To make sure it's 100% clear, a short reminder: this blog post represents my private comments, statements, and viewpoints. They should not be associated with my employer - either the current one or the past ones. The opinions quoted in this article have popped up during casual, social conversations, not professional customer engagements.
In the Information Age (the one we live in), the information doesn't just move at the speed of light. Its impact can also quickly get out of control. Its meaning can be easily twisted, manipulated, and turned against the source. That's why companies are so cautious about all kinds of communication, especially all the sensitive topics.
One of these topics is remote work.
Remote = Awesome!
People got amazed by the freedom brought by working from home. Elasticity, saved commute time, self-tailored workplace, freedom to work across geo-boundaries - from employees' perspective, the advantages are indisputable (even if individual preferences vary - we're not all alike, of course).
No surprise that employers (big and small) have quickly got in tune with that.
The web got filled with sensational news about more and more companies agreeing to indefinite remote work policy for their employees. Internet celebrities (consultants, coaches, "productivity experts") started publishing their startling research findings. According to them, the forced switch to the remote work model has boosted the general productivity, woken up the sleeping potential, etc.
So, in the end, everyone seems to be happy with the change. Welcome to the new era of work — remote work (as a new default).
On the sideline: at this point, you should have already realized that there will be a twist. Am I going to question the pros of remote work? Will I bring up arguments AGAINST remote work? Not really.
There's just one problem.
If you speak with leaders (of all levels, 50+ headcount companies, in knowledge/creative work industries) privately, face-to-face, off-the-record, their version of the story changes significantly. Some of them are more open than others, but the vast majority repeats pretty much the same mantra - here's an aggregated digest:
- no-one will admit that publicly, but the total effectiveness (of teams who have rapidly jumped on the remote bandwagon) has dropped SIGNIFICANTLY (it was not that visible in the first few months due to the momentum effect) and permanently (that was not a matter of adaptation period)
- unit efficiency (which is much easier to measure) is frequently on par (with the past) - or in some cases even higher than before; however - this is a vanity metric: easy to measure but good only for PR
- knowledge management has risen to a top tier issue rank - it was hard to measure, even after the first symptoms appeared, but it has become fully apparent in time (more and more companies hire dedicated technical writers just to fix this one thing)
- adverse effects are limited for people with a long tenure (familiar with the organization, its culture, and principles), but the situation is much direr when it comes to new joiners (onboarded during the pandemic), especially relatively inexperienced ones (who require more mentoring and support)
- high performing companies that owe their strong position to the top-notch organization/engineering culture struggle with cultivating that culture in a fully remote environment; issues with the collective identity, sense of belonging, fulfillment & satisfaction (from work), and everyday leadership are common
Ironically, the issue seems to affect less the organizations where:
- individual's work is task-based & "industrialized" (well defined, solo, the flow of work happens via structured, rigid processes) - as opposed to goal-based and highly collaborative work environments
- teamwork and communication were poor (because, well ... there are still lacking, so no one sees any difference)
Yes, there's a chance I had a stroke of bad luck, and people I've been speaking to were all: old-timers unable to adapt to the new situation, pessimists, naysayers. After all, these were not official statements backed up with hard data, but rather some anecdotal input. However, those voices were just too common and too similar (across backgrounds, geographies, industries) to have it ignored ...
So yeah - it all resembles the famed story by Hans Christian Andersen - bystanders know that the king is naked, but they remain silent. For now.
- First of all - the pandemic is not over. Whatever decision could be made, it may have to be canceled due to the next wave/mutation of COVID-19. It becomes less and less possible, but still.
- History proves that it's nearly impossible to retract a privilege once given. Doing that prematurely, too openly, or with a poor accompanying narration, could be very costly to a careless company.
That's why everyone waits ...
... but even if no one speaks about this stuff openly yet, I expect some tectonic moves just around the corner. Why 'tectonic'? They will be slow, gradual, but firm, with a clear purpose and a lasting effect.
It will start with companies announcing new hybrid work models, initially for the volunteers. The incentives will follow - first, the extrinsic ones (perks, etc.) - for the people who get back to the office.
That should be enough to attract enough people to create the information asymmetry - because the fully remote model (where everyone is a subject of the same constraints) will drift into 'islands' (office-based teams) with 'satellites' (individual remote workers). That will generate enough pressure for many of the most ambitious, growth-oriented people to get back to the offices as well.
The whole process will take some time. And it will be focused on the teams that are either responsible for the most creative, innovative work or whatever makes the competitive edge for the organization. The teams who conduct well-documented, repetitive, standardized work will probably stay remote - it's not only cheaper, but the talent is easier to acquire that way.
My bet is that in 2-3 years we'll be working in conditions much closer to what we know from the times before the pandemic than the present situation.
P.S. I know quite a few highly determined, small startups who stopped GAF about the pandemic 2-3 months after the initial outburst. They sat down around a table, had a serious conversation, and altogether decided that "it's now or never". Since then, they keep working like they did before, in a single room: prototyping, experimenting, building MVPs, and looking for the product/market fit.
P.S.S. I realize that there are companies this situation does not apply to. Mainly some small ones who have always worked remotely, composed carefully of experienced, highly motivated and independent people. Still, statistically, it's hard to call them anything but outliers.
P.S.S.S. Before you get into a 'remote zealot outrage' mode, please keep in mind that: this blog post doesn't say a word about the reasons (of alleged effectiveness drop) or doesn't bring any arguments to criticize the idea of remote work. ALL that is mentioned here is the final OUTCOME, observations based on real-life effects. Whoever/whatever is to be blamed or whether the overall outcome is positive (yes, the productivity suffers, but it's compensated with a high improvement of employees' well-being) - these are the topics of completely separate discussions.