Working from home — WFH in short — is one of the most debated topics these days. Recent events have compelled many organizations to close their offices and force their employees to work from home. All aspects of the working experience are now being done remotely.
What can we learn from this unplanned experiment? And what does it teach us about the “future of work”?
From “Stir Crazy” . . .
After one week, many of my colleagues couldn’t wait to get back to the office. Working from home had become a nightmare.
“It is stressful and unhealthy.”
“I feel lonely”
“I am constantly disturbed by family.”
“My desktop sucks.”
“Curse you Netflix. The children are destroying the bandwidth.”
“I never realized my husband could be this annoying.”
No one imagined that “missing” the office would be such an issue.
The pop songs of my youth just don’t work anymore. I see The Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” in a different light. And I won’t even mention The Bangles or the much covered “Friday on My Mind.”
. . . To the “Best of Both Worlds”
And yet, as time goes by, the complaints are slowly vanishing.
People are getting used to the “new” situation. They have settled in with new and better equipment. They are becoming more experienced “video conferencing” users.
My own experience is instructive. I start enjoying talking to my tripod camera. I always disliked virtual meetings and conferences, and avoided them as much as possible. When I give presentations, for instance, I love the interaction in the room. The expression on the attendants’ faces. The body language. So, I usually declined speaking at online meetings and webinars.
But the last couple of weeks I have changed my mind. For a start, the network infrastructure and software options make online meetings (almost) problem-free. If this crisis had hit even five years ago, I am not sure the software and network technologies would have been ready in the way that they are now.
And even if I can’t see the audience, there are digital possibilities for interaction that allow me to immediately respond to questions during the talk.
This might sound weird, but virtual meetings can break down many of the social barriers that exist when people are in the same room and prevent genuinely open discussion.
And it is not only the improved technology. Office workers have learned from many blog posts with tips and tricks for more effective “working.” Get up early. Work out. Get dressed. Stick to your daily schedule. Designate areas for virtual business meetings. Stop at 6 PM. Separate your work time from your personal life.
Working from home is becoming the new routine.
But there is still one issue with working from home that appears to be impossible to solve: Opportunities for serendipity and the resulting loss of creativity within an organization.
The Office Bathroom
Steve Jobs always wanted office workers to meet and talk informally. He believed this fostered a creative work culture. And, the best way to achieve this? Making sure the physical environment “nudged” us together.
Apparently, he was obsessed with office design. What’s the best place for serendipity? Yes, the bathroom. By far, the best spot to stimulate creativity. His idea was to have only one set of restrooms in the central atrium and force people to bump into each other when going to the bathroom.
These informal meetings aren’t possible in a cloud/online/virtual environment. Now that companies need to be more creative and innovative than ever, the “working from home” decision seems to create a problem and tend to make things worse.
Will companies ever be able to return to “normal” without people being in the office?
I am now in my fifth “working from home” week, and I have completely changed my opinion about opportunities for serendipity.
Working from home makes us more productive, healthier, and can save our companies (no I am not talking about the cost-saving potential of having office employees work remotely). My experience is that we start to collaborate more. We have become much more creative “outside” the office routine.
But it all depends on leadership.
Old leadership styles and hierarchies don’t work in a “working from home” environment. Command and control aren’t useful in the digital world. More distance means less control. That is unavoidable.
The good news is that more and more leaders appear to see this and start adopting a digital leadership style. And here, I am not referring to the “personal” video messages and open letters that deliver bad news, show dubious emotion, and explain how the leaders have also made a “sacrifice” by giving up a percentage of their salary or making donations to charities.
No, I am referring to creating an open and inclusive leadership environment, which enables every office worker to become a leader themselves.
A big part of this is trust. Digital leaders understand that they must trust their workforce to exercise their new “freedom” in a responsible manner.
Leaders also become more approachable. Back in the office, they were usually surrounded by the same people over and over again (the “blockers”). Leaders existed in an “echo chamber” in which their own ideas were constantly repeated back to them.
Now, we see more personal (and not pre-recorded) messages that give directions, explanations, and show empathy and understanding (we are all in this together, and together we have to find adequate solutions). The best leaders open up, invite questions, have open virtual coffee/tea hours where other workers can ask questions and pose ideas. This allows them to find the people who matter (despite the hierarchy and seniority). The creative minds who can help the company define the company’s next normal.
This approach is crucial because the post-coronavirus world will not be the same as the pre-coronavirus world. Changes are accelerating and do not always follow pre-defined trajectories.
The winning companies of the future will be the ones that define the “next normal” themselves.
The virtual environment has also allowed me to collaborate more and faster with my colleagues. There is no need to make appointments. We don’t have to be stuck in traffic and think about what to wear. Authenticity rules. Children on laps, pets in the background, and unshaved men at video conferences don’t matter anymore.
In informal settings (and the comfort of being at home), it is all of a sudden so much easier to connect, interact, exchange ideas, and be innovative.
And never forget. The office was never that great anyway. The gossip and back-biting, the nay-sayers and free-riders. The processes, procedures and politics that were a constant obstacle to “getting good things done.”
Ironically, social distancing has brought us closer together and created a better environment for serendipity than the open spaces or bathrooms of the modern office.
Future of Work
Of course, some people will never get used to a working from home environment. They cannot wait for the “manic Mondays” to return.
My suspicion, however, is that a big chunk of those “nay-sayers” are not the people who help the organization move forward. They are the ones resistant to change and holding things back.
Rather, people who found a way to make it work and quickly adapted to the new realities of remote work should be prized. They saw the opportunities in unexpected places and figured it out by themselves without being told what to do.
We need digital leadership but we also need more digital employees. Smarter, more resourceful people who don’t see remote work as an opportunity to complain, take it easy, or do nothing.
This is why I hope that we will not turn our backs on the WFH revolution too quickly. Even after we go back to office work. The flexibility, informality, and opportunities for creative serendipity are crucial components for every company in identifying and designing the next normal.