The backlash

The backlash has begun. Four months ago, everywhere was proclaiming that working from home was both the New Hotness and Here to Stay. In the last few weeks, those same venues have switched gears, documenting how people can’t wait to go back to the office. What changed?

Nothing. Simply the novelty wore off.

I get it. The last time I had a work-from-home job I didn’t really enjoy it. It was a decade ago and the technology wasn’t quite there. No Slack, an emphasis on phone calls rather than video-chats and much weaker collaboration tools like wikis. I was also one of only a few people working remotely. But, perhaps most significantly, I was at a different stage of my life.

If the pandemic and subsequent lockdown had hit back then, how would I have coped? It’s impossible to say for sure, of course, but less well I think.

And if you go back much before that and I wouldn’t have been able to work at all. I remember a teacher friend grumbling that she took work home but I didn’t. Couldn’t would have been more accurate: I didn’t have a £250,000 computer at home! A lot of business don’t even have machines like that any more.

Ultimately, people are learning that working remotely is a skill. If you just plonk people in disparate places and hope for the best, you’re probably going to fail over the medium term. Those unplanned meetings in corridors really won’t happen. As suspected, people won’t schedule a thirty-minute meeting to discuss… well, who knows what… the whole point is the serendipity. If these things are important — and I think they are — then you can’t just say “That doesn’t work remotely,” give up and insist everyone return to the office. That’s a total abdication of leadership!

The meeting won’t happen in exactly the same way, but you can encourage public conversations in Slack or Teams. You can have “happy hours” when the team can dial in for chit-chat.

I’m sure you have your own ideas. The point is that collaboration can and does happen remotely. Sure, there are cases where it can’t happen, or at least can’t happen easily. If you’re designing or making hardware it’s difficult.

Hopefully, as the threat of COVID-19 lifts, we’ll remember the lessons we’ve learned. We shouldn’t go back exactly to how things were before. The people who like working from home should still be able to do so, at least some of the time. I want to believe that the idea that people can’t be productive at home is no longer wide-spread. On the other hand, it’s not a panacea. We shouldn’t be closing all the office space in cities and we shouldn’t force people to work from home if they prefer being in an office.

In the end, treating staff like adults and trusting them to Get The Job Done is rarely a bad policy.

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