work from home

No. The Future of Work is NOT Work From Home

No. The Future of Work is NOT Work From Home 1080 599 Jason Lauritsen

A lot has changed over the past several months at work. This virus showed up and lit the status quo on fire. A majority of office workers now work from home. And we’ve been scrambling ever since. 

The most intense disruption has been felt in jobs and work that once happened in an office setting but is now happening outside the office, primarily in what we call “work from home” (WFH). 

According to data published by Stanford in late June, 42% of the U.S. labor force is working from home full time. When considered against the fact that 33% of the labor force is unemployed, that’s a huge share of working people now doing it from home. And it’s a reality that was almost unthinkable six months ago.  

As a result of this major shift, there’s been a wave of articles and proclamations made recently that “the future of work is here” and that the move to WFH is here to stay. 

In the words of the great Lee Corso, long-time college football analyst and coach, “Not so fast, my friend.”

In the midst of a whirlwind of change and uncertainty, it’s natural to grasp for certainty. It’s also natural to want what’s happening to somehow be the end of the changes. We are all craving some normalcy and a world that slows down a bit so we can start trying to make sense of it again. 

But it’s far too early to start drawing any definitive conclusions about how the way we work is going to look when this pandemic is finally over. Given that even the most optimistic experts suggest that early 2021 might be when things begin to turn, we’ve got a long journey ahead of us yet. 

It’s more useful to step back and consider what we know and what we’ve learned. These insights can then guide us as we try to prepare our organizations for what lies ahead. 

What we know

The pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse when viewed through the lens of work and how work happens. On the one hand, it’s ushered in a lot of challenges and hardships in the form of safety and financial challenges. 

On the other hand, the necessity of survival forced changes that were long overdue. 

  • Employees who had been told for years that their job couldn’t be done remotely were equipped to do so in days. 
  • Employees not only demonstrated an ability to work from home, but in many cases their productivity has actually improved
  • According to many I’ve spoken to, projects that would have taken years to complete in the past have been completed in months. 
  • The artificial barriers between “work” and “life” were broken apart as the new workplace involved bedrooms and living couches shared with children, spouses, and pets.  

As the proverb says, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” 

There has been more disruption to the way work gets done in the past few months than in the previous decade. This virus forced us to cut through bureaucracy, red tape, and old school management practices to find a way to survive.  

And yet, both Gallup and Quantum Workplace have reported data that shows a dramatic improvement in employee engagement trends during the pandemic when compared to past years. 

What do we really know for sure at this point? 

We know that remote work is more viable and feasible than most expected. And we know that the reason we had not been allowing remote work in the past had little to do with it being possible and everything to do with management’s distrust of employees. 

We know that employees are far more resilient, resourceful, and committed to their jobs than most organizations assumed. Even in some really challenging situations (i.e. childcare, school from home, partner conflict, etc.), employees found a way to maintain productivity and get their core work done. 

We know that we are properly motivated, we can get things done and make things happen, even big complex things, a lot faster than we thought. Our slow, political, bureaucratic processes have been like anchors holding us in place. The bigger your organization, the heavier that anchor. 

What don’t we know?

The list of what we know is short. The list of what we don’t know is very, very long. That’s what makes jumping to any conclusions at this point dangerous. 

For example, we now know (and more importantly our employees know) that a majority of jobs can be done remotely. What we don’t know is whether they should be done remotely? Or if they should be done remotely all of time, some of the time, or none of the time. 

We have only been in this new reality of remote work for less than six months. We don’t really know yet how employees and their feelings will evolve.  When I started working from a home office, it took me years to fully make the transition and to learn how to be most effective in this setting (and I have the advantage of an actual home office). 

Some recent research from Quartz and Qualtrics revealed that “55% of people who switched from working outside the home to remote work at home said they prefer working from home when polled in early June.” But when you dig in deeper, the number is higher for those who work at a big company and lower for those who work in a small company. 

That data is from early June, before employees spent another few months isolated from colleagues and confined to their homes. We can only speculate at this point how employees are changing in both their attitudes and capabilities through this experience. Our workplace is going to emerge forever transformed. So too will our workforce

We don’t know yet the true impact of a fully distributed workforce. How could we? The fact is that we are running a giant remote work experiment during a pandemic. For me, working from home in the past was a combination of being in my office, on my couch, walking outside, using a conference room at a co-working space, and spending hours and hours in coffee shops both alone and in conversations with others. And that’s when I wasn’t on the road traveling. 

Today, employees are confined and limited to where and how they can work remotely. Work from home means “stuck at home” in a lot of cases, and it also means supervising children’s schooling, sharing space and duties with a spouse or roommates who are also stuck at home, etc. When the pandemic is over, a lot of variables will change and that means that some of what we think we’ve learned about how to shape work in the future may not be as valid as we think. An employee might come to hate working from home during a pandemic, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want to do it under different circumstances. 

What should you do now? 

Given all of this, how can you prepare your organization for a new reality of work that hasn’t fully arrived yet?

  1. Talk to your people. There’s been so much change and most of us have been just rolling with the punches, trying to take it all in stride and do the best we can. But it’s hard. You feel it and so does every one of your employees. Now is the time to dial up your frequency of employee communication and feedback cycles. Surveys, focus groups, one-on-one check-ins, and any other means of keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s happening with your employees is critical right now. Ask them how they are holding up and where they are struggling. Ask them how you can help. Ask them what they need. And do something to show them you care.
  2. Treat all of this as an experiment. Things are going to continue to change, the variables are going to keep changing. So, continue to try new things. A good experiment starts with a hypothesis (what do we think will happen?), followed by a specific and intentional action or set of actions, followed by measurement. The goal of an experiment is to prove or disprove the hypothesis and then use that information to start the next experiment. In other words, keep trying new things and measuring the impact. Learn as much as you can about what’s working and what isn’t so you can build on that in the future. Take full advantage of this unprecedented time to explore and learn.
  3. Focus on enabling employee performance. Employees have proven they will rise up to the challenge of remote work, but they’ve had to bear a heavy load to do it. Figure out what employees need and make it easier for them to perform what’s expected and make it happen. If employees are working from home, then supporting them in how to make that home work for them is just as important as it was to make the “workplace” a productive environment in the past. This could mean providing stipends for office furniture and technology. It might mean new technology tools. It might mean providing support and resources for childcare.
  4. Recognize that WFH is only one version of remote working. To say, “work from home” is the new norm or that it’s here to stay is wrong. You can say this: the days of telling people they have to work from the office and that their job can’t be done remotely without providing a really clear business reason are gone. What many employees have long wanted from work is flexibility. And now they know it’s possible and they will demand it in the future. 

Focus on people, don’t jump to any conclusions, and learn as much as you can. The future is always uncertain and unpredictable. The best thing we can do is pay close attention to what’s happening and apply what we are learning as we go.  

If you like this content, then you might really like my new online Engagement Leader Community. The work of engaging employees is getting harder. If you are wrestling with how to keep your employees engaged, happy, and productive during these crazy times, you will find some answers and support here. Check it out.

2 comments
  • Tiffany David

    I respectfully disagree with many of these points. Data sources are all over the map right now but the CNBC 50 Disruptor list points to the businesses that are thriving, not merely surviving, are doing so in large part due to their ability to pivot product and service offerings with a broadened talent pool. This talent pool is asking for flexibility as you point out but also support for working from home to attend to personal obligations. My clients are giving up the heavy expense of static brick and mortar lease and rents and looking to reimburse and equip their remote wfh workforce. If anything, a flex work (co-work) space for meetings and sign-ups for employees to utilize may be the compromise.

    • Jason

      Thanks Tiffany. Thank you for some disagreement. My goal was to get people thinking. I’m not sure we actually disagree as much as you think. My argument isn’t that working from home isn’t going to be part of the equation, it’s just not the end solution. Too many people are rushing to conclusions right now based on what data we have today, but today isn’t representative of what conditions and circumstances will look like in the future. I completely agree that how we’ve thought of and used offices will change, but it’s not going to look like things do right now. Of that I am pretty certain.

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