Locked down at home, workers and their bosses are going through a moment of discovery. We can get more done in less time. We are not inhaling our breakfast and PM2.5 particles in the rush to get to work. We are not wasting hours daily in a sweaty, jostling commute. We are not trapped in obligatory and mind-numbing meetings. And yes, we can allow ourselves that delicious afternoon nap that our bodies have evolved over millennia to crave.
From work-from-home to work-from-work, and back again
With the industrial revolution, work moved out of homes and into factories that housed larger machines powered by rivers and water wheels, and later steam engines. Production targets and monitoring of worker output demanded close physical supervision. The seeds of management by metrics were sown.
Centuries later, with the information revolution, we took the pivotal turn towards coming full circle. Machines reversed course, becoming smaller and moving back into people’s homes. Communication became increasingly reliant on networks rather than proximity. Monitoring of output also turned digital, reducing the need for the hovering supervisor.
Context drives business norms
Business norms of the day get established based on current context and constraints – they have little independent value or permanence. Media and retail were two separate industries when you couldn’t buy products from a newspaper and stores could not widely distribute information. The internet initiated their convergence. The long-established biweekly or monthly rhythm of the paycheque is being threatened by inexpensive electronic payments. Even factories will start to move into our homes as 3D printing becomes more prevalent.
This change in norms can accelerate from its slower evolutionary pace by an external trigger. The oil crisis of the 1970s hastened the development of fuel-efficient cars – a trend that persists to this day – and has led to the growing popularity of electric cars. Similarly, COVID-19 promises to be the trigger that will change work locations and norms forever.
Does distance kindle the flame?
Suddenly, during this crisis, we are connecting more meaningfully with far away co-workers. Video is the great equalizer, ensuring that your local office gets no more attention than the one further away. No longer are we focusing on only those in the room, at the expense of FOMO-laden folks in remote offices dialling in over squawky conference phone lines.
If we miss a meeting, we are catching up on recorded video at 1.2x speed while skipping past the dull bits. The focus has turned increasingly to our productivity, rather than face-time in front of bosses. Venture investor Chamath Palihapitiya enthused recently about the benefits of working from home, noting that politics are impossible on Zoom or Slack.
Not one size fits all
Working from home is not for everyone. While changes in work norms will be significant and enduring, they will not be wholesale. Many professions require physical presence and coordination, and many workers, particularly those at the outset of their careers, enjoy the companionship and courtship rituals that the workplace enables.
But many others treasure their autonomy. They want the freedom to dictate their day, without being chained to a desk and feeling under the gaze as they leave work early to run a personal errand. They want to greet their kids coming home from school, tuning out momentarily from the Zoom meeting that has meandered into irrelevance. They are happy to work on a Sunday afternoon, having taken a Friday afternoon off. They are confident enough to be measured by their output, rather than their physical presence.
Remote working doesn’t eliminate the need for physical contact, and in many cases, workers will check into the office from time to time, and attend key business and social gatherings. Nor does it eliminate the need for close working relationships, which managers will have to pay attention to enabling, even while working remotely.
Something has changed – don’t ignore it
But managers will do well to re-think their working norms for the long term in these unusual times. Higher employee satisfaction, more productive hours, better employee health, a contribution to a cleaner environment, and lower costs of office space. Why would you not seize this opportunity to at least experiment with lasting change? Previous revolutions that established new norms needed leaders. So will this one.
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At Indiginus, we are actively working on projects with clients who are preparing for a different future than they envisioned just a couple of months ago.
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