There are always at least two sides to a revolution. People seem to miss that when thinking about the changes imposed upon society as a result of the COVID-19 virus outbreak. As the virus spread across the globe, governments instituted shelter-in-place orders that introduced new realities to daily life. Aside from a critical lack of toilet paper, perhaps the most talked-about has been the dramatic increase in employees working from home. Since most knowledge work can be done remotely, and since we’ve had the technology for at least a decade to make it possible and efficient, most of these workers who are fortunate enough to retain their jobs can transition to remote employees.
One of the common themes emerging from the forced work-from-home policies across the world is increased discussion about the longer-term changes this will create. One popular assumption is that companies, having now seen how working from home is possible, will loosen on-site requirements and embrace remote work. Publications and research firms like Fast Company, Gartner, and The Guardian are pushing the idea that a revolution is afoot.
There are companies that have proven it can work, and work well. Companies like Atlassian, Basecamp and Zapier are all fully remote or distributed as they often like to say. In short, it’s been extremely easy for companies to try remote work out, and yet the vast majority of companies haven’t in any meaningful way. Is it possible the current crisis will cause a dramatic shift in attitudes? Sure it is. Is it likely that work-at-home on a large scale will persist beyond the current crisis, in a word, no.
The issue is that the people talking of change have a vested interest or desire for that specific change and are only thinking of the positive (in their view) changes. They are ignoring the messy bits in the narrative. The negative aspects of remote work.
Management in any company that has resisted work at home is unlikely to just change its mind. It’s just as likely, more likely I’d say, that those same managers will look at the ways work at home, as implemented during this crisis, is worse. Given that this migration home was forced quickly, and likely lacked serious discussion about how work is accomplished remotely, the idea that everything is smooth seems ridiculous.
It may be uncomfortable to say, but the fact that unemployment is skyrocketing means that the relative power of employer and employee is changing. Employers have hundreds of applicants per position for the next several quarters or years. For this reason it’s likely that employers will be less likely to offer flexibility in the near future even if they were will to do so just a few months ago when unemployment was at record lows in the US.
Speaking of management, and middle-management in particular, this is no doubt a sobering event for many. In large enterprises with big numbers of middle-managers navigating the hierarchy of these unwieldy organizations, the move to remote work may upend the value they offered in the office environment. They will have to discover new ways to bridge the sub-cultures of executives and the makers in the organization. I suspect that simply moving the old series of back-to-back management meetings to Zoom will not suffice. It may raise uncomfortable questions about what the role of management is and when that happens you can bet that management will look for evidence to squelch this little experiment.
You also have issues on the employee side. As great as working from home sounds there are real logistical and psychological issues that must be resolved. You’re starting to hear some of these downsides now that people have been working at home for weeks. The person in a Manhattan studio trying to carve out a space for work when two people and a dog live in that same small room. A home where both parents work remotely and have young children in the house. Remember the poor guy trying his best to appear professional on the BBC? Similar events are no doubt happening across the world. There are legitimate reasons people may not prefer remote work.
For those companies that have proven the success of a complete distributed workforce, the key ingredient is hiring for that model in the first place. Testing for compatibility with remote work is a primary aspect of the selection process for these companies. Companies with large numbers of existing employees won’t have that luxury.
Although I don’t believe this crisis represents a sea change in the way people work, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be. If a company and its leadership truly are interested in exploring new ways of work that are both more productive and fulfilling then this crisis can be used for sustained change for the better. Sustained change not only about where people work, but how they work. Like in all things, a leader must decide to lead.