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.

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)

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.

When “Stay At Home” Orders Don’t Change Much

For a lot of people, the last two months have been a big change. Not being able to go out whenever you want, not being able to buy whatever was needed or wanted, not having the usual cacophony of activities that keep everyone bustling and hustling.

All of that was, understandably, a series of major disruptions for many, especially when you add on lots of kids being home while e-learning and parents working from home, many for the first time.

As stay-at-home orders rolled across the country in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more households felt the pain and uncertainty of all those paradigm shifts. Countless articles and guides were published by online media offering tips for navigating these tricky, unprecedented waters, and social media lit up with individuals reacting with frustration, exuberance, disbelief or any of a number of other emotional reactions.

For some, though, the change wasn’t that substantial.

Same Situation, Different Circumstances

Even if the work circumstances for a household didn’t change significantly – if they held some form of “essential” job – the world around them certainly had, in ways that by now should be familiar to everyone. Fewer stores and restaurants were open and if they were they were likely running reduced hours. Sports and other events were cancelled, public spaces like libraries and parks were closed or were restricting foot traffic.

Those who were used to constantly shuttling between events, appointments, outings and get-togethers probably had an experience not unlike a race car driver when the parachute pops, taking them from 250mph to 50mph in a fraction of a second.

Others didn’t feel quite that impact because, for one reason or another, their life already didn’t include that speed and frequency of activity.

That might be because of financial realities. They can’t afford weekly meetups with the guys for beer and darts, or takeout meals five times a week, or any of a number of other consumer-focused options. Shopping is limited because funds are limited, so they are more careful about their spending, making fewer trips and having a clear plan for what’s purchased.

That might be because of lifestyle choices. The kids were just never into sports or music, so those were never on the schedule to begin with. Eating out was a once-monthly treat. Minimalism or other choices have led to fewer, more intentional trips to the store.

Longer On-Ramp

In either circumstance, those individuals and families didn’t have quite the traumatic transition others did. Sure, it’s a bit frustrating to not be able to go to the library whenever you want, and wearing a mask to go to the store is an experience that takes some getting used to.

These folks are already used to finding cheap or free options when looking for ways to spend their Saturday afternoons. The inconvenience they feel when certain stores are closed or unavailable is minimal because they didn’t go out that much anyway. Spending a morning working in the backyard is normal because it’s inexpensive, gets everyone involved and keeps their house in good shape.

If someone in the house has worked from home for years, things changed even less. They probably already have a dedicated space to work from and have an understanding with the rest of the family about what their hours or available are. They’re experienced in dealing with pets while on Google Hangout calls and don’t even notice it when the piano is being practiced in the other room.

All of that is not to say there aren’t still hurdles to overcome or changes to acclimate to. It’s not normal, even in those situations, for everyone to be spending such extended periods of time in the same space. There’s a big psychological difference between “choosing not to go out” and “can’t go out” that can lead to tensions and a bit of stir-craziness. Additional pressures like loss or reduction of income will make this more acute. And even if there’s someone with a history of remote work, kids aren’t going to have that experience and are getting used to their online classes. A spouse who used to work elsewhere but who is now home all day is understandably dealing with their own issues as well as, in addition to all of a sudden being around everyone else 24 hours a day.

So this still isn’t ideal for just about anyone. But for a good segment of the population this may not be as much of a sea change as it is for others because they’ve been doing some variation on what is now being experienced en masse for a while now.

Work From Home? Wear Whatever You Want

A recent WSJ story set off a bit of backlash by suggesting that people working from home should eschew wearing sweatpants while doing so and instead choose stylish outfits that, when put together, can cost upwards of $1,000.

That advice is of a feather with the general, long-lived suggestion that those who work from home should get dressed every day to avoid falling into an unprofessional mindset. You approach work differently, the thinking goes, if you’re wearing clothes more in line with a traditional office than an outfit that is more appropriate for sipping coffee in your living room.

It’s not bad, as what clothes you wear certainly impacts your mood and attitude. There’s a large amount of real estate, though, between a $15 pair of Target sweatpants and a $1,000 outfit, so that suggestion seems less about improving the productivity of the remote worker and more about the WSJ wanting to appear hip and stylish, showing off the latest fashion to create an aspirational mindset in its readership.

There’s also the fact that such guidance goes against one of the main advantages of working from home, which is that it saves the worker a lot of money they would otherwise spend. These people don’t have to buy train tickets or pay for gas for their commute into the office, they don’t have to pay for meals – either regular or occasional – while away from their own refrigerator and coffee machine.

Working from home still carries with it a fair amount of stigma in the minds of corporate executives and managers. They often cite fears that remote workers are slacking off, napping when they should be working and generally displaying a lack of commitment to the company.

Instead, productivity rises sharply when people are allowed to work from home. If problems emerge it’s more likely because the worker is feeling shunned and disengaged from the community of coworkers, which is as much the fault of the employer and the systems they’ve set up as anything else.

Chief among those attitudes are those involving clothing. We are now a nation of yoga pants aficionados, and younger people in particular are breaking down the stigmas that used to be attached to wearing comfortable clothing in professional settings. That’s not to say that a Join.me video conference call is the best place to be wearing your vintage “Underachiever” Bart Simpson shirt, but a casual shirt isn’t going to raise too many eyebrows these days.

It’s a situation where all the professional advice in the world matters less than what feels right for the individual. If jeans and a button down shirt help get someone in the right frame of mind to be operating at their best, so be it. If it’s a shirt, tie and slacks, go for it. If they’re cool in sweatpants or shorts, that’s fine. They can make different calls on different days depending on the situation, including calls and meetings, but they can have a general idea of what works for them, one that can evolve over time.

Certainly, though, a single $1,000 outfit isn’t necessary, nor is it the kind of expense that’s in keeping with the cost saving philosophy of remote work. If anything, by shifting people’s attention that far away from their work and onto their clothing has the potential to hamper productivity, not increase it.

There’s growing evidence around “decision fatigue” and advice to reduce the number of decisions made in a day to save mental power for those that are most important. So telling someone to spin cycles putting together an outfit that is more appropriate for a special event than working from a home office is counterintuitive to productivity goals since you’re distracting the worker on something that really doesn’t do much good. It’s better that they have a small number of clothing items to choose from than to increase the amount of options to choose from.

Don’t feel pressured to dress to the nines every day of the week when working from home. Find something appropriate and stick with it, focusing instead on the kinds of decisions and activities that matter, not on making sure you have the right set of cufflinks for the shirt you’ve picked out.

Transporation Realities and Productivity Go Hand In Hand

Distractions of some sort or another are a major issue when it comes to productivity. There’s so much going on in modern life that it’s almost inevitable. Social media beckons with its siren song offering you the latest conversations and updates, whether you’re seeking the solace of puppy pics on Facebook or the outrage engine on Twitter. Text messages beep, emails chirp and so on.

Those sorts of distractions can be a major drain on productivity, which impacts both the individual and the employer. There’s a cottage industry in the business media offering tips for workers on how to reduce the number of distractions that get in the way of them doing their job as well as tips for companies on how to keep their staff focused on what they’re supposed to be doing.

After researching some of the advice and guidance that’s offered, it’s clear that the types of distractions being warned about and guarded against fall into one or more of several big categories. Few stories address these larger issues, though, instead dealing more granularly with things that can be implemented by managers *now* and pointed to when the time for their annual performance review comes around.

Read the previous entries in this series:

  1. The Reality of Offices Negatively Impact Productivity
  2. Employer Technology Investment Impacts Productivity
  3. Focusing on Productivity Shouldn’t Push Life to the Back

The Distractions of Transportation

You would think that, given the potential benefits it has on productivity, companies would be lining up to subsidize mass transit construction, embrace remote work situations or otherwise make sure that the workforce they claim to value so highly can actually get to the work they need to accomplish.

That does not seem to be the case, though.

Let’s start from the beginning: There are two basic models of where someone works.

  1. They go to the work. This is common for industrial and farm industries, where the worker needs to be where the crops are being pulled or where the massive machinery is located. It’s also how the traditional office was structured, with everyone coming to a central location to tap into common resources and knowledge that weren’t accessible elsewhere.
  2. The work comes to them. This is more and more common, as workers in the knowledge economy can increasingly access everything they need to do their job – from email to documents to calendars to presentation and messaging systems – via the web or apps that work on any kind of device with an internet connection.

Each one needs to be reviewed for its pros and cons.

 

Going to the Work

In the first model, there’s a certain level of infrastructure that’s needed. Roads, train lines and other transportation systems must be built and people need to be able to access those systems, meaning they need a car for the highway or the financial and logistical ability to get to a train or bus.

The building out of this infrastructure is what allowed for the growth of the suburbs in the post-WW II era as returning veterans were attracted by federal housing assistance programs that made buying or building a house several miles out from the city cheaper and more attractive than continuing to rent closer to the center. Train lines and highways originally meant for the transportation of military equipment were easily repurposed for civilian use, so people could still work in the city where the jobs were but live out amidst the green lawns and racial segregation.

This model was predicated on the idea that work was a centralized activity, which for decades was largely true. It also had the benefit of creating a much more clear differentiation between when someone was or wasn’t at work, since there wasn’t much most people could bring home with them and they weren’t going to get a memo in the middle of dinner. Asking someone to come back to work once they were home was a monumental request.

Now, with communications technology so far advanced from what it was in the 1950s, most companies still ask workers to assemble under one roof in order to do their jobs. Commutes have gotten longer in major cities, but that’s alright since workers are often expected to be working while on the train or bus, or in their car or cab. There’s no reason not to answer that email, and not doing so could make you look like you’re not committed to the company.

So either the company is A) asking the worker to log additional hours outside of when they’re expected to be in the office and not paying them any more for it or B) requiring the worker engage in an activity that can take at least a couple hours out of their day in each direction and not subsidizing or incentivizing that time.

The costs of transportation, as well as other logistics, can be a major drain on an individual’s emotional health and therefore their productivity. Owning a car is expensive, not only the purchase but the maintenance and upkeep. Not everyone can swing that and is therefore locked out of potential employment. While utilizing mass transit may be cheaper, it’s not something the US has prioritized at all, meaning not everyone has access to it either.

Plus, if an employer is just going to be emailing you all night and morning anyway, what’s the point of coming in? Employees then find themselves in a position where they have to go to the work but the work also comes to them, meaning they never fully escape.

The Work Comes to You

This situation is facilitated entirely by the rise of the internet, where everyone can access email, messaging apps, word processing and other tools from any location at any time. So if they can work remotely, they want to.

A recent study showed that remote workers were more productive than their office-bound colleagues because they didn’t have to worry about commuting and could put those hours to better use. They also don’t suffer from the kind of workplace distractions that are all-too-common, including noisy coworkers, drop-ins and other pressures.

The benefits, reinforced by a separate study of remote workers, would seem to be great for companies that embraced the idea. But the first set of results also showed workers felt they were being judged as slacking and were more likely to be passed over for a raise or promotion because they weren’t putting in the face time with superiors, meaning they weren’t under the constant gaze of those superiors. As if schmoozing the boss were the point of the job instead of getting the work done.

The kind of logic necessary to enact a system whereby someone must report to a central location while doing nothing to make that easier – either logistically or financially – is only possible in a capitalist system, where no additional money can be spent on anything that won’t return value to investors inside of two fiscal quarters. And the logic needed to say that someone must both be in a central location to be a valued employee while also being reachable at all times of the day because communications systems make that possible is only possible when employee well being is at the bottom of your list of priorities.

Productivity is the end goal of both systems, but only so long as it doesn’t necessitate the company doing anything differently. Which means it isn’t really a priority at all. If it were you’d see companies tripping over themselves to pay whatever municipal taxes were required so the train lines ran as well as possible, or that employees were paid not only for the work they do but the time and expense needed to get to the work. There’s not much of either in evidence.

When Paranoia Takes Over

Let me tell you, all the terrible assumptions identified as potentially impacting your career are not only true, but they’re often felt even more keenly by remote workers.

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I applied the worst possible option to the communication – or lack thereof – from someone I worked with across the country. They were upset with me, they were disappointed in something I’d worked on, they were looking to push me out the door and so on.

This is part of the reason I think companies with remote staff need to commit to working harder than others to make that situation work with everyone. That includes regular team and leadership check-ins, multiple communication platforms and more. Video calling on Skype or Zoom or other platforms are great for countering some of this since it allows everyone to read the other person’s body language better, even if it’s not as well as they could in-person.

Not doing so can lead to a lot of dissatisfaction and paranoia on the part of your employees, which can lead them to prematurely look for an exit your company may not be prepared for. Keep in mind how you can best tend to the emotional needs and considerations of your staff, particularly those who aren’t in your own building.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

It Takes Two Parties To Make Remote Working Succeed

There are some good tips for those starting a remote job over at Fast Company. I definitely agree with many of these, including getting dressed for the day (it doesn’t have to be full work casual, but should be more than pajamas) and setting a schedule.

It’s on the individual to make a remote working situation a success. That’s not disputed. Just as important, and often overlooked as more and more stories come out about the rise in work-from-home situations at companies big and small, is how the employer prepares to make that situation a success. That, in my experience, means a few things:

Communication Channels

This is common sense, but people need a way to talk to each other. While some companies might feel remote staff means missing out on those moments of serendipity that happen when one person runs into another in the hallway, that hasn’t been my experience. Just as many, if not more, of those moments have happened over IM or Slack than ever happened in an the space between offices or desks. That’s because these channels allow for people to share those ideas at the moment they have them. Maybe that’s while you’re working on a document in another browser window or sharing GIFs to amuse yourself, or it’s in response to something you saw on Twitter.

Back in the day these tools included wikis and IM chat. Now it’s Slack or Facebook Work or something else. Whatever the case, make sure there are tools in place that allow for team communication.

Culture Channels

Just as important are those platforms that are less about daily work-related communication and more about sharing culture. Remote staff don’t always get a chance to interact with everyone else who’s not directly connected to them but still want to participate in office jokes and conversations. Slack is also an option here, as are Facebook Groups. Whatever the case, make sure there’s a place where everyone can jump in and feel like they’re contributing to the culture of the company. Just because someone isn’t in the office doesn’t mean they don’t want to belong.

Leadership Checkins

There may already be a process for someone to chat regularly with their direct superior. What shouldn’t be forgotten are intentional instances where the remote worker can chat with those a couple rungs up on the corporate ladder. These are the interactions that are more likely to be missed by someone not being in the office, the moments where a VP stops just to say “hi” because she hasn’t talked to you in a while. Yes, these are somewhat harder to schedule, but making an effort to facilitate this can be a positive for everyone and reinforce the connections between the employee and the company.

Regular Travel

So many of the stories I’ve been reading about remote work cover companies that are based, for instance, in Chicago’s Loop but still almost completely hire from the greater Chicago area. In those cases those are often employees that are being given new work-from-home latitude. How about those companies that are more spread out geographically? Basecamp and Automattic are two regularly-cited examples, but a number of other companies have looked outside the area of the corporate headquarters for the best people, not just the best who happen to live within 50 miles of a particular building.

In those cases where it’s hundreds or thousands of miles that separate the employee from the company’s primary physical location it’s important to factor in travel. Slack and other channels are great, but bringing people out to hang out in the office for a few days is invaluable and should be a regular feature of the remote experience.

Unique Goals and Reviews

Remote staff are unique. While I would never advocate or suggest that they not be held accountable to goals that relate to the success of the business, there are some areas where the metrics of success need to be adjusted. That person might not have the same access to a pool of new business, even if they’re the hottest web designer you can find, and so shouldn’t be judged on that criteria come review time. Whatever the particular example, make sure that you’re not holding someone to a measurement that is outside what they’re capable of achieving. Not everyone contributes toward that success in the same way and embracing a remote staff may necessitate reevaluating how universal those review and advancement criteria are.

Anything to add?