I wrote an article on work-from-home (WFH) policies before the pandemic hit, and since then I've been researching how those recommendations might change moving forward. We recorded an upcoming episode about this for 2Bobs and you'll see that soon, but let me summarize some findings so that you can begin thinking about how all this might impact your firm.
Two Crazy Extremes
It's crazy to think that masses of people will flee cities for Mayberry, NC, buy more home for the money, say good riddance to their commute, and never go to a centralized office again.
It's equally crazy to think that the pandemic will have no impact on what employment looks like for firms in the digital, creative, and marketing space.
NYC and SFO, for example, are going to suffer. There will be a cascade of empty buildings, struggling local businesses, underfunded public transit, and increasing crime. But it will settle into a better place, eventually, and I'll take the "over" on the future of cities.
It's just an over-reaction to assume they'll be the new set for the next filming of The Walking Dead. There's even some interesting data that's starting to surface that should reassure the overly paranoid, drawing a distinction between density and crowding in urban areas.
Four Principal Reactions
We can divide you fine readers into four groups.
- You've been doing WFH forever and you're smugly nodding your head about being right all along.
- You didn't previously do much WFH but your eyes are open to the possibility and you plan to pivot to it primarily in the indefinite future.
- You've thought about WFH and decided against it for your own reasons, valid or not, and plan to return to a centralized office after the pandemic eases, but you'll also be more flexible with employees who want to WFH occasionally. The Nest cameras you've installed have revealed that they work longer hours and get more done with fewer distractions (those three things are all true).
You've resisted any provision for WFH and plan to resist WFH as soon as things return to normal.
Group 1 is all set. Group 4 isn't happening. Let's talk about Groups 2 and 3.
Two Long-Term Implications We Haven't Figured Out
I keep seeing these two things show up in Group 1, but Group 2 hasn't been doing WFH long enough to know how these challenges are going to impact them. They look around at the transition from traditional office to WFH, but it's still too new to see a few things:
- How innovation and collaboration will suffer, if at all. Or how to promote these core business values with different tools. Sorry, but Mural is good, but it ain't the same. New apps like Watercooler hold some promise, but we are creatures with deeply ingrained habits.
- How newer team members will integrate into a distributed team without the deep learning that occurs in face to face settings during the early months of their employee experience. Osmosis happens when you sit next to someone and soak up how they work, and misunderstandings are minimized when you "read" an entire body throughout a day instead of squinting at a Zoom face. Taking a cohesive team and sending them out to WFH—based on a woven fabric of trust—is not the same thing as integrating a new member into a team of strangers (to them). That's easier if the new employee is a WFH veteran, for sure.
So we have a lot to learn.
Truisms for You to Consider
I can't seem to drag myself into reading long, boring essays on things I'm barely interested in these days, so I'm just going to make a bunch of statements to get you thinking. You're smart and you can check these ideas against your own experience and decide what's worth thinking more about. Here goes:
- Abandoning a lease isn't going to save you a lot of money after you pour that money (as you should) into supporting a WFH team. Some might need home modifications, all will need proper internet, and you must get back together as a team on a regular basis. That means travel, lodging, food, and a rented venue.
- Could we agree that all the places your employees WFH are not really "office" on your website? This is driving me crazy. Stop it already.
- Recruiting is going to be much harder. With all the freshly available prospective employees out there, you wouldn't think this would be the case. But while it's true that you'll be able to recruit from a much broader geographic footprint, everybody else will be vying for the same people. Now you'll be judged more by your culture, your WFH aptitude as an org, your positioning, and your comp levels. I have always advocated an active employee recruitment plan, because ultimately it is more difficult to find the right people than the right clients. (On a side note, your health insurance options will be narrower as you'll need a plan that covers a broader geographic area.)
- Managing is going to require more intentional activity. Getting management responsibility is no longer some inevitable next step in an employee's desire to move up the ladder. Some people are really good at managing others and shaping those careers...and some people are shitheads at it and shouldn't be given any opportunity to keep proving that. Any management gaps will be glaring, and great managers are going to be celebrated.
- A Vaccine is Not Going to Fix Much...at Least in the Near Term. All I'm saying is really what I tweeted recently: "Think of your business as a startup, solving big, seemingly intractable challenges that mystify your competitors. Think of 'startup land' as the next 2-3 years. Don't keep waiting for circumstances to return to normal." I'm making this statement for two reasons. First, 69% of people were willing to take a vaccine six months ago--now that has dropped to 53%. Second, travel is going to pick up again and we'll face new challenges. Civic Science has great data on this front.
- There Will Be Less Ageism. Older employees will be better equipped to WFH (bigger homes; fewer kids underfoot), they will have accumulated more social capital to make this work, and pay cuts to match lower cost of living will be less impactful as a percentage. Speaking of which...
- Good Luck Cutting Comp if Someone Moves to a Less Expensive Locale. I just do not think that will fly with the team. You might make it happen in exchange for a permanent WFH scenario (though I doubt it), but I don't think they will allow any connection between their cost-of-living and what you deem to be a fair wage. It's going to continue to be based on the value they provide, as it should.
- Boundary Between FT Ee and Contractor Will Blur. You'll still pay your FT team member a fixed amount regardless of the workload, unlike how you might compensate a contractor based on how the workload fluctuates. But someday it'll dawn on you that you can assemble a team for each big project, kind of like Hollywood does to film a movie over 18 months. This will not be a game changer, but there will be more fluidity. By the way, now is a good time to never write a check to a freelancer directly. Begin insisting that all the checks get written to a corporation, even if you have to subsidize that one-time cost for them.
- We're Overdoing Zoom. Go back to audio-only phone calls most of the time, and save Zoom for when it's really important. There are massive problems with forcing people to sit still, stare at a big head, and pretend to be engaged.
I really like how this is forcing us to examine our long-held beliefs. We'll emerge from this with a little more common sense, more flexibility around work life, and tighter positioning around how our work cultures truly can be part of the positioning conversation.