It was too big, too deep, and too blue. In its presence, I could barely keep my eyes open — perhaps because of all those tiny sun reflections. I can’t remember how long it took for the seven year-old me to get into the pool, but when I did, it felt like I lost pounds of weight. A few minutes later, all of my doubts turned into excitement, and then I didn’t want to leave.
After years and years of speculation, millions of telework-skeptics were forced to make the jump, and now they don’t want to leave the pool. Most surveys show majority of people appreciate working from home. And most tech giants are making it easier for their employees to continue doing so.
After all, it feels good to have all that weight lifted — stress of commute, guilty breaks at work, distracting coworker walk-ups, limited family time, lack of flexibility, and perhaps what’s most tempting for many companies: the promise of not needing expensive, high maintenance office spaces.
Developing a vaccine is not going to make us unlearn any of this. So, I agree that we’re not “going to come out of this and be back where we were before this all started”, but I also don’t think that we’re heading towards a future where WFH is the dominant form of work. In fact, I think what we’re experiencing now is more a WFH honeymoon than a prototype for a larger cultural shift. Two reasons why:
- The Extreme Will Push the Mainstream
While many recent surveys show that majority of people like working from home, there is always a minority of 20 to 40 percent (depending on which survey you look at) that want to come back to the office. According to surveys, these are mostly the same people who heavily rely on face-to-face connections with others to get their work done. As shelter-in-place restrictions are being lifted, workplaces will transform into exclusive clubs for employees who want to be connected with one another. With these people returning to their workplaces, it won’t be a levelled virtual playing field anymore. These place-based, tightly-knit networks have a higher potential to outperform individual telworkers and eventually marginalize them, attract and retain power, shape the organization’s culture, and even drive key decisions on projects.
Interestingly, a study that was done a few years back shows these people also have a tendency to be more active in the workplace and use more spaces.
Membership fee for this exclusive club you ask? To be physically present in the workplace.
2. Tele”work” Isn’t the Real Test, Tele”innovation” Is
The real test of telework for masses is not the ability to keep working on similar tasks with the same network of people (what most of us have been doing for the past couple of months), it’s the necessity to solve new complex problems and to stay ahead of the competition as we work with new team members.
This might come as no surprise for you, but when it comes to agility and maneuverability, I’m way better at walking on the ground than I am at swimming in the water! The fact that I enjoy swimming doesn’t mean that I’m great at it. It takes years of practice to become a competitive swimmer. Similarly, the fact that we’re enjoying certain things about WFH, doesn’t make us competent teleworkers.
Simulating scenarios where employees can tackle complex situations remotely and in a low-risk environment can help us prepare for real tests of inventiveness, agility, and maneuverability. But until then, lets leverage all of our resources, including the physical space of the workplace, to stay competitive.
There are signs indicating that the future workplace will mainly be a nexus for high-performing, tightly-knit networks of people who are there by choice as well as a library of tools and resources that are too expensive or specialized to be duplicated in other places.
What do you think the future workplace will look like?