The Tension That Will Come With the Future of Work
A lot has been written about the Work From Anywhere life that knowledge workers are leading right now due to the pandemic, and what will come next. Fred has a great post on it, and I’m curious to see how his and Joanne’s “Home Office Away From Home” space called FrameWork does when it opens. In that post, he references a few other posts and articles worth reading:
- Imagine Your Flexible Office Work Future – Anne Helen Petersen
- We’re Never Going Back – Packy McCormick
- The Future of Offices When Workers Have Choice – Dror Poleg
Instead of entering the debate about what the future will look like, which no one really knows other than to say “not like the past,” I want to focus on a tension I’ve been mulling over lately, and that is the tension between a company’s leaders and its employees. You could also call it a tension between extroverts and introverts. And in this regard, Packy McCormick is both right and wrong about the debate: right in the sense that employees will make the decision, not companies; wrong in the sense that the best employees “are not going to work for companies that make them shave, get dressed, hop into a car or a crowded subway, and sit at a desk in an office five days a week with their headphones on trying to avoid distractions and get work done.” That’s a blanket statement that, as with most blanket statements, misses an incredibly important point.
That some people like, want to, need to, or benefit from working in offices more often than not.
That those people are some of the most talented, creative, and high potential people in an organization.
And that those people are frequently the ones with the least “voice” in an organization — new employees, younger workers, introverts, and people from underrepresented groups.
It will be really easy for senior people who, in many cases, have longer commutes and kids they are now accustomed to seeing a lot more, not to mention really nice and private home offices, to default to working from home. In many cases, they’ve already done more of that than most employees, well, because they can. But the problem is that those people are perfectly fine working from home. Work and decisions come to them. Their career trajectories are pretty set. They will seek out anyone in the organization to ask them any question, any time.
But think about the topic from the perspective of an entry level account coordinator, an associate product manager, a graphic designer in marketing, a financial analyst in the FP&A group, or an AR specialist in accounting. . Less exposure to decision makers can’t possibly help this. If you’re one of those people, here are the things you miss out on when there’s no office:
- You don’t get to participate in or overhear interesting conversations in the break/lunch room or at the water cooler about something going on in the company that you’re not working on. This reduces your ability to learn in unstructured ways at work or get thoroughly onboarded into a new company
- You don’t get to see who comes and goes from the office or different meeting rooms. This may sound silly, but watching a business in, seeing who is in a glass-walled conference room or what slides are up on the wall, helps employees stimulate good ideas about their day to day work. This limits your ability to connect the dots and better understand the big picture at work
- You don’t get to have a casual conversation with your department head or CEO in the elevator or hallway or a conference room between meetings. That “skip level” leader is much less likely to know who you are or what you do. This can make it harder for you, the next time you have an idea you want to share or feedback you want to give, to approach a leader. It also makes it a little tougher for you the next time you’re in line for some kind of promotion or development opportunity
Of course all employees CAN in theory make themselves known, can learn, can seek out others in the organization, and can try to re-create hallway serendipity from the comfort of their own Zoom screens. It just doesn’t come naturally to most; practically speaking for many, it’s impossible; and it’s particularly hard for younger or quieter team members. There’s a ton of research about how women in particular aren’t as comfortable advocating for themselves when it comes time to ask for a raise or a promotion. If you’re the CEO of a 100 person organization, you might be inclined to chat with the new entry level AR person at the coffee machine for a few minutes; you’re unlikely to be excited about a 30-minute Zoom with her.
(By the way, this whole construct may be different for engineering, where engineers are likely more comfortable with remote work AND aren’t held back in their career development as a result.)
I’ll close this post with an anecdote. As part of our work at Bolster, I was doing something called an Executive Team Scalability Assessment with the CEO of a $75mm SaaS company a month or so ago. When we were doing a review of how strongly each of his leaders role modeled company values, he paused when he got to one leader and said, “I honestly don’t know. That person has only been here 10 months, but don’t worry, that’s just because of the pandemic. I haven’t seen them in action.” 10 months! People will discover at some point that it was much easier to “lift and shift” an existing organization to the cloud in year 1 of the pandemic than it will be to sustain or build a culture with a lot of new employees in year 2 or 3 of remote-first work.
CEOs who care about their culture, their people, inclusion and belonging, and their people’s professional development will have to really re-think how things work if they are going to steer their companies towards remote-only policies, or even remote-first employees, and still be inclusive workplaces. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. But gravitating to a remote-only way of life, even if it’s personally enticing or if some talented and vocal employees demand it, may not be in the best interest of their overall company and employee population.