The transition to ‘work from home’ for many types of white collar jobs was a swift and quite remarkable mobilization. With the coronavirus still extant, many companies are encouraging their employees to work from home through the end of 2020, with some intimating that working remotely will be an option on a more permanent basis.This has led to all sorts of forecasts of a permanent, dramatic shift in workplace patterns, away from the office and toward remote/home-based work. I think it’s awfully premature to make such bold prognostications about the longer term. And, I believe these forecasts will turn out to be overstated.
Certainly, the current pattern will continue until there is a vaccine, which could take us well into 2021. The tools to be able to work remotely are available, and companies and employees have adapted commendably. I’ve thought quite a bit over these past several months about how work and learning might have been significantly more disrupted had the pandemic occurred 15 or 20 years ago, before collaboration tools were enabled by broadband, mobile, and cloud. Working from home will be the default option for many as long as the virus in our midst, and will need to be an option for many working parents until day care centers and schools are fully open and in-person. But on a longer term basis, once Coronavirus has waned? I believe the vast majority of people who were going ‘into the office’ prior to the pandemic will choose to do so once again. And, employers will start changing their tune somewhat on how pervasive and permanent they’ll want WFH to be.
While WFH was feasible out of necessity, it’s a suboptimal solution for many — capital ‘S’ for some, small ‘S’ for others. The situation varies by individual, but it could be the combination of any number of factors, such as the type of work they do might be harder to perform remotely, or their home environment is challenging in some way, be it space issues or the inability to work effectively with kids, spouse, etc. in the picture. Sitting at a computer all day and Zooming all day worked OK as a temporary phenomenon. Some companies have even said that some employees have become more productive in a WFH environment. Long-term, I can see this being the case for some workers, but I think the majority of people will become increasingly fatigued with the WFH experience.
I also believe the social aspect of working in an office environment is an under-recognized need for many individuals. This is especially true, I think, for younger workers. Imagine you’re in your mid-20s, having just graduated college or come out of grad school. You’ve had (2020 excepted) an entire community — work, social, activities — at your disposal during college (and in school before). Many social networks, of the analog variety, are formed in those first ten years of work, before marriage, kids, etc. It’s in those first couple of jobs that many people in their 20s and early 30s form their networks, meet their partners, engage with the community, and so on. Going straight to a ‘work from your one-bedroom apartment’ on a permanent basis would be terrible for the mental health of many young people. Zoom is OK for meetings. But it’s not how you meet people, form friendships, and form a life outside of work.
There’s another, less measurable benefit of working in an office: serendipity. Zoom, Teams, Slack, and so on all have their place. But there’s something to be said for the nuances of an in-person conversation that can’t be fully captured remotely, no matter how effective the tool. And then there are the spontaneous, informal types of conversations that just happen when you’re in a physical milieu with other people — the knock on someone’s door to bat around an idea, the side meeting, the drinks after work. All that.
It’s sort of like the difference between online shopping and bricks-and-mortar. Buying something from Amazon or some other online retailer is a largely transactional experience. Usually you’ve done the research and pretty much know what you want. Whereas with physical stores, there can be a browsing/serendipitous/pleasurable aspect.
There are also the nuances of in-person conversations that just can’t be captured in a remote environment. It’s sort of like comparing a phone conversation to text or email. There’s nuance, emotion, empathy, and privacy that happens when people just talk to each other: when you hear someone’s voice, look into their eyes, capture some sort of other facial expression…or just wait a beat and think before responding to something. Plus, there’s a certain informality that happens in the workplace, where not every interaction is witnessed, recorded, or memorialized with digital breadcrumbs.
Sure, there are the pollyannish aspects of WFH. No commute! Less office politics! Cut the clothing budget! Live wherever you want! There are merits to all of these. But I believe that both employers and employees will come to realize that the benefits of working at a place, with people, have come to be somewhat under-appreciated. More people will work remotely post-pandemic than pre-pandemic, and there will be a trend toward more flexible/hybrid models. Patterns will be significantly altered. There are still wonderful opportunities to develop tools to further enable and improve remote work.
But ultimately, we’ll come to realize the palpable benefits of congregating with others at a physical office. Even the elements that are fraught and frustrating are key to learning how to navigate professional relationships. Office buildings might be ghost towns right now. But I think that over time, they will largely be filled and the buzz will be back.