Friday, November 26, 2021

Remote Work Since My Eleven Brutal Truths: Part III and Conclusions

To start with the same publication and date we finished with last week, in the September 28th Harvard Business Review Tsedal Neeley offered “12 Questions About Hybrid Work, Answered.”  If there was any doubt, “extensive data across surveys indicate that most people want hybrid work arrangements – that is, a mix of in-person and remote work,” and “leaders need to design plans that combine the preferences of their workforce and the core work that their organization need to do well – and they need to be prepared to adjust as they go.”  Neeley, who wrote a book on this subject, urged starting with standard procedures, as “each organization should identify the approach that best serves its stakeholders,” and that was only a small part of his response to the first question.  Other key issues, for Neeley, included letting as many employees as possible participate, facilitating transitions to it, how to bring in new workers, ways to neutralize the aforementioned “proximity bias,” facilitating more trust, removing “tech exhaustion,” indicated changes to office spaces, and data security.  All well worthy of consideration, and clearer and more in-depth than any of the other articles in this series.

The growing tendency of workers to quit their jobs has not avoided those based at home, and, for that and other reasons, it is no surprise that “U.S. employees look to prioritize well-being of remote workers – survey” (Manojna Maddipatla, Yahoo News, October 6th).  I am not sure what “subsidized furniture” means – if providing such employees with the same expensive ergonomic equipment as is in good offices, that’s a good idea – but “home delivery of meals… to meet the rigors of working from home” (!) is something else.  Providing food in offices is a blatant, if welcome, way of increasing workers’ time there, so why do that elsewhere?  The same goes for “at-home alternatives for offerings such as subsidized healthy food choices in cafeterias or onsite gyms.”  Perhaps all of this is designed to convince employees that management’s motives are pure, but I don’t expect any of it to catch on.  In contrast, we had Terry Collins reporting in the November 11th USA Today “Work remote after COVID?  Nearly 50% of US workers would take a pay cut for it, survey says.”  He also found “74% say working from home would make them happier post-pandemic as a quarter of those surveyed said they will quit their jobs if they can’t work remotely.”  So, for most (but hardly all), we can hold off on those home-delivered yoga mats. 

More on management’s views came in with “What Bosses Really Think About the Future of Work” (David Gelles, The New York Times, November 14th).  Chief executives, “struggling to balance rapidly shifting expectations with their own impulse” and “eager to appear responsive to employees who are relishing their newfound autonomy” are making a variety of choices, as shown by great intercompany remote-work differences.  Otherwise, except for IBM’s CEO Arvind Krishna saying “he no longer cared whether office workers showed up at 5 a.m. or 11 a.m., or whether their workday ended at 3 p.m. or 9 p.m., so long as they were productive” – which even if he were sincere about, people between him and those choosing 4-hour shifts would be unlikely to agree – there was little new here.

The last piece presented a possibility that has doubtless caused nightmares, “The Worst of Both Worlds:  Zooming From the Office,” by Emma Goldberg in the November 16th New York Times.  There were several good insights in this foray into the “mushy middle ground” of modern work.  We have not recently seen, as some expected, “the Great Office Reopening,” but, for one example, “as employees at the financial technology start-up CommonBond got Covid vaccines, and grew stir-crazy in their apartments, they started trickling back into the office.”  While clear-cut for most one way or the other, workers have not all been able to choose between “teammates” and “pajamas,” and their management often hasn’t either.  Although those at home “might be undercut” by being “muted in a heated discussion” and “shut out of lunchtime bonding,” “at many workplaces the in-person employees felt just as neglected.”  One way Zillow has mitigated some of that is to require that if at least one participant must attend remotely, everyone else must also, hence the title.  How we work this out, with the likes of Zoom hardly well liked, will not be easy.

What conclusions can we draw from the past three weeks’ worth of articles?  I offer four.  First, there are good and bad sides of telecommuting, and managers and line workers need to consider both.  Second, the ground rules for remote and hybrid work, such as office equipment and the number of hours people must put in, whether or not aligned with my Brutal Truths, are totally unset between companies, let alone between industries.  Third, we know nothing about what those wanting to integrate childcare with home work should be entitled to expect, and if that should vary from the needs and desires of others.  Fourth, between the pendulum which has swung between office-is-best and remote-is-best for 30 years, the discoveries we have made since March 2020, and management’s choppy and shifting policies, how we will handle remote work going forward is still totally unsettled.  Place your bets, take your chances, and make decisions, but don’t expect they will be correct.  Only the future will tell. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Remote Work Since My Eleven Brutal Truths: Part II

We start this week’s installment with one piece having a headline with an unexpected meaning.  John Zavitsanos’s July 26th New York Times “We’re Kidding Ourselves That Workers Perform Well from Home” did not address telecommuting employees failing to buckle down, rather that, in his law firm, it could “drain morale and diminish collegiality,” and that “some people were distracted and anxious to leave meetings, but in person, they were engaged and animated – there was just no comparison.”  Perhaps as a result of the company reopening its offices after only five 2020 weeks of closure, its revenue rose without furloughing or laying off anyone.  Zavitsanos did mention productivity being higher in person, and those who wanted remote work were allowed that, but concluded that “ambitious lawyers at firms like ours simply couldn’t thrive in a virtual setting.”

Although incomplete statistics detracted from “These careers added the most remote jobs in 2021:  report,” by Audrey Conklin on August 4th in Fox Business, it still provided new information, including that “remote work” increased tenfold earlier this year, with surprising growth in some categories, such as from-home health care positions almost tripling and “sales and business development” more than that.  Although the status of and prospects for telecommuting are uncertain, opportunities involving it have, indeed, skyrocketed.

On the same day, The Atlantic Daily provided a quick view on “The Remote-Work Experiment.”  A “remote company” CEO, Ed Zitron, maintained that “for the tens of millions of us who spend most of our days sitting at a computer, the pandemic proved that remote work is just work” (italics his), and that managers leery of it now have “the tangible proof of their still-standing business.”  I don’t find that a compelling argument, and the unbilled article author didn’t seem to either, as his “few things to consider,” from Zitron and two other sources, included “the work-from-home revolution will have winners and losers,” even if the latter are landlords, and “younger and less-established workers could have a tougher time.”  Sobriety, which as we will see was not an attribute of every contribution here.    

A choice employee have been making, and how much they should pay for it in other ways, was the subject of Sarah Kessler’s “Will Remote Workers Get Left Behind in the Hybrid Office,” in the August 5th New York Times.  She had only a general assertion that people not in offices could be underrated and not a part of certain interactions, and showed better that remote work is often an option taken mostly by women.  Not everyone takes the maximal career path – for example, when I was in AT&T management I understood that my best opportunities would call for me to move from Central Florida to New Jersey, which many did, but I declined that – and it is wrong to claim unjust discrimination when career path outcomes turn out, on average, to vary.  There is nothing pejorative about saying that women – as a group, not individually – tend to choose greater work-life balance.  More of the same came from Martha White, in Yahoo News on August 18th, in “Remote workers could face cuts to pay, visibility.”  White cited a study showing that “72 percent of supervisors… said they prefer to have their underlings in the office,” meaning they may not assess them objectively.  Lower recognition could turn out to be an accepted optional-telecommuting disadvantage.                    

So who are “The Winners of Remote Work” (Dror Poleg, August 31st, The New York Times)?  Not as many as we might think.  While it gives something desirable to many existing employees, it massively expands their competition for jobs, high performance reviews, and promotions, as it makes the pool of available candidates national or even worldwide.  Some annual salaries Poleg cited included the most skilled online elementary school teachers over $100,000 and fitness instructors earning five times as much.  The number of clients each can have is of course vastly larger than if they were working in person, leading to a concentration in which others cannot find opportunities at all.  The same thing, per the author, has been happening with “lawyers, doctors, consultants, bankers and managers.”  This situation is similar to people taking on more than one full-time position, differing only in the number of separate employers, and may indicate a de facto decrease in the numbers of some jobs.        

Evolving and oscillating philosophies on where workers should be have caused some to call allowed telecommuting an employee benefit.  Not so fast, said Gretchen Gavett in the Harvard Business Review on September 28th.  Her piece, titled “”Remote Work Isn’t a Perk to Toss into the Mix,”” was an interview of authors of a “forthcoming book, Out of Office:  The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home,” which seemed to unambiguously advocate telecommuting.  The best the book’s authors could do toward being even-handed was to acknowledge that management, not the workers, should be “vigilant about” how technology could “create more work, more stress, more wasted time.”  That wasn’t enough to be fair on this cyclical, divisive, and thoroughly unsettled issue.

The last part, along with conclusions, will appear next week.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Remote Work Since My Eleven Brutal Truths: Part I

One of the steadiest press topics this year has been what used to be called telecommuting, or employees doing their duties from where they live.  That was an old interest of mine, from times at AT&T around thirty years ago, and through my education, for which I wrote about it. 

In March I posted something called “Eleven Brutal Truths on Office Design and Working from Home,” giving my views on this new-old-new-old-new-old phenomenon, about which companies seemed to learn little from what previous generations had discovered.  I was generally skeptical about telecommuting’s advantages, saying that in practice it served more to facilitate workers’ slacking off, to accentuate wealth and home-situation differences, to wreck most of the social side of office jobs, and to illegitimately transfer costs to employees.  In a June update I still stood on these principles, and found occasional agreement in recent articles.  Now, in a three-part series, I will assess how much, if at all, companies and other observers are coming around to my beliefs. 

I start with three pieces from before my last pertinent writing.  The first, “The Pandemic of Work-From-Home Injuries,” by Jeff Wilser in the September 4th, 2020 (updated September 11th) New York Times, is old but addressed an issue still undercovered.  The piece started with the following anecdotal, which perfectly described the problem.  “Elizabeth Cuthrell, a Manhattan-based film producer, used to work in an ergonomic office space:  comfortable desk chair, monitor at eye level, external keyboard.  Then came Covid-19.  During stay-at-home she worked on a laptop from a wicker chair, or sometimes on a couch with “cushions like marshmallows.”  A month later she felt pain in her neck, write and shoulders that sent her to a chiropractor.”  In my MBA program in the late 1990s, ergonomics was important enough for an entire course – now, with companies as always notoriously unwilling to pay for premium home equipment, such as chairs that can easily cost $1,000, we are in danger of throwing away all of the progress there we have made.

Next, a reminder that not everyone is clamoring to stay at home: “The flip side of ‘flexibility’:  Working moms make the powerful case for going back to the office” (Erin Schulte, Fast Company, March 11th).  It’s not so they can get more work done, but rather to avoid “constant juggling,” “crazy hours,” and such from children as “no matter what, someone will come flying in with no pants on and ask me for Cinnamon Toast Crunch.”  Employers, per Schulte, “assume a lot about their employees,” described in a colorful paragraph including that they have a fully-professionally-outfitted office “that would score 8 or above on Room Rater,” and that “you don’t mind your boss knowing what your bedroom or your spouse looks like, or what your kids sound like when they’re squabbling in the room next door.”  

We got a look from the other side in “What Bosses Really Think of Remote Workers” (Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, May).  When the pendulum I mentioned swung in the direction of favoring people being in offices, we had, per Khazan, “a pushback against remote work” with those of you making that choice remarkably likely to “irritate your boss and hurt your career,” and tending to get smaller raises.  That may be a holdover from the pre-pandemic days where only some people worked from home, but for now the evidence in this piece is insufficient to say that any kind of discrimination continues today.

Starting the newer articles, we can’t really disagree that “Remote work is here to stay, survey of Canadian businesses shows” (Alicja Siekierska, Yahoo Finance, June 15th), but we still know nothing about the extent, or when if ever the pendulum will stop swinging.  Here we learned that “most Canadian business owners say they will continue to allow employees to work from home after the pandemic,” but that means some say they will not, and it’s hardly a lock that they will keep those views, especially after the main reason for workers doing that has faded back.  And as above, not everyone would choose it.

At least Austan Goolsbee, in the July 20th New York Times, had the foresight to see the issue in less rosy and dogmatic terms, in “The Battles to Come Over the Benefits of Working From Home.”  Although the author confused “gasoline” for much-higher car expenses, he named lack of commuting as “the biggest prize of all” for those working remotely, and reminded us that management could ask for compensation for that, by formally “asking employees to work longer from home” and noted the real problem of “blurring the lines between work and the rest of life,” which “does not have to benefit workers in the end.”  As I documented, the pendulum was swinging in the other direction before the pandemic, as employers were providing onsite gyms and free snacks to encourage workers not only to appear in the office but to stay there longer, and in some well-publicized cases barred them from remote work altogether.  So there we will see.

I end this week’s installment with another from the Times, “We Are Not Going Back to Business as Usual,” by Taylor Trudon on July 25th.  This piece delved into the murky area of doing personal errands and tasks on company time, hardly rare and often not considered wrong by many managers, during days either in or out of the office.  Trudon also seemed to imply, through examples, that the “hustle culture,” with such things as work-harder messages on watermelon slices, may have been peaking.  We have certainly seen some of that in the three-plus months since, as candidates have been more likely to hold out for positions with the remote-work rules they like, which still vary greatly by company.  And as before, we don’t know how it will be in 2022, let alone 2023. 

Next week:  more on this topic.

Friday, November 5, 2021

This Morning’s Jobs Data: A Calm, Normal Recovery Month, For Once – AJSN Shows Latent Demand Down 400,000 to 17.3 Million

With the peculiar Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary results we have been getting, capped by the previous one, it was reassuring to see a report showing that we improved in an orderly and once-expected fashion.

The number of net new nonfarm payroll positions moderately exceeded the published 450,000 projection with 531,000.  Seasonally adjusted and unadjusted unemployment improved 0.2% and 0.3%, coming in at 4.6% and 4.3%, the latter not from normal variation.  The number of jobless fell 300,000 to 7.4 million, with the count of those on temporary layoff holding at 1.1 million.  The long-term unemployed fell a large 400,000 to 2.3 million, and those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping short-hours positions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time ones, shed 100,000 to 4.5 million.  The two measures showing best how common it is for Americans to be working or one step away, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, were narrowly mixed, with the former up 0.1% to 58.8% and the latter still 61.6%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll wages increased 11 cents, roughly matching the inflation rate, and are now $30.96. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were available and easy to get, improved just over 400,000 and broke down as follows:

The unemployed population accounted for a bit more than the entire reduction, with all of the other categories combined offsetting it by less than 25,000 – none individually changed the metric by more than 52,000.  The share of the AJSN from official unemployment came in at 36.0%, down from 37.5%.

Compared with a year ago, the AJSN is almost 3.8 million lower, with almost exactly all of that from lower unemployment and a reduced count of those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more.  Our improvements now are, understandably, much less than they were at that pre-vaccination stage of the pandemic.

On the coronavirus front, showing that our good employment month was not at the expense of more Covid-19 activity, per the New York Times from September 16th to October 16th the 7-day average daily number of new cases dropped 44% to 83,703, deaths figured the same way fell 22% to 1,529, hospitalizations were off 37% to 61,281, and the number of new daily vaccinations, despite our creep toward saturation, still managed a 4% increase to 803.960. 

Feels good, doesn’t it?  Compared with just before the pandemic started, we still are several million jobs short and over two million heavy in the AJSN, but we made clear progress.  Given that we know there will be no sudden jump into maximum employment, we can’t ask for more except consistency at this level.  Accordingly, I saw the turtle take a big step forward.