The Establishment Would Like to Finally Win Now

We’re in the Endgame now.

If you’re someone who pays even a little attention to the world of media and media criticism, you’ve probably already read The Letter.

Titled “A Letter On Justice and Debate” and published in Harper’s, the letter is signed by scores of well-known creatives and writers, and essentially argues the world has become unfair. It’s too easy for an angry mob of politically correct individuals, the letter states, to “cancel” well-meaning writers, editors and others simply because they espouse a belief that runs contrary to current conventional wisdom.

Many others have pointed out the various problems with the points put forward in the letter, including that it is filled with straw man arguments, poorly-constructed logic and, most importantly, a desire by the signatories to no longer be subject to any sort of accountability by the public. It holds free speech as the ultimate positive, and sees any criticism as an attempt to stifle that, unaware that seeking to be free from critique or consequence is itself a stifling of others’ speech.

The Letter did not appear out of the blue. It comes after a number of editors and writers have resigned or been let go for allowing editorials that have implicitly or explicitly sanctioned or encouraged violent crackdowns on peaceful protestors, excused or approved of racist, anti-Semetic or anti-LGBTQ policies and ideologies and more, all of which have been roundly and rightly criticized. The targets of these critiques have mostly been employed at large, national publications or are internationally-famous brand names.

Even discounting these recent episodes, the push to keep legacy media free from the voices of the people is one that dates back at least 20 years and highlights one of the key issues dividing “mainstream” media and the “new” media that emerged at the beginning of the millennium.

Big newspapers and magazines were slow in the early days to adopt new online features such as comments that were native to and pervasive on blogs. When they did it was something they struggled with, unsure of who was responsible for moderation (the writer or a web manager?), what those moderation policies should be and how such a feature fit into their overall brand identity. People could always write letters to the editor, but those were filtered before publication where comments were often public immediately.

Some found sustainable ways to allow for public commenting in-house but many either shut down the comments feature completely, restricted usage to people who registered or, later on, outsourced it to Facebook. But the issue remained that being exposed to the public’s feedback was something those in charge were uncomfortable with and didn’t know how to react to.

That problem has only become more pervasive as on-domain comments gave way to off-site social media, a shift that decentralized the conversation and therefore control. Now people could say whatever they wanted on their own platforms and there was little the traditional gatekeepers could do about it.

Being subject to this kind of unfiltered response system is new and, quite frankly, disconcerting to many of these folks. They see themselves in the business of opinion-making and hold the unfortunate belief that any opinion is worth discussing because without it they would be unable to fill their column inches. “We’re just asking questions” is a common response when someone receives push back, a tactic used to free themselves from any responsibility for their actions.

Not all opinions are worth discussing, and saying that bringing fringe or dangerous beliefs to the forefront in the interest of public awareness belies the real damage that action can do to vulnerable populations.

Most importantly, being subject to feedback – even negative feedback – is not the same as being denied First Amendment rights. The same is true when someone loses their vaunted position as a professional editorialist at a major newspaper. Their speech is not being denied, they are simply being told their opinions have been found to be objectionable and are no longer welcome at Publication X. They are still free to found another outlet or create their own if they so choose.

There is little room for such nuance or reality in this conversation, though. Those who have made careers of sharing their opinions frequently command salaries well above the journalists and reporters who have been laid off in cost-cutting measures taken by private equity or other profit-minded owners, opinions that are tolerated because they bring in more attention and traffic than hard news, even with those opinions are counter to the public good. They have been free from any sort of repercussions for those opinions for so long that any move in that direction immediately feels like oppression.

It’s a journey we’ve been on for 20 years now. It started when online comments were too hard to manage. Now the tactic has shifted from “well remove comments from the site to” a struggle against “cancel culture” that benefits in many ways from being so hard to define it allows them to point to almost anything as an example of the problems they face.

Meanwhile important or relevant voices are actually silenced because they aren’t allowed to report on an issue they might be affected by. Or workers are punished by their employers for posting opinions on social media that run counter to that company’s interests. Or freelancers are rejected because they once dared to criticize the publication they are pitching.

Whatever the case, this feels like a move meant to finally bring the struggle between gatekeepers and gatebreakers to a conclusion. The new private equity and hedge fund owners of many media companies see this as a risk to their investment and will continue seeking ways to squash those risks. Free speech isn’t a goal but a threat.

Corporate Speak is Useful, Unless It Isn’t

There are lots of reasons to dislike jargon, and lots of reasons to use it.

Every industry has its own unique set of terminology. The same goes for every company, and often every department within a company. If you say “WINUS” to someone in Industry A, it’s likely going to mean something very different than when you say it to someone in Industry B. The result may be somewhere between confusion and actual problems, as the different definitions mean the two parties are literally speaking a different language.

It’s true that buzzwords and jargon are often annoying. And yes, it frequently devolves into “garbage language” that is overly simplistic and meaningless, but as with most things there are instances where such corporate, business-level terminology are useful and contribute positively to both productivity and culture just as there are times where it is, without doubt, the worst.

The Upsides

Words are, at their most basic level, simply a shared set of symbols we have agreed upon to convey different meanings. Just like a dollar bill represents some unit of value, the phrase “dollar bill” is how we’ve decided to share information about that physical object.

Many corporate or other work environments simply have their own sub-dialects, much like any region of the country or even city. A famous example is the usage of Coke, soda or pop in different locales to all mean the same thing: A sugary, carbonated drink, not necessarily the Coca-Cola brand.

These sub-dialects are in many cases extremely useful and aid in productivity. When someone says they need to go “check the T-8” it’s hoped most everyone understands they mean “the T-8B Hydro-bumper” or whatever the full name of the machine is. “T-8” has been developed informally as a shorthand because it saves a small amount of time and is easier to say while conveying the same general information.

Similarly, such jargon reduces the complexity of ideas within the community because everyone is assumed to be working from the same foundation of knowledge.

Imagine someone in an office saying “the index is up three indicators.” Such a declaration assumes the recipient understands what’s meant by “indicators” and has some context for how much of a change an increase of three is, as well as whether “up” is a positive or negative direction. There’s no need here to explain the taxonomy of each element of the sentence because there is, again, shared understanding and background, making communication more efficient.

Both of those help create a sense of community within the subculture. They are united in their mission and the language helps solidify that, creating a sense of being in this together.

Unfortunately, those same points too often are taken to such extremes in practice that they can become problems, leading us to

The Downsides

In the hands of some people, the kind of subculture-specific terminology that develops in a workplace has the potential to become a negative factor, one that creates more problems than it solves.

Instead of clarifying issues or ideas, specific jargon can obscure meaning and intent, using vague words and phrases that introduce uncertainty into the conversation and create confusion. This is particularly problematic when people from two subcultures are trying to communicate, and words that might be common between them actually have vastly different meanings in their unique contexts.

This is an issue even within a single environment because some people are no more careful about their use of jargon and buzzwords than they are any other form of language. An individual who throws around in-house terminology without a full understanding of what that means is creating problems and hampering other people’s productivity as they have to spend extra time deciphering or decoding what they’ve been told.

Sometimes the same kind of individual is trying to use that language to disguise their own shortcomings or issues. Throwing around a bunch of buzzwords – whether it’s from a common in-house taxonomy or from terms they’ve picked up in the press or elsewhere – makes them appear more informed and plugged-in than they really are. This becomes an especially serious issue because it can create such a sense of frustration in others, particularly if the offender is in a position of power or management, that overall job satisfaction takes a significant hit.

Finally, the very community it has the potential to create can quickly turn insular, using that shared language as exclusionary and divisive instead of unifying. Someone joining the community as a new hire can quickly feel they aren’t smart enough to be there or that they are too far outside the walls when they are bombarded by terminology they don’t immediately understand. This is just one of a plethora of issues that plague the new employee onboarding process, but is no less serious.

A Challenge Offered

Certainly (almost) no one has it in mind to actively engage in the kinds of negative actions or operate with problematic intent when it comes to using language in the workplace. Everyone (almost) wants to be understood and help others understand.

For writers in work environments, falling into the kinds of traps mentioned above is especially dangerous. We need to produce material that can be easily comprehended and absorbed by the intended audience, whatever their experience level and exposure. And in reality sometimes that’s easier said than done. Writing an email or report recap may not offer many opportunities to use confusing, jargon-filled terminology, but writing a technical document or how-to guide might be more difficult waters to navigate.

So here’s a challenge for you, one I’m in the midst of myself: Spend an hour writing on a piece of paper the most common insider jargon and terminology in your office or workplace. Don’t worry about specific product or tool names as those don’t count, but focus on the ones meant to convey ideas or messages.

Once you have your list, keep it by you, either in your pocket or next to your keyboard on your desk. Before you submit that document, send that email or finish that presentation, run a “Find” search and look for those words. Then ask yourself these questions:

  • How much of what you’ve produced is simply jargon?
  • Is that jargon being used correctly, or are you throwing it in just to show off?
  • Do *you* understand all of that jargon?
  • Are all the recipients or the intended audience going to understand all that?
  • What simpler, less unique words or phrases can be used instead that communicate the same ideas?

It’s not that specific jargon like that isn’t sometimes useful or important. It’s just that you have to be sure it’s being used effectively and correctly for all involved, otherwise you’re contributing to chaos, not aiding productivity in its usage.

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.

A Noodle-Centric Next Chapter

Some personal news.

Throughout the last nearly four years, my job situation has been..fluid. There’s been freelance work, contract work, retail work and just about everything else you can imagine. I’ve managed social media programs, written white papers, edited email newsletters and slung more than a few lattes over that time.

Now it’s time for the next thing.

Back in February I started doing part-time contract work for GoNoodle, a children’s entertainment company. Now I’m happy to say I’ve accepted an offer to become that company’s full-time Manager, Content Programming.

My short time already at GoNoodle has been wonderful. I’ve met some smart people who have accepted me with open arms, even as I ask “OK, but why?” several dozen times a day. They’ve welcomed my input and experience and put up my Slack GIFs.


So what will I be doing in this role?

  • Deciding which content is published to the GoNoodle homepages
  • Testing various theories and hypotheses regarding what makes content popular
  • Organizing existing content and participating in planning new material
  • Managing the priorities of other departments and putting them all in the content funnel

And, of course, showing off my Jordan-strong Slack GIF game.

One of the things that attracted me to GoNoodle was a desire to do something a little more meaningful with my career. Thankfully I’ve rarely been asked or required by any employer or client to do anything directly contrary to my values, but a company whose goals are childhood fitness, compassion and empathy for your friends and neighbors as well as educational success was just what I had been looking for.

Another element that led me to say “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes” was actually the same thing that brought me into the company in the first place: The chance to work with Jason James again.

Jason was my primary day-to-day contact when I was at Voce and he was at DC Entertainment from late 2011 to about the end of 2015, before he moved on to other opportunities. He and I, along with the rest of the Voce team, quickly found we shared sensibilities and perspectives, challenging while also completely supporting each other. Working with him was a blast.

So when I returned his out-of-the-blue call and he explained how he had recently joined GoNoodle and was looking for someone he trusted to come in and run the department he was overseeing, I couldn’t jump on board fast enough, especially after learning more about his mission.

You can read more about GoNoodle and its mission in this post from KC Estenson when he joined as the company’s new CEO in 2018. And here’s the story from earlier this year when Jason was brought on to head content strategy and programming.

This is obviously an unusual time, and being offered a full-time position in the midst of an economy-shattering pandemic was the furthest thing from my mind. I’m thankful for the opportunity and hope this will be the beginning of a long relationship with the company.

If You’re Not In the Obit, Eat Breakfast

With the passing of comedy legend Carl Reiner, it’s a good time to share this clip from several years ago. You can learn more about writing – in any medium – from this than any 10 books devoted to the subject. Namely: What you write has to work. You can’t throw something random out and hope it lands. It has to actually land.

Reiner’s credits are too numerous to count. From “The Show of Shows” to “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to The Jerk to scores of other shows and movies. It’s great that a new generation of filmgoers were able to see him glide in and out of scenes in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, adding humor and presence to everything he did, just like always.

Of course you can’t overlook his many many collaborations with Mel Brooks, with whom he had the kind of chemistry you usually only find in research labs.

Whatever it is he was doing, it all came down to the writing.

I’m Done With These Uncertain Times

I need a break from all the heartfelt feelings and hypocrisy.

Watching television – primarily via Hulu – is becoming an emotional chore, one that needs to be prepared for and managed as if I were running a marathon or dealing with extended family. The reason? The ads.

Commercials, of course, are few people’s favorite part of the viewing experience. It’s possible to not be a big fan while also recognizing the role paid advertising plays in supporting media and such. But now these are becoming especially hard to stomach.

That’s mostly because of how the commercials have become exercises in seeing how emotional they can make audiences feel by referencing the current Covid-19 pandemic and how the business has adjusted operations as a result.

Inserting coronavirus-themed messaging into the commercials means viewers may not be getting the full effect of the break from pandemic-related news they so desperately need.

The phrases have become familiar and pervasive. “In these uncertain times…” or “As we go through this difficult period…” or “As we all try to make sense of the world around us…” Whatever the terminology, the message is largely the same: The company behind the ad has instituted contactless curbside pickup, or has given their workers a bottle of hand-sanitizer and some gloves so they can keep doing their jobs. All of it is an effort to make sure that the consumer feels doing business with them will be safe and that it treats their workers respectfully.

Sometimes these are funny. More often they’re somber and serious. In some cases they’re thinly-veiled recruitment ads.

Frequently they’re outright hypocritical. Retailers of various kinds running ads about how much they are protecting their warehouse and store workers while the news reports on how those companies are denying people sick leave and failing to track the outbreaks happening in their locations is a pretty remarkable thing to watch.

Whatever the case, there are more and more of them, now accounting for some 20 percent of TV advertising. That means nearly every commercial break now has at least one, often with a narrator speaking in soft, calming tones.

And while there are certainly more pressing matters in front of the world right now, I’m done with them. In fact, I reached my breaking point *because* there’s so much else going on. We all need to give our minds a rest from the constant deluge of terrible news and updates, and these reminders that society has been upended in substantial ways are exhausting.

Oddly, I haven’t seen many commercials talking about how we will get through these uncertain times following the police killing of George Floyd. I’m sure there’s a reason for that.

In the meantime, I could use fewer reminders that things are so uncertain. I know. Every time I go get gas and put on a mask, I remember. Every time I open Twitter, I remember. It’s just that the rationale behind them is so blatant and frequently obnoxious I can’t take much more.

It should be stated that there is one exception to this, the latest Arby’s commercial, which pokes some fun at the reality of the current situation.

A Moment of Privilege

There’s a story I’ve been telling for years. It goes something like this.

During college I went on a road trip with some friends. We decided to head to the Southwest, planning to visit Taos, NM, Boulder, CO and a few other spots. The trip lasted a bit over a week, during which we mostly camped with a couple stops in hotels to refresh.

Through it all we were driving the SUV of the parents of one of our number, taking turns through different legs of the trip. At the end we were all pretty much done, wiped out and ready to be home. Our last stop had been to Taos and the decision was made to just drive through the night, stopping for food and coffee but that’s about it.

It was the middle of the night and I was behind the wheel, driving east through the panhandle of Texas. The darkness made it easy for me to notice when the police car lights came on behind us.

As we waited for the officer to come talk to us, we all went through various stages of panic. We were unsure why we’d been pulled over, but we worried about the reaction of our parents to getting a ticket in Texas, what the actual problem was, and whether the strong smell of patchouli – purchased by a couple of us in Taos – would make the officer suspicious of what else we might have in the car.

I rolled down the window and the officer couldn’t have been nicer. He explained one of our taillights was out and asked where we were from, mentioning the IL plates on the back. I explained we were from the Chicago suburbs and were on our way home after a road trip, promising to get the light fixed as soon as possible.

The officer seemed to consider it when the light from the flashlight he was holding fell on my watch. He looked at me and said, “An Alfred E. Neuman watch? I ain’t seen one of them in a coon’s age.” With that he said we could go but that we should be sure to get the taillight fixed as soon as possible. He returned to his cruiser and we went on our way, returning safely home early the next evening.

I’ve been telling that story for over 20 years, usually as an amusing anecdote when I’m with a bunch of people and we’re trading crazy experiences.

Lately I’ve come to view that story a bit differently and am somewhat ashamed it took me this long to do so.

If we weren’t all white, I realize, that encounter could have gone very differently. One or more of us could have been arrested and thrown in jail. One or more of us could have been shot on the side of the highway.

Our – my – privilege undoubtedly saved my life that night. We were white, I had a funny watch on that the officer could relate to, and was believed when I said we would rectify the situation.

In the last several years there have been countless stories about men not so different myself that have had far more tragic outcomes. Pulled over for traffic violations, black women have died in prison. Black men have been shot for doing little more than jaywalking. They’ve been escorted from restaurants and arrested simply because they lingered longer than someone cared for.

Meanwhile, my friends and I got an amusing story to tell for 20+ years.

Anyone in the situation I was in shouldn’t feel fear for their lives. I didn’t because of who I am and how I’m treated as a result. So many who don’t have my privilege are treated so much worse, assumed to be violent criminals because of the color of their skin, the kind of car they’re driving or the neighborhood they happen to be in.

This will be the last time I tell the story above. I’m done pulling it out for amusement’s sake, at least until the day when everyone can feel as safe and protected as I did then, and continue to now.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020


Writing During Crisis

It’s alright to feel uninspired.

We’ve all heard it or seen it, likely many dozen times, in the last two months. Something something “Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during the Black Plague” or other sentiments along those lines. The point is that hey, if you have all this extra time because you’re not commuting or even aren’t working or whatever your situation is that you should use it as time to finish that passion project you’ve had sitting around for a while.

That might sound motivational and inspiring, that we can all use the time available to us to create a kind of masterpiece. And I don’t question the intent of those who share it.

It can come off as a crushing kind of pressure, though. Especially during periods like this where there is so much going on, so much to process and so much that we are having to create new paradigms for.

A couple days ago I finally put “The End” on a story I’d been working on and writing since August 2017. It seems like this is the kind of thing that should have been ticked off my To Do List almost immediately after stay-at-home orders were issued, especially given other things that were going on at the time.

That wasn’t the case.

It wasn’t that I was having problems cracking the rest of the story. I knew where I needed the characters to be at the end of things and how they needed to get from where I’d left off to that endpoint.

The issue was that I was just too difficult to put the words necessary to keep telling the story in order. And a good chunk of that was because [gestures broadly at the world around me].

For as difficult a process as writing often is, right now it seems particularly maddening and fraught with roadblocks. It requires the writer to disappear completely into the world they’re creating for some period of time. In many ways it requires the weight of the world to be lifted for a short while so that the fullness of what’s being created can be taken on and dealt with.

All of that is hard to do with so much happening at all hours of the day. And that’s alright.

Let yourself off the hook if you haven’t made progress on your novel, screenplay, comic or other project. Don’t sweat it if you’re not able to concentrate on your blog posts, email newsletters or other regular work.

You’ll get back to all of that, God-willing. For right now, though, there are so many other things demanding all of our attention, so it’s understandable that creating takes a back seat as we focus on a never ending string of updates and developments.

If you can, great. If you can’t, focus on what you *can* do, even if that’s just making it through the day intact.

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.