little evidence digital employee monitoring and tracking improves productivity. In fact, there are a number of studies showing actual or assumed tracking hinders productivity and reduces morale. That, of course, hasn’t stopped companies from getting those systems up and running, especially in the months since the pandemic drastically increased the number of people working from home.

While it’s been widely decried by many parents, in many ways remote learning is better preparing students for their future in the knowledge economy than the regular classroom settings they’d otherwise be in right now. Work, after all, doesn’t consist of moving from one room to the other every 50-odd minutes, checking in with friends you pass in the hallway in between those sessions. It’s sitting in front of your computer over a series of hours that seem to blend into one another, answering emails and sending digital documents.

It also seems to be preparing them for the fact that their activities and actions both physical and digital are going to be monitored, collected and analyzed by overseers they are accountable to but who themselves often face little in the way of accountability.

(featured image via Pixabay)

What’s Next For The Unemployed

There’s a reality being left unsaid in our current conversation.

Over the course of the last several weeks there have been countless stories and reports on the continued impasse in Washington, D.C. over how and to what extent to continue the federal unemployment assistance program. Originally set at $600, this program gave those who had lost their jobs in some form or another because of the Covid-19 pandemic that amount on top of their standard state unemployment benefits.

It didn’t take long for the effects to be felt after that additional assistance expired at the end of July, with consumer spending already falling and more. Pres. Trump has floated a few ideas that he can’t actually enact which would reduce those benefits to either $300 or $400 a week, but under those plans (such as they are), those benefits would only last a few weeks, not offering much long-lasting upside for those who still find themselves out of work and without much hope or choice as to what’s going to come next.

One of Republicans’ favorite pushbacks against continuing to offer these enhanced benefits, and part of the reason why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has sent everyone home and said a deal may not be reached until September, is the claim that government shouldn’t pay people more to stay home than they would be making on the job.

McConnell and others, to use a phrase in the popular vernacular at the moment, are telling on themselves with this claim in two ways.

First, it betrays a basic misunderstanding of how unemployment works. Namely, that to continue collecting assistance at all you have to A) be actively looking for work, and B) not refuse any legitimate job offer. It’s not as if people can just keep refusing offers and keep enjoying the unemployment check that arrives each week. McConnell et al either know this and are intentionally misrepresenting the issue, or they don’t and should therefore be removed from a position of dictating the program’s future.

Second, it contains two important underlying facts.

  1. That the wages they were making before being laid off were, in many cases, barely enough to live on and support their families or households with. In other cases it wasn’t enough at all.
  2. That unemployment benefits without that additional federal boost still aren’t enough to live on and support families with.

If either of these weren’t true, you wouldn’t have nearly the level of stories about how people are days, weeks or months away from losing their homes, were having to ration medication, needing to choose between paying for housing or paying for food or make other horrible decisions.

Millions of Americans are still furloughed and unsure when they’ll be able to return to their jobs or if they need to be looking for new jobs, assuming there are any out there to be had as most of the “new” positions in recent weeks are simply companies calling workers back, not creating anything on top of that.

While there are certainly necessary conversations that need to happen now, not in September, about the immediate issue of enhanced unemployment assistance. But at the same time, we need to discuss those two issues, that the systems in place aren’t sufficient to do what they *should* do, even if they are unfortunately doing what they’re *designed* to do.

This is an opportunity to have just that kind of conversation.

Making a Bad Situation Worse

Going in the wrong direction.

It’s nearly impossible to explain or quantify how bad the job situation in the United States is at the moment. As of this writing, the country has seen 20 straight weeks of more than 1 million new unemployment claims, a number that’s almost certainly low given it fails to count underemployment. Businesses that lacked the resources to make it through the unprecedented hardships of the last few months continue to close, meaning there are fewer potential employers to get people back to work.

The stage is therefore set for an even more massive disruption of the U.S. economy and, along with it, people’s livelihoods, health, housing and more. Instead of working to alleviate the problems and minimize the negative impact of those disruptions, current efforts and other thinking seems to be working to make the situation even worse not just now but in the long run as well.

Do You Want a Job Or Benefits?

In the early days of the pandemic closures there was substantial conversation about how the lack of universal healthcare in the U.S. was harmful to workers specifically and the population in general. Because healthcare insurance is tied in most cases to employment status, those being laid off as their places of work closed down were left without that insurance, right at the outset of a public health crisis.

Of course that situation wasn’t new to workers whose employers didn’t offer coverage to part-time employees or the increasing number of individuals primarily employed through the contingent economy, made up of freelancers, gig workers and independent contractors.

Those closures, at least for many white collar workers, meant a sudden change to a work from home reality, one that has necessitated a lot of unexpected priority balancing by all parties. Many workers have found working from home is better than anticipated, while others are finally able to enjoy a situation they might have long lobbied for only to be rebuffed or told the company didn’t have a work from home policy.

At least one op-ed writer wants to make the uncertainty that a lack of insurance coverage presents even more of a feature than it already is while also keeping people from getting too comfortable in their work-from-home situations. He argues that potential new hires be presented with a choice:

  1. Accept a staff position with benefits, but only if you agree to come in to the office
  2. If you are unwilling (or unable) to come to the office, accept a contract position that comes without benefits

In the current reality, that means someone can only get insurance coverage if they agree to put themselves in multiple environments (including commuting) where they are more likely to either get sick themselves or get someone they live with sick. Considering a sick employee is more expensive to the company providing that insurance, the logic is faulty to say the least. Not only that, but it moves us societally into a more untenable position, where more people lack affordable access to healthcare and so make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t, endangering themselves as well as others unnecessarily.

You Are No Longer A Hero

Another positive move taken by companies in the heady days of mid-March was the implementation of many, particularly retailers, of extra pay for workers who found their usual hours cut short because of reduced business hours, a fear of coming in and contracting Covid-19 or other factors. This “hero pay” was touted in many press releases and social media posts and undoubtedly helped a good percentage of those workers continue to make ends meet during difficult times.

It turned out, though, that there was an expiration date attached, one that came around when businesses started reopening and reestablishing normal operations.

Such a milestone is understandable to some extent. The logic is that if normal hours and shifts are available, someone choosing not to take advantage of them is their choice and not the fault of the company.

Of course that overlooks individual situations where someone might not want to return because they live with a medically fragile child, spouse, parent or other member of their house, or that they themselves are at increased risk because of the virus. Or perhaps while their job has returned, their spouse’s or partner’s hasn’t and they’re still feeling the impact of the pandemic on their finances.

Back To Work Or The Beatings Continue

For those who were laid off, the situation is even more dire as Republican obstructionism has resulted in the recent expiration of both the $600 additional assistance on top of state benefits and protections against foreclosures and evictions. For a country that spent much of March and April patting itself on the back for supporting “essential” workers, all of this highlights that it was all lip service, and that we don’t actually value anyone unless they can prove their worth through the size of their paycheck.

Calls to reinstate that additional payment have focused on the potential economic impact of continuing to do nothing, which is only slightly worse than proposals to cut it to $200/week or cap state payments at 70% of someone’s pre-layoff salary.

The argument offered in support of those revised plans is that some people might have been making more in unemployment benefits than they were when they were working, a point of view that seems rooted in the idea that the free market is the only true authority and must be treated as gospel without question. Notably, it’s very different than arguing people don’t need the additional payment to help get through hard times, something that’s much harder to support, mostly because it’s demonstrably untrue. And the frequent refrain that offering too much in unemployment assistance keeps people from going back to work is laughable because such a position requires a profound misunderstanding of how unemployment insurance works, including that receiving it is contingent on A) continuing to look for work and B) not refusing a legitimate job offer.

At the same time, companies that received massive government aid packages continued to lay off workers and offer investor dividends, and CEOs didn’t follow through on flashy promises to reduce their own salaries. Once again, socialism is good for corporations but not for individuals while executives benefit from a lack of accountability as long as they deliver for shareholders. Oh and don’t worry, despite the fact that nurses and doctors still tell stories about lacking PPE and running out of beds the healthcare industry is posting record profits. Other employers used this

Meanwhile extending unemployment insurance is a good thing in almost all cases, as those who are able to wait a bit longer are more likely to find a job that matches their skills and experiences and has a higher salary.

The job market is not overflowing with optimism at the moment. Yes, the most recent report was slightly better than expected, but new closures because of a resurgence in Covid-19 infections across the country means the recovery will continue to be slow to the point of being non-existent, especially for those most at risk of job insecurity. A recent survey found nearly half of those who have been furloughed in recent months expect to lose their jobs entirely in the near future as worker recall slows significantly. The number of those who have been out of work for 15 weeks or more has doubled in recent weeks, providing a clear indication of the new reality.

A recent study showing how those at the low end of the economic spectrum were spending their stimulus money while those who were better off were saving it should offer a clear picture of how tenuous the former group’s position is, as they *had* to keep buying goods in order to live, while the latter simply chose not to because they could.

No Clear Plan On When Things Will Improve

On top of all of the issues above, there remains a massive and suffocating sense of uncertainty lingering over everything.

Individuals don’t know where they’ll be working or what other realities will impact their work environments. 82 percent of companies in a recent survey say they intend to reopen their offices within the next 18 months, but that means anytime between now and the end of 2021.

The timing of those reopenings is not only impacted by the changes each company has made in the physical space but also by the wide availability of a Covid-19 vaccine, something that may still be a year or more off.

Many workers have found working from home is better than anticipated, while others are finally able to enjoy a situation they might have long lobbied for only to be rebuffed or told the company didn’t have a work from home policy. Whatever the case, at least 10 percent of workers could remain fully remote even after the pandemic subsides, a number that is likely low.

Parents don’t know what their kids will be doing. The issue of whether schools should reopen and in what manner has been hotly debated in recent weeks. CDC officials and others have made the case that schools have to open because they provide necessary meals and health services to low-income students. (Note: This ignores the fact that we’ve completely failed to build up any other social safety net and have completely relied on schools delivering these services instead of just focusing on education. But that’s a topic for another time.) Others have focused on the potential negative effects on GDP of keeping schools closed.

When people were first sent home in March many found that balancing work responsibilities with parenting duties – including being surrogate educational aids – was difficult at best, especially if their kids were young. The hope at the time was that the worst of the health crisis would be over by August, though, and things would return to more or less normal.

That hasn’t panned out, as infection testing is still largely delayed to the extent that getting results comes too late to reduce further spread. Schools across the country have enacted a mish-mash of plans, many of which have changed drastically in recent weeks amid the aforementioned spike in infections. That means now people, especially women, have to figure out how to adjust their own schedule to support their children. The problem has been made worse by the radicalization of policy proposals, which would tie Federal aid to schools to their being fully open for in-person classes.

Where Do We Go From Here?

There are, of course, no easy solutions that can be quickly implemented, though “wear a mask” seems close to that mark. Any attempt to write specific proposals would likely be futile, but that doesn’t mean we can’t consider a few core principles under which those proposals might be considered.

  1. We will not sacrifice children at the altar of capitalism. Don’t ask me or anyone to put their child in harm’s way so your bottom line can grow. I understand that’s exactly what happens in the gun control debate, but that’s still wrong.
  2. Support people, not companies. When individuals have money they spend it, which keeps the economy going. When corporations have cash they hoard it. Trickle down economics isn’t a thing and never has been.
  3. That schools are for teaching, not social services. Imagine what a school system could accomplish and how well the kids in it could learn if they came to school well-fed and otherwise secure.
  4. People can work from wherever they darn well like. Requiring people to be within a certain geographic area to get a job has little to do with skillset and more to do with morbound traditions. Fix your system and allow for remote work.
  5. That work-life balance often involves trade-offs in either direction. Sometimes people just have to take care of their families. It doesn’t make them irresponsible or uncommitted, it just means they’re human beings. As long as they get their work done, there should be no problem.

This is an excellent time to agree to these basic ideals, along with others, and rebuild many of these established systems from scratch with a new, more inclusive and understanding mindset in play.

Rethinking Office Perks

People’s needs and expectations are – and are going to be – very different.

You’d be hard-pressed to offer a single, cohesive and comprehensive definition of “office perks.” In practice that term can be used to describe anything from free coffee to ping-pong tables in the break room to artisan baguettes served in the commissary.

One thing they all have in common is that they all more or less require employees to be in an office in order to take advantage of them.

In some companies, especially those in Silicon Valley, Wall Street and other areas of concentrated wealth, those perks were sometimes lavish. Even the most basic perks, though, sometimes became important in the lives of the workers. Free snacks in the kitchen, a benefit offered by an increasing number of companies, can be important to some people because it means one less meal they have to plan and shop for, the money then being saved for housing, education or other needs.

Since the widespread Covid-19 office shutdowns, some 62 percent of Americans who can do so have worked or are working from home, a massive increase over even just a few months prior. That’s meant massive changes as people are drinking more coffee and eating more food at home along with many other new or shifted behaviors.

Office – or rather “employment: – perks are going to have change to adapt to this new reality if companies want to continue using them as a means to both attract new employees and retain those they currently have.

No single issue offers a more clear example of this reality than that of childcare.

As of right now we’re looking at what can realistically be called a second phase of the first wave of Covid-19 cases around the country. New cases are at their highest level, more than what was seen in March or April. Many states are stopping or rolling back plans to reopen their economies. Still, the essential workers who have been clocking in every day regardless of the situation are going to continue to do so. Those workers are often paid less and don’t have the luxury of working from home. Nor are they likely to enjoy the kind of perks those in other professions are able to take advantage of.

Regardless of what kind of job someone has, the odds are good childcare isn’t among the perks offered. That includes not being free to take time off when they need to as well as not have access to subsidized daycare options. The picture gets worse when you consider many daycare facilities have closed during the pandemic and, like schools, the chances of their reopening in the fall seem sketchy at best given the high infection rates being reported around the country.

Parents may have been able to patch something together for a few months, but many now face the very real possibility this will be their new reality for at least the rest of this calendar year if not the entirety of the 2020/21 school year. That or whatever professional childcare facilities are open will be prohibitively expensive given the increased cleaning procedures that need to be followed along with other challenges that will drive up costs.

If a child at home will need full-time care, that responsibility will in most cases fall on the mother, leading to a widening of the gender gap in the workforce.

Companies who are serious about policies that benefit all workers – as well as society as a whole – could play a major role in turning that around by reevaluating the kinds of non-payroll benefits they offer.

Here’s a good rule of thumb. If a perk looks like anything on the list below, get rid of it immediately and put all of that money into helping your employees afford childcare:

  • It’s something people need to be in the office to enjoy.
  • Any part of it looks like something you’d see in SkyMall.
  • It’s something that looks like it originated in a college dorm, and not in a good way.
  • It was recommended in a TED Talk.

That may seem a bit sarcastic, but it’s not.

Aside from all that, it’s vitally important companies decide now whether they will support employees or hang them out to dry. In addition to childcare reimbursements and allowances, consideration has to be given to how workers are balancing their lives. Expectations should be reset so that workers who need to shift their hours to earlier or later in the day, or split up their day a bit more, are made to feel they can do so without fear of being judged poorly for doing so.

This is a world of unknowns we are all operating in. Everyone is making it up as they go along, and companies can do their part by simply not punishing parents scrambling to make childcare and education work.

The Workplace May Change, But By Whom?

The same people who created a broken system are being asked to imagine a new one.

We are in the middle of a massive, unplanned experiment. While 30-some states this week are starting down their plans to “reopen” their economic engines, those plans seem to be mostly about retail and manufacturing operations. White collar, information-economy businesses may have closed their offices but the staff (at least in part) continued to work, albeit from home, during the stay-at-home orders put in place by governors and other lawmakers.

Regardless of what kind of business is being discussed, the question of late has been How will the experiences of the Covid-19 outbreak and the measures taken as a result influence the future of the workplace?

For those in retail, the answer seems to be “wear masks and wash your hands” while companies may take this opportunity to explore automation that would human-proof their businesses from future disruptions.

For those in manufacturing, especially the meat-packing employees designated as essential, the answer seems to be “not much will change” while groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce want safety guidelines to be optional and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants companies to be shielded from liability when workers get sick.

For those working office jobs, the future remains unclear at the moment.

According to a recent MIT report, anyone who *can* work from home is currently doing so. Currently that stands at about 34 percent, a drastic increase from the ~4 percent who were doing so this time last year. And a number of studies like this have begun showing a large percentage of people would now like to continue this work from home situation even after their offices reopen. They don’t miss their commutes and are valuing how that time is better spent sleeping, with family, getting more work done or simply relaxing in a way they couldn’t previously.

There are, to be sure, some who miss the office environment. For others, though, it’s important to remember that offices are seen as toxic, where they have to put on false personas in order to get along with coworkers, try to work through the harassment and otherwise experience numerous distractions that keep them from focusing on the task at hand, impacting not only their workplace productivity but also their mental and emotional health.

As we inch (however wisely) toward a situation where more and more offices say they’re reopening, the kinds of changes they have in mind are becoming clear. Many stories have mentioned employers may stagger working hours to avoid clustering people and spread out desks in order to prevent the spread of illness along with requiring temperature checks at the front door, masks to be worn and so on. Many have speculated this will mean the end of the open office concept, but it’s hard to figure out how that would work given the desire to increase the physical distance between people, not just put up a faux wall between them.

What seems to be missing from the conversation are more substantive, systemic changes that might make situations like this less disruptive to everyone involved. Specifically these four things:

Actual remote work policies

A 2018 study by Upwork showed only half the companies that had remote workers actually had a formal policy addressing the practice, and recent history showed lots of firms scrambling to adjust to a fully or mostly-offsite workforce. If firms were to put in the legwork now and not only craft policies but get their technical house in order to support such efforts it would increase people’s ability to do so dramatically. Those policies need to address at least these three points:

  1. Flexible schedules: Not everyone can work from 8am to 5pm every day, nor should they be expected to. Most everyone has other concerns, be they childcare, looking in on other family, doctor’s visits, grocery store runs or what have you. Often these need to be attended to during what are called “business hours” and that’s alright. Let people do their work when they can or are able to.
  2. Communication channels: Sure, you can setup Slack or Zoom or Google Meet or any of the other options that have come into being that are additive to email and phone, but you also have to specify how and when they’re to be used. All have the potential to be abused, and the expectation to be in constant contact can be burdensome on many people.
  3. Technical connections: Make sure everyone knows how to access shared networks, how to keep in touch with team members and more. These arrangements need to be especially careful when addressing whatever digital divide might exist at home and ensure that everyone is able to participate in a remote work arrangement, not just those at the top of the economic ladder.

Real sick time benefits

It would be great to say this goes without saying, but apparently that’s not the case. Offering employees of all kinds – full- and part-time, hourly or salaried – actual health benefits that include a good amount of available sick time would be a big help in avoiding the kind of seismic disruption currently being experienced. Those with sick days have more freedom to stay home when they’re not feeling well and therefore are less likely to spread whatever they have to their coworkers. Stay home, get better, come back to work when you’re well. It’s not hard.

Focus on accomplishment, not face time

Within many corporate cultures there’s an emphasis on people being seen by higher ups, the feeling being that mere visibility is a proxy for productivity. But that kind of presentism can cause more problems than it solves not only as it relates to people coming to work sick, but it can disproportionately favor those who choose to come into the office over those who work from home or elsewhere. Employees that come into the office are frequently given more promotions, are rated more highly on performance reviews, get more prestigious assignments and other favorable treatment.

Rewarding employees for the work they get done, not the amount of time they were physically present in an arbitrary office would be a welcome change.

It All Comes Down to Productivity

Productivity rates go up when people have the flexibility to more easily mesh their work lives with their personal lives, as well as when they don’t have to waste hours each day on commuting.

Productivity rates go up when people feel free to take time off when they’re sick, recovering faster when they don’t have to also worry about logging in to work much less coming into the office.

Productivity rates go up when they feel they are being rewarded based on their achievements and skills as opposed to their physical proximity to the boss’s office.

What’s been disappointing over the last months is that while there have been discussions of open office plans disappearing and plexiglass shields being installed between desks there have been precious few about the topics listed above. That means we’re not getting into the real issues, focusing instead of superficial changes that amount to little.

It’s a result of the same people who created the current system being in charge of designing what might be coming in the near future. Whether it’s a disconnect of priorities, a lack of understanding as to what the real issues are or a vested interest in maintaining the status quo it’s hard to know. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem that substantive changes are coming to the workplace, even in the aftermath of a society-changing event like the one we’re in the middle of living through.

Do What You Must Without Shame

Society’s expectations are kind of misaligned.

There are millions of people who have been laid off in the last few weeks. The job market they’re entering is even more uncertain than the one I faced when I was let go in the middle of 2016, with far fewer options available. If they had retail/service industry jobs, there aren’t available positions because it’s those very companies that have laid off or furloughed workers. If they had other positions, not only are similar companies not hiring but they also don’t have the option of taking a part-time retail job to try and make ends meet.

In more normal times, those who find themselves out of work are sent a message from various sources: Do what you need to both for the sake of yourself/your family and because working *anywhere* is preferable to having a gap on your resume.

It’s not bad advice, especially for those like me who have lost “white collar” jobs. Taking a “blue collar” job might not be ideal, but it keeps some money coming in, keeps you active and out of the house and more. No doubt it can be difficult, both physically and emotionally, to adjust to a drastically different work environment, learn new skills and so on. But, as I found over the three years I’ve been working at Starbucks, it can also be incredibly eye-opening and even rewarding.

A problem emerges when that advice stands in contrast to what you’re told is preferable from a job hunting perspective.

That’s the situation I found myself in several months ago when I received an email from a recruiter asking me about a position she thought I might be a fit for. I responded saying “Yeah, sounds interesting, let’s talk more about this.”

At that point she made an unexpected request: That I remove from LinkedIn my time at Starbucks. Having it there, she said, sent the wrong message and would hurt my chances of getting this job.

I considered it. The request wasn’t difficult. I just needed to click a couple buttons and done, my path might be cleared. Then I started thinking about what that job entry represents.

That I did what I needed to do to continue supporting my family.

 

That I was willing to leave my comfort zone and let go of my pride.

 

That I was a self-starter who took action instead of falling into depression.

 

That I was flexible in my thinking and could adjust to new situations and realities.

 

That I had gained significant customer support experience that was applicable just about anywhere.

 

That I had gained valuable leadership skills that were applicable just about anywhere.

 

That I had worked with younger people and learned a lot from them.

 

That I could think on my feet and make spur-of-the-moment decisions in high-pressure circumstances.

 

That I had gained valuable management experience that was applicable just about anywhere.

Why, I asked myself, would I want to erase all of that? Was it really better to give the appearance of having done nothing for those years and months than to show I had embraced reality and moved forward?

With such huge numbers of people about to reenter the job market – not to mention those who are dropping out for various reasons – we all need to consider just where our priorities lie and what attributes will be seen as attractive when considering someone for an open position.

Someone who makes the hard decision that underemployed but still working is better than unemployed completely is someone worth seriously evaluating. They shouldn’t be made to feel as if the experience they gained or the reality of their situation is shameful and must be hidden from public view lest they be judged and found wanting.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” we’re told, frequently by people who are in charge of handing out what they claim is a limited quantity of bootstraps and who will look down on anyone who does so.

Anyone and everyone who is able to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and continue to function despite setbacks should be praised and valued, not viewed as tainted by their experiences.

Employees Working From Home? Time to Invade Their Privacy

Employees can’t be trusted to be productive without monitoring.

With vast swaths of the country in lockdown as a protective measure to fight the Covid-19 outbreak, a much higher percentage of employees working from home, at least those who aren’t in the retail/manufacturing/gig/service industries who are unable to do so. That increase has also led to more and more employers buying and requiring workers to install monitoring software that tracks their digital activity.

The Ad Age story quotes executives who have taken this step because they’re concerned employees are “taking advantage” of their new working situations, fearful it seems that working from home will lead to all kinds of distractions.

These fears are generally focused on one or more of three areas:

  1. That employees are slacking off, essentially “stealing” productivity from the company
  2. That employees are simply being inefficient
  3. That employees are actively looking for other jobs any moment they’re not being watched

Let’s address each one in turn.

Get to Work, Slacker

Many of the main points in this argument were debunked by me two years ago, but the short version is this: It’s a false premise to assume that 1) time is inherently the employer’s, and 2) that it’s reasonable to ask workers to completely put aside their personal lives during work hours.

If someone needs to take a personal call, go for a walk around the block or otherwise stare off into space for a hot minute, that’s *good* for their productivity, not bad. Taking a break improves focus, clears out thinking and has many other benefits. All of those are effectively destroyed by keeping someone chained to their desk and always available.

That’s all true in general but it’s even more true in the current situation. So many people are working from home for the first time and, as an added wrinkle, also might have their young kids at home with them. That means not only are they adjusting to a brand new work environment and setup, but they have to occasionally help with e-learning setups, organize activities to keep young children occupied, answer random questions posed by toddler and even break up the kind of sibling scuffles that frequently pop up.

Monitoring software doesn’t allow for the kind of situational considerations that are part of the human experience.

Finding the Inefficiencies

This is, of the three, the most reasonable. Anything that can help identify where processes are broken or inefficient is a good thing.

The problem, then, is that there are much better ways to achieve this goal than through installing monitoring software on employee machines. Employers could, for example:

  • Listen to their workers when they offer suggestions
  • ….

Nope, that’s the big one. Listen to workers. If someone says it’s a problem that they have to get three unrelated department heads to sign off on a simple request form, delaying the timeline by days or weeks, take what they say seriously. If they tell you that having 28 people try to collaborate on a document is a path solely to insanity, take what they say seriously.

There’s a role for software to play in this, but it’s very limited, mostly because the “ideal” path and the “most efficient” path are rarely the same in an organization. Companies are weighed down by decisions made based on executive preference or lowest bidding vendor, so using those to mark out what an efficient process should look like is objectively an exercise in futility.

Testing the Waters

One of the examples of this situation identified in the story is software that sends up a flag when someone takes a certain combination of actions such as downloading client lists and printing a resume. That one-two-punch indicates a worker might be a flight risk and appropriate action can be taken.

OK, sure, but it overlooks the reality that IF SOMEONE IS LOOKING FOR OTHER WORK YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH EMPLOYEE RETENTION AND SATISFACTION.

Companies should probably have other mechanisms to identify these kinds of individuals, including plugged-in managers and supervisors as well as a culture that encourages genuine feedback.

It is, at its core, an employee engagement problem. It’s problematic, then, that only 34 percent of employees feel engaged at work, especially when you consider how closely engagement is tied to productivity.

Worrying about employees when they’re actively printing resumes is too late. You need to worry about employees from the moment they walk in the door, making sure that not only are they being compensated adequately but that they are feeling some level of satisfaction from their work, feel they are able to bring their best ideas to their projects and more.

That really is the crux of the situation: Activity/productivity monitoring software is a quick but inadequate solution to problems that could be handled and solved in much more constructive ways. As with most corporate wellness programs, they are one-size-fits-all packages being sold to purchasing managers who can more easily get these costs approved than push through comprehensive and meaningful reforms.

More than that, it’s just not cool to spy on your workers. That’s true in physical environments where cameras, digital keycards and other tools are used, and it’s true in the digital world as well.

There’s No Such Thing As “Hidden” Talents

“Oh, I didn’t know you could do that!”

It’s a sentiment that’s heard – or at least felt – a lot in the business world. Manager and supervisors hire someone for a specific role and then are surprised to find that person is capable of other things. Recently Fast Company shared some tips on how managers can cultivate and take advantage of the “hidden” talents of employees.

The concept of “hidden” talents is at best misplaced and at worst extremely problematic.

Starting Off On the Wrong Foot

Problems in utilizing an employee’s full range of skills and abilities creep in almost immediately, beginning with the hiring process. Job descriptions are very specific, laying out the *exact* skills needed and the *exact* roles that person will be expected to fill and perform. If you don’t check all the boxes, you won’t get the job. If you check all those boxes in addition to a few others that aren’t listed, you won’t get the job.

Once an individual gets the job, they are kept in the box they arrived in. Assignments are made along the lines laid out by the skills that person is understood to have. Not only is the problem being addressed specified but so are both the goal and the steps that should be taken to get from Point A to Point B.

Lack of Creative Freedom

The reason for that overly-prescriptive direction is a mix of A) bias based on previous experience from managers and supervisors, and B) restrictions rooted in software or other resource availability. Basically workers are being hemmed in by what software is officially approved and a sense that what other people did is the best predictor of what should be done in the future.

This despite the reality that original solutions can offer unexpected benefits. It might be cheaper, more efficient or simply more elegant and easy to replicate. It might provide a more substantial solution to the issue than the dictated process. Any deviation from the mapped out road is frequently met with disapproval and even reprimand, a behavior to be corrected in order to make sure the employee sticks to the company line in the future.

Hidden Talents = Bad Management

Whatever the rationale espoused by higher ups in an organization, putting guardrails on employees in any regard is a waste of resources.

Imagine mining for a precious resource, but the current tools only extract 60 percent of what’s available. Everyone hired has to use the same tools and comes to understand the same limitation, but no one is allowed to bring it up or suggest alternatives, even if their previous experience gives them important insights on how to get more – or all – of the available mineral. Any other tools that might do a more complete job aren’t available because that’s not who the current management team has selected as an approved vendor.

While there’s a decent case to be made that people don’t need to bring their “whole selves” to the workplace, it’s irresponsible for companies to not give people the freedom to not only offer suggestions based on their unique set of experiences, personality and insights but allow them to act on those without fear of being given a poor performance review.

Someone with kids may see a solution that someone without them won’t, even if the problem isn’t about kids or anything related to them. Sci-fi fans might have suggestions based on their experience at conventions or online fan groups. The examples go on forever.

It’s irresponsible to not allow people to bring the sum total of their experiences and knowledge to work. You never know where a great idea will come from, but if a manager has created an environment where individualism is left at the front door and people are reminded over and over again to not stand out but stick to the script they are therefore limiting the number of possible solutions that will be presented.

Managers who are surprised when they discover someone who works for them has a “hidden” talent are guilty of not utilizing that person’s full potential from the outset. Either their job responsibilities are too narrow, their mandate too restrictive or their work not nearly challenging enough to engage them more fully.

It shouldn’t come out of left field that someone is a great writer, has insights into a particular field/community or has something more to bring to the table beyond the bullet points on their initial job description. If it does, you need to reevaluate how you’re managing the people under you and consider how they can be given more freedom to be themselves.