A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Dec 14, 2020

Why Remote Work Won't Last: It Threatens Organizational Culture

The popular narrative about the pandemic-driven experiment in remote work is that it has gone better than expected. Adaptation under pressure has resulted in innovative behavior that have supported productivity and kept organizations functioning, albeit at lower levels of demand for most. 

But an examination of the investments made in surveillance tech suggest that the psychology of employers and employed is fraught; if there is so little trust, is this process sustainable? At greatest risk is organizational culture, the shared belief in the enterprise and its purpose. And the persistent concerns about the elements of optimization suggest that the office may change, but will prevail. JL

Peter Cappelli reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Offices matter. The physical interactions they provide contribute to getting work done, especially tasks that require collaboration. Architecture matters by structuring our interactions. The rituals of office life, coffee breaks and informal connection, matter, as does office social life, which helps keep us engaged. Organizational culture matters, and that is conveyed by these interactions. It is hard to keep that going via occasional video chats. CEOs single biggest concern about remote work arrangements now is how to keep their culture functioning.Dumping offices reflects the priority of cutting costs over effectiveness, and that is a big risk.

The giant work-from-home experiment that no one wanted has been under way long enough to ask: What happens to the office now? Do we really need it?

History reminds us that the early days of the Industrial Revolution began with people doing commercial work from home. Since then, we have been remarkably, some might say stubbornly, committed to the idea that work should be centered at the office, even when it could have been done remotely. We invested huge amounts of money in office real estate equipped to help us be efficient. We also asked employees to spend lots of time and money traveling to those offices.

A lot of people seem to think it’s time to completely overhaul that model. But I’m not convinced that is really what is going to happen.

It is hard to know for certain, but by some counts as much as 40% of the American labor force is working remotely—more people by far than are still at work in offices, given the massive numbers currently unemployed. No one seems to think it is a good idea for college students to keep doing distance learning once the pandemic has receded or to keep having religious services virtually. But a lot of people believe that continuing remote work and at least paring back physical offices is sensible. It seems like only yesterday that the tech companies were the models in doing everything they could to keep employees from leaving their campuses. Now some, like Twitter, are suggesting they never have to come back. Why is that?

The idea of getting rid of offices, or at least scaling them way back, is of course to save money. This could be like Uber for office jobs: Get employees to provide and pay for their own office, which they have anyway (i.e., their kitchen table), and save a lot of company money on offices and real estate. Also, if people relocate away from expensive areas like Silicon Valley and New York to work remotely, we can pay them less, the thinking goes. Besides, employees seem to like it, and the work is getting done.

The problem with that view begins with the fact that the current situation is so strange that it is unlikely to tell us much about how things would go after the pandemic.

Not now isn’t never

It is true that surveys consistently find that employees working from home report better work-life balance, which shouldn’t be surprising given that conflicts about needing to be in both places at the same time go away when work and home are the same place. They also consistently report wanting to have more opportunities to work from home after the pandemic, also not surprising because they wanted that before. But that is not the same as never going into an office again.

Remote work is far preferred to the alternative of no work or commuting into crowded office spaces during a pandemic, but that does not mean work and home life are better than before the pandemic. Especially for younger people and those without kids, no office means sharply reduced social life. Fifty-eight percent of adults report that they have dated someone at work, for example, and you can’t do that on Zoom.

There are also misunderstandings about how a “new normal” model of remote work would function. The idea that employers can pay people less if they move to less expensive communities to work remotely is a myth. To begin, in a country where the average 50-year-old has already worked for 12 different employers, the idea that we should move our family permanently from Silicon Valley to Iowa on the promise that our current job with a big tech company will continue indefinitely is foolish. People live in expensive locations like New York because that is where they can get their next job. The high pay is because lots of employers want those skills, not to compensate for cost of living.

Let’s just say that it is not a good sign for your career if your boss suggests that you never need to come into the office again or asks if you would like to move far away.

CEOs’ concerns

Another of the hot ideas we hear for post-pandemic remote work is to rethink the idea of pay based on time at work. What employees think this means is that if I finish my work, I could go home—or log off—rather than just hang around to put in “face time” or “screen time.” What employers mean by this is that if you finish your work and there is nothing for you to do right now, we don’t need to pay you.

Yes, the work seems to be getting done remotely, but business is also down for most companies, so there has been less of it that needs to be done. Employees pulled together around remote work in a crisis atmosphere and got things done, but we can’t expect that they will keep doing that forever, especially when the pandemic fades. Employers are also investing hugely now in monitoring technology to check up on what those home workers are doing. That does not suggest that they are OK with how remote work has been going.

Even though they may be expensive, offices do matter. The physical interactions they provide do contribute to getting work done, especially projects and tasks that require collaboration. Architecture matters by structuring our interactions, in good ways if done well. The rituals of office life—coffee breaks and the informal connections we make there—matter, as does our general office social life, which helps keep us engaged. Organizational culture matters, and that is conveyed by these interactions. It is hard to keep that going via occasional video chats. CEOs know this; their single biggest concern about remote work arrangements now is how to keep their culture functioning.

Dumping offices altogether reflects the priority of cutting costs over effectiveness, and that is a big risk. Who wants to be the first one in that water?

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