It’s 6:52am and my dog Bear is nudging my face and sniffing around my ears in a successful attempt to wake me up and take her for a morning walk. Why she does not disturb my wife or kids is still a mystery to me. By the time I walk the dog, shower, make my morning coffee and sit down at my desk in my home office, it’s just after 8am. So starts another day of work from home (WFH) in the surreal pandemic-world we now live in.
The Great WFH Experiment
When the great WFH experiment started in early spring, I was in an advantageous position. First, I have been a “commuting executive” for almost 20 years, traveling weekly or every other week to another city for work, and then WFH when I am not on the road. Normally I would not categorize this as an advantage, but it does have its benefits, one of which is that I am very proficient at working remotely and already had a fully functioning home office, in a separate room, with plenty of windows, dual monitors, a headset and a host of other necessary components. Second, I work in software, and our organization is made up of developers, consultants and other folks who are often on the road or work in different parts of the country, or at home. Remote working from at an airport, in a cramped conference room at a customer site, or in the back of an Uber is commonplace. Tango, as a company, transitioned seamlessly to a 100% virtual work environment with little disruption.
WFH is not a new phenomenon. It has, in fact, been around for years and was a growing trend prior to COVID-19. A recent article in the New York Times titled “What if Working from Home Goes On…Forever?” cited “anywhere from 5% to 15% of Americans worked form home before the pandemic”. But nothing prepared us for what was to come when COVID-19 showed up on the scene. I had one of those “where were you when” moments, when it seemed like everything changed. I was at Thalia Hall (shameless plug) with some friends enjoying the Best Coast show when everyone’s phone lit up with the news that the NBA had cancelled the season and Tom Hanks and his wife had both contracted COVID-19.
The shift to remote work was dramatic and transpired practically overnight. According to a June 2020 research piece from Stanford’s Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), WFH now accounts for 60% of the US economy and more than 50% of workers are still highly efficient.
The Great WFH experiment has begun to render some interesting changes in how we work. Microsoft’s Workplace Insights Group recently launched an experiment to measure how their work patterns were changing after undergoing “an immediate and unplanned shift to remote work”, as highlighted in a recently published Harvard Business Review article. Here are a few takeaways:
- Workdays have lengthened. People are “on” four more hours a week on average. This is done to accommodate time that needs to be carved out for personal activities such as caring for children, exercising, walking the dog, etc. To accommodate these breaks, people are likely signing into work earlier and signing off later.
- Meetings have changed. The team recorded a surprisingly low 10% increase in overall meeting time, but individual meeting durations actually shrunk, and the “30-minute meeting emerged”. All of which are a good sign since research shows that as meetings have gotten longer over the last decade, employee happiness and productivity has gone down.
- Managers are impacted the most. Microsoft’s senior managers are collaborating 8+ hours more hours per week via Teams, instant messaging, etc. to increase communication and keep resources aligned and on task.
- Staying connected matters. Strong social connections help employees feel happier and healthier and build stronger networks. Virtual social meetings at Microsoft have emerged in place of natural touchpoints, increasing 10% in a month while one-on-ones were up 18%.
As the WFH Phenomenon Drags On, Problems Have Emerged
Unfortunately, the pandemic has picked up steam since late June, with little relief in sight, as shown in the case counts reported by the Washington Post.
When Twitter famously announced that it would allow some employees to work from home “forever” and Facebook said as much as 50% of its employees might not return to the office, everyone stopped and took notice. CFOs started to count the savings of slashing real estate and occupancy costs, while Zoom’s stock went from $68.72 a share on January 2nd, 2020 to $272.90 a share on August 5th, 2020. But as the remote work requirement has necessarily persisted, the initial “light bulb moment” of WFH has started to dim five months in. Here are some of the main issues that have started to emerge as a result of long-term remote working:
WFM Favors Educated, Higher-Income Workers
Not Everyone Can Work Effectively Remotely
People Are Having Trouble Turning Off Work
According to data from Humanyze, as published in a recent Harvard Business Review article, The Implications of Working Without an Office, “In the weeks immediately after the lockdown began, only half of employees were able to maintain a 10-hour workday or less, whereas nearly 80% had been able to do so previously. These patterns have started to trend back to pre-lockdown levels, although the workdays are still 10% to 20% longer on average.”
Women are Disproportionally Impacted
The New York Times article ‘They Go to Mommy First’ surfaced a recent study by Gender, Work & Organization that shows in heterosexual couples where both the mother and father were continuously employed and have children under 13, mothers “have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers.” This has exacerbated the gender gap in work hours by 20 to 50 percent, the study found.
Lack of Spontaneous Interactions
“Collisions between people and groups make for better, more creative output”, per Jennifer Magnolfi Astill, one of the leading researchers on the evolution of workspaces. “It is harder to quantify than productivity output, but the pandemic has made the absence of socialization extremely clear to most workers. Whether it’s those casual conversations, serendipitous encounters, or drinks after work — these have real value to a company and impact its ability to innovate and solve problems. They also have real value to employee engagement and happiness.”
New Hires Have Difficulty Onboarding and Are Not Developing as Fast
Starting a new job is hard enough, but doing so remotely makes the process more difficult, longer, and less effective. As Roland J. Kruszewski, Chief Executive at Stifel Financial Corp. put it in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, “I am concerned that we would somehow believe that we can basically take kids from college, put them in front of Zoom, and think that three years from now, they’ll be every bit as productive as they would have had they had the personal interaction.”
Where are We Headed?
Based on the challenges full remote work is causing over the long-term, the death of the office has been greatly exaggerated. Yes, things are going to change – likely quite a bit – but the office will endure, it will just look different. JLL recently published The Future of Global Office Demand, in which they identified four key factors having a role in shaping the future of office demand in the short and long-term.
Although permanent remote work is not likely for most people, WFH is here to stay and will be a big part of how and where we work in the future. Companies need to plan for it and integrate remote employees into the natural flow of work.
Pre-COVID office strategies focused on increasing occupancy density, a trend that is now in reverse because of social distancing requirements. JLL predicts that density will return once a vaccine is widely adopted, but not fully to the pre-COVID numbers. Additionally, the purpose of the office will likely change resulting in a need to reconfigure and remodel space to foster collaborative work vs. individual full-day occupancy desks.
Technology will play an ever-increasing role in both the short-term return to the workplace and the office of the future. In the short-term, technology will help facilitate remote work and a safe reentry into the workplace. In the long-run, technology will help seamlessly integrate in-office and remote work and accelerate the adoption of smart building technologies to support tenant’s “environmental, sustainability, health and wellness initiatives”.
The elimination of the daily commute is a top WFH benefit cited by workers. Large urban centers rely on public transportation to get people to work, but their safety is rightfully questioned by commuters and officials. Employers will need to factor in the differing ways in which their employees travel to work to better understand their specific WFM versus in-office balance.
JLL contends that the final component of the fate of the office is “spatial patterns of demand”, their term for where office demand will be focused. Specifically, they hypothesize the acceleration of the trend of distributed urbanization – “digitally enabled, hyperconnected networks of cities that revolve around major cities such as New York, Paris and Tokyo.”
The report goes on to state that “the rise of the hyperconnected city region will gradually shift the spatial pattern of office demand, pushing it toward a diverse office market ecosystem comprising three major elements.” They describe these as:
- Rising demand in livable, well-connected suburbs and small cities
- A reimagined and increasingly multi-use urban core
- New clusters of innovation-based activities
Welcome to Omni-Channel Work
It seems everyone has an opinion as to the degree to which the office will play a role in how and where post-pandemic work is done. That said, there is a consensus that the future of work will follow a hybrid model, one where work is done both inside and outside the office. Interestingly, when I reflect on my own working model, it is apparent that I have been following a hybrid model for years. My team is remote, with people spread across the US and Canada. I commute to our headquarters city two weeks per month and coordinate in-person meetings with colleagues when I am there. On any given day our group has meetings over Microsoft Teams and we all travel to our headquarters at least quarterly for several days of meetings. And I must tell you, it works well for us.
It is easy to envision the hybrid model and imagine how it might work. On any given day, employees can determine whether they are going to work from home, go into the office, use a co-working space or any other number of locations to be productive. Teams would coordinate when everyone needs to be in the office for larger collaborative meetings and the company has enabling technology to make it all work.
Last Friday I had to run to Whole Foods to pick up some chicken and other items I needed for a small barbeque we had planned with a few friends on Saturday, the first time we have had anyone over since the pandemic started (socially distancing and with masks). I wrapped up a work call and jumped in the car and while driving to the store, realized that I was starving and had not had lunch. I called my wife to see if she was hungry and surprise, surprise, she had not had lunch either (we both work from home). At a stop light I pull up the Panera Bread app and ordered our usual favorites. After grabbing what I needed at Whole Foods, I went to the other side of the shopping center and used Panera’s “rapid pick-up” and grabbed our lunch. At a stoplight on the way home I opened the Amazon app on my phone and ordered new outdoor placemats, since our current set was a mess, which were set to arrive just in time for the festivities. Note the shameless plug for our customers.
In any given week, or day for that matter, I may have gone about it completely differently. For example, if I had meetings all afternoon, I would have needed to order delivery from Panera and Whole Foods instead of going in-store, and I would have ordered the placemats from Target using their Shipt service. The salient points here are flexibility and technology. Omni-channel retail, when done right, provides a seamless technology-enabled purchasing process that is flexible in terms of where and when I execute a transaction to fit my personal circumstances.
What I’m calling “omni-channel work” is no different. On any given day I may decide to go into the office in the morning and work from home in the afternoon. Or I may be visiting relatives in another town and want to work from a local co-working facility. You get the point. The hybrid working model can, and will, be necessarily different for each individual and company. The key to success will be enabling technology that seamlessly accommodates my choices of where and how to work individually, as a team, department, company, and ecosystem of partners and customers.
A hybrid model dramatically increases complexity, so companies will also need technology that helps manage their physical AND virtual workplace footprint. The old way of managing space with outdated and stagnant legacy solutions, or a patchwork of point solutions, is no longer feasible. More than ever, companies will require multi-tenant cloud-based solutions that adapt quickly to changing customer needs, are accessible from anywhere, and utilize advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to confront the new realities of how and where people will work.
The parallels between omni-channel retail and omni-channel work are undeniable. To be successful in this new environment, companies are going to need to both trust and enable their employees.