The conundrum is harnessing the power of technology while not becoming a slave to it,” David Heron, Chief Medical Officer at British Petroleum says.
“We should be helping people to take a break from their workstation rather than facilitating them spending more time on the laptop.”
The experience of working from home has brought a combination of remarkable achievements and fundamental questions. Zoom and WebEx as well as the timely arrival of Microsoft Teams provided a very efficient way to stay in touch with families, friends, colleagues, customers, and partners.
It also allowed continued conversations around the world around the clock. Had we not had that possibility, lockdowns would have been much more disruptive and difficult to impose.
The question this blog intends to address is very simple: who gets to decide, and who benefits from this new flexibility?
Working from home: not all equal
There is no doubt that an important part of the employee force in the services industry discovered the joy of working from home, as well as not having to take commutes. Not all of them did, however.
Not everyone lives in a city with a white-collar services industry job. The various rules of physical distancing will need to pass through the acid test of the experience. It is in the “luxury” business that it works. Once we get outside of the office space, the rules seem increasingly unpractical.
During my conversations with the Indian business leaders, they echoed the impossibility to implement physical distancing, and masks are not available. The most affected population was the 800 million Indians living in rural areas whose crops are essential to avoid the real risk of this situation: famine.
Seeing each other was wonderful
Tech has allowed us to have conversations with video. Teaching became possible on Zoom at Columbia University and many other places. Regular staff meetings were a unique opportunity to stay in touch and work in an efficient way. On top of that, we could do so without wearing a mask.
This visual contact was essential to the continuity of our activities, whichever they are. We could even create videos that we sent. We see people who we typically just call with audio only. A major improvement in our relationships, even though they existed before. We were simply not using it on a large scale. The multiplication of webcasts is here to testify of the success of this technology.
Companies should not impose work from home
Companies do not own or lease the “office space” that many of us used while working at home. They are being given a free footprint.
Predictably, the combination of tech and corporate forces have announced that they would reduce the presence of their staff in offices (if at all) and, by doing so, reduce their costs. It is clear that lessons will be drawn from the lockdown experience and that there will be adjustments both on the employer and the employee side.
However, the corporate world starts from the point of view that working from home will benefit employees. What do they know about the particulars of the housing capabilities of their employees? How do family situations make virtual meetings possible? Have corporates looked at the liabilities they are taking on, for what happens in the homes of their staff?
Starting from a corporate entitlement is the wrong start. It is also not the right way to reengage with the workforce.
The limits of virtual contact
The idea of the tech industry as the savior of the world has its limits.
It is not the same way to be together at an office or to have a staff meeting on Zoom. One thing we all experienced is the limits of the remote world. It has everything to do with emotional intelligence, the sense of belonging to a group the ability to decipher the body language.
We have also learned, as human beings, that our common creativity, the quality of our attention, the difficulty of concentration, the cohabitation with our families are challenges that we are prepared to take for a short while, but not necessarily forever. That is why Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella warns in the NYT that productivity gains are not everything: “what I miss is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the person that is next to you, you’re able to connect with them for the two minutes before and after.”
Contrary to some initiatives taken recently, virtual teaching is limiting the value of education. The impact on young children and teenagers might be much more substantial and the online courses for young kids were a distraction and a challenge for parents. The announcements to close schools until the end of the school year, not to mention those who announce that it will be the case in the fall, will result in migration from “online” community colleges or universities to those who welcome the interaction between teachers and students, not to mention sports.
Companies and institutions need to confront the reality: teleworking will need to be negotiated with staff and unions. Working from home will need to include compensation for the in-person contact that is lost. It will require the agreement of employees.
This is a critical moment for the relationship between companies and their employees. It will be an art to balance the various options without undermining valuable office dynamics.
Let me leave the conclusion to Lynda Gratton is a professor of management practice at London Business School.
“Before the pandemic, face-to-face encounters were the norm. For perhaps a couple of years to come, they will become a rare and precious asset. The challenge we face now is learning how to make the very most of these. To ensure that in a world that desperately needs creativity and innovation, we do not inadvertently stifle it.”