Viva la Revolution

It’s safe to say that the biggest silver lining of the 2020 hellscape was (and in some cases still is) the ability to work from home. I don’t need to go into deep detail when it comes to the benefits, you were all there.

Pre-pandemic, remote work was largely geared towards workers living far away from the office. This gave companies a broader talent pool to draw from but beyond that WFH was a rarity. In the few cases where some people would get time from home, it was usually a rare privilege or specific to their job. 2020 flipped this notion directly on its head and it’s not going to turn over again. The market has now decreed that WFH is a borderline labor right. Proponents of the work from home revolution (and I count myself as a proud member) have declared 5 days in the office to be an intolerable act. Much like our founding fathers however, we are willing to extend an olive branch before declaring outright independence. Specially, we want a hybrid model of a few days in and a few days from home every week.

There has obviously been opposition from employers to this and it is somewhat understandable. Organizations sink ungodly sums of capital into office space and feel the need to justify that after the fact. They have spent a great deal of time creating a company structure and culture and don’t think it can withstand too much remote work. This simply fails the eyeball test because if your business is still standing after these past 18 months, that alone should be proof your organization is flexible enough to accommodate a level of remote work that in most cases is significantly lower than what has already be tested! If total remote work didn’t destroy your organization’s culture and efficiency (in many cases it actually improved it), how is a hybrid model going to?

This is in part the classic trap of the sunk cost fallacy (no offense, but this is my favorite kind of fallacy). Simply because you as an organization have made this investment, this does not mean that you shouldn’t diversify a little bit. If you bought into office space and the value is clearly falling and unlikely to return to previous levels, you’d be foolish to not sell off a little out of pure stubbornness. This is a failure to face up to the reality of the situation: the world changed over the last year and a half. And it’s not going back.

This resistance should not come as a great shock. Even though WFH has been with us for a while now, the same rules of adoption to technology still apply. We are fairly early in the cycle and still seeing the natural resistance to change. I would say we’re starting to progress past the early majority and within the next year or two I expect us to enter the late majority stage.

Some companies have adopted the hybrid model and I believe that this is not purely about simple adoption. Risk adverse leaders are possibly anticipating future surges and planning accordingly. This illustrates the compromising position that non-hybrid offices are in. If (God forbid) things start to get really bad and the virus sees great spikes, non-hybrid offices faces a greater pivot than the current adopters. Even if workers are vaccinated and extremely unlikely to develop serious illness, the reputation of the offices who didn’t allow generous work from home face potentially irreparable harm. Once again, technological innovation creates insurance against risk if you take the often-overblown risk of adoption. The greater risk is the failure to adapt to the reality of the situation.

Even when this pandemic is long since past, the labor force will continue to demand work from home. Some organizations hope that this phenomenon will die out along with the risk of the virus. But there’s no sense in trying to rebottle this particular genie. The market for technology that makes remote work more viable will only continue to grow. This is not only means better tools for current remote workers, but tools that make certain jobs suddenly capable of being done from the comfort of home.

I do not believe that companies with minimal or no remote work are going to fall off a cliff immediately. But they’re already starting to lose out on top talent who have the leverage to leave and get another job (many have already). The loss of talent will greater downstream effects that won’t kill business today but weaken their competitive standing somewhere down the line. They will face a growing degree of turnover and hiring shortages that will eventually force them into the realm of the late majority. The common theme that we’re seeing here is that the benefits of WFH outweigh the highly speculative costs.

9 comments

  1. As a full-time student, I will see (hopefully soon) an offer with terms. I will be looking closely at details around WFH flexibility. I wonder how this WFH will change industries meant to support (or provide value to) offices filled with people (thinking food/drink, gyms, etc). Bars that may have seen an influx of people leaving an office on Thursday night may need to adapt. I think COVID caused a big splash with many ripples propagating out and impacting everyone. Being able to identify how to adapt to what may become a significant shift in providing value to office workers through food, drink, or other amenities will be crucial in the coming months.

  2. My company sold our Seaport office late last year, and we really haven’t looked back yet since. I completely agree with the sentiment that if your company has been alright for the past 18 months, the culture will probably continue to thrive in a hybrid or remote setting moving forward. Our company’s productivity has been through the roof since COVID WFH began, and we are also able to cast a much larger net in terms of recruiting that is not restricted to the Boston area. I do, however, feel like we have missed the personal touch that our small start up had while being together in our office space so frequently. You really can’t replace after-work drinks at the bar with a zoom call “happy hour”. I’m a firm believer in hybrid work places as the future in the majority of industries.

  3. I think your proposition to adopt an undefined hybrid model to remain flexible towards future government overreach and incompetence is sound. However, I will push back on you that you failed to address the long term effects of WFH. At the very least, careers that require mentorship and relationship management will suffer without face to face interaction between senior and junior leaders. These two aspects of business operations are vital to the longevity of a firm. If neglected, work flow for firms will progressively dry up not in 18 months, but in five to ten years.

    1. This reminds me of the poll Professor took in class – his observation was that most undergrads want to go back into office while his grad students generally favor the WFH environment. I personally took on a new job during the pandemic and it was difficult to build relationships and get caught up without the face to face. Its a give and take situation, while we get more freedom in terms of flexibility and companies save money on actual building spaces, it also hurts relationship building and the social aspect of work. Video call is just not the same. Maybe having off-sites once a quarter/in person workshops for industries that support remote work may be the solution?

  4. I appreciate the comments to this post that raise questions about stages of career and necessity of in-person vs remote (and yes, I do appreciate the post as well!) It’s also the nature of the job, of course, as there might be some aspects that lend themselves to remote while others thrive on the in-person experience.

    When I look at my own career and where I am now, I truly enjoyed working fully remote for 17 months. I’m sorry it had to happen due to a pandemic that caused so many to be sick (or die.) But for me to be home with all three of my children and my wife and my cat – it was a really positive experience. I did have the advantage at this stage in life to have a house that’s big enough to accommodate a home office and high speed internet and all that. And there were certain aspects of my job I was able to do better remotely, most notably being one of the key members of the BC Communications Office that managed the production and deployment of emails about the pandemic. So my hours sometimes shifted outside of the normal 9-5 but that was fine due to my overall at home flexibility.

    With return to work, I’ve negotiated a set up where I work from home on Tuesdays and Fridays. I’d have loved to have worked from home more days a week but to be honest working from home two days a week is one more day a week then I ever thought I’d be able to do at BC, which is fairly conservative in terms of workplace innovation.

    I’m definitely in the latter stage of my career (I hope!) and so for me I can certainly get enough in-person or face-to-face interactions in those three days. As it is, what with Delta variant and all, most in office days I have very little contact!

    In contrast to this, I think of when I moved to Stockholm when I was 25, to work in a small Swedish interactive design agency. I knew NO ONE in Sweden and thus my workplace was the center of everything for me in those first few months. I couldn’t have done that if it was a remote job. As it was, those first few months were really difficult, until I started building up a social network of my own. And that was true in my stateside jobs at the time too – lots of going out afterworks with “mates” and such that I really enjoyed.

    So overall, I think it’s in the best interests of organizations to really be open to whatever hybrid or remote option works best for their employees.

  5. I think Tanker 2 Banker made an excellent point in his comment that I can relate to directly. In that, we are missing the interaction that junior and mid-level employees are missing being remote. For example, I started a new job six months ago and I have yet to have many interactions with directors/executives outside of my team. It has resulted in me and many other employees being siloed and not having the communications we had pre-pandemic that help us move up within an organization and be mentored.

  6. I think this is defintely the issue of our time. Interestingly, we asked on our book launch webinar how many companies were likely to adopt some sort of hybrid going forward, and about 80% of respondents thought their organizations would. Frankly, I was surprised at the high number.

  7. A lot of good points made our fellow ISYS8621 comrades. I am embracing the hybrid approach but I’ll admit Ben that I feel the opposite of you regarding remote vs on site. If hybrid was not possible and I had to pick between remote and on site, I’m choosing on site all day long. In the past 18 months I really miss the comradery of my work team when we were in the office. Virtual Happy Hours help but they aren’t the same. There are honestly people on my team that i haven’t seen in person in over 12 months. That becomes a bit draining. Networking virtually I think is one of the biggest challenges we have to solve for in this hybrid remote model. Like Kanal I just recently accepted a new job and I can’t help but think how I’m going to go about getting myself accustomed to the new team in a remote setting.

  8. As we have said so many times in this class, this is truly the question of the moment. How do we return to work. I think one thing that so many managers have to think about is the range of employees and the situations that they are in. So many young people working from small apartments in big cities with many roommates may want the opportunity to go in the office yet also want flexibility and autonomy over their own schedule. I think there is so much value in passing by coworkers in the office and happenstance conversations. As I see it right now, there is not quite the technology that can bridge that gap and create those quick connections in the office.

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