One of the great employment-related 2020s issues is whether to work, or allow work, from an office. As I have written, that’s really a 30-year-old problem, pushed to the forefront by and evolving faster because of the pandemic. What has been written about it in recent months?
The oldest here is “One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Employees’ Needs Are Changing Work Spaces” by Jane L. Levere in the October 19th New York Times. The lead example was “M. Moser’s 10,000-square-foot Manhattan headquarters,” “designed in 2018 and revamped in 2020” to be more “flexible,” in other words without personal office space. An architectural firm is advocating that workers arrive in an “anti-anxiety office entry” with “breathable and easily navigable spaces” to “choreograph the arrival experience to reduce crowding.” Whew. Perhaps this stuff will work, but more likely it’s just another set of business fads, to be swept away when businesses rediscover more efficient space design.
Is it true that “Remote Work Is Failing Young Employees” (Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel, The New York Times, November 22nd)? It’s about how workers’ online instructions for getting acclimated to their jobs, right or wrong, don’t work as well as getting help in person, summarized by an interviewed new hire who said “I was shocked at how all the skills I had learned on how to navigate this type of environment in person evaporated remotely.” Another claimed he “found it nearly impossible to socialize with colleagues,” perhaps caused by “well-intentioned but frazzled managers” with little “support or practice in remotely onboarding employees.” A real gap, which may require working from home to be preceded by at least a week or two with others.
Strange times bring a strange vocabulary, and to keep you up at least partially, we got, from the same author, date, and publication as the previous, “The New Language of the Office, From Al Desko Dining to Zoombies.” The two expressions in the title came along with “bookcase credibility” (specific titles on display during video calls); “commuter’s delight” (treats brought into the office for those unlucky enough to be there); “polywork,” or non-company financial projects consuming remote workers’ office-hours effort; and “synchronous time,” reflecting more difficulty in connecting simultaneously. As “office lingo signals affiliation with an in-group,” these terms, and others coming along, are not only valuable but constructive.
“Is working remotely an option for the long haul?” (Paul Davidson, USA Today and published in the Times Herald-Record, December 27th)? This piece, mainly a primer on then-current statuses which change month by month, doesn’t answer that. People saying yes and no could write dueling books – a debate would be too short – and we could decide. My take is “it depends in the individual employee and their job responsibilities,” but we’re hardly likely to decide quickly. One possible response, by Amy Sinatra Ayres from and in the same publications and appearing January 16th, titled “Experts: Virtual work is here to stay,” emphasized employee preferences while admitting that “finding the right combination of in-person and virtual work will take creativity and experimentation” and that “nobody knows the answer.” And most businesses will understand even less when the pendulum swings back yet again.
Another issue primarily but not exclusively with working from home is “What We Lose When Work Gets Too Casual” (Elizabeth Spiers, The New York Times, February 7th). So, “which parts of office culture were obliterated by Covid and need to be restored because they benefit workers more than they benefit corporations?” For Spiers, that could include “fixed start and stop times,” “managerial hierarchies with clear pathways for advancement,” and “professional norms that create boundaries between personal and professionally acceptable behaviors.” She makes cases for why these help employers at the expense of employees, such as a study showing fuzzier times meant unpaid extra hours, flat chains of command meant “employers can punt on” promotions, and Zoom backgrounds allowed us to draw inferences when “you finally get to see where Tyler from quality assurance lives – whether you want to or not.” This is another group of concerns in flux, built on by “Can Workers Climb the Career Ladder From Outside the Office?” by Corrine Purtill in the March 3rd New York Times, which aired matters such as whether “you can feel people’s energy better when you’re around them” for “assessing someone’s availability,” a controversy about the effectiveness of “virtual water coolers” (which the article did not mention could store and transmit comments), “bonding opportunities like virtual happy hours” with the same problems which may not work across time zones, potentially less real or perceived sex and race discrimination against people not in your field of vision, and reduced numbers of “side conversations,” from which “a lot of decisions are made.”
Despite any certainty, a strong downward pandemic trend has influenced companies to call employees in on future dates. That’s what Andrew Keshner found in “Google isn’t the only company requesting workers go back to the office. Jobs report shows more people are joining the ‘Great Return’” (MarketWatch, March 7th). Will that mandate hold? And how will the issues in this post play out? Only time, and maybe our best projections, will tell.
I will not be posting next week. Expect the next issue, on a topic to be determined, April 22nd.