Friday, July 29, 2022

Working from Home – or Not? Another Month Rolls By

Maybe because the issue is so unsettled, and ultimately involves tens of billions of dollars a year, we’re seeing more and more about whether cubicle sorts of workers need to be in the office.  These are from only July.

As a contractor at a company which had recently downsized or moved many employees, I worked in a large empty room, and felt like I was seeing “Lonely Last Days in the Suburban Office Park” (Emily Badger, The New York Times, July 5th).  These places, with “serene grounds” in “leafy” areas and named something ending in “park,” based on “the very American idea that office workers would do their best work if they could look out at manicured nature instead of the frenetic cityscape,” probably peaked in the 1990s, though were around at least four decades before.  However, “a younger generation wants more urban offices, real estate developers say, or at least suburban offices that feel (italics theirs) more urban, with sidewalks and somewhere different to eat lunch every day.”  Times change, and after over sixty years it shouldn’t be surprising.

Yet every shift will not succeed, as argued in “Hybrid Work is Doomed,” by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic on July 6th.  After tipping his hat to stock advantages of working from home, the author wrote that while “remote, flexible employment might be a win for everyone,” “actually, it isn’t.”  That, Bogost maintained, is because offices “serve as affirmations of a superseding value” which “gives identity to office workers and firms alike, by imposing its practices across the workforce.”  These settings “have never been about increased efficiency,” and indeed, “the intrigue and plotting of office politics, the sense of importance or position afforded by a corner room, the holding of court in a meeting… are not opposed to office life but central to it.”  Office time enculturates workers, which is necessary for management, and perhaps we can never get past that.

We can see the pendulum between remote and office work move some more in Rebecca Knight’s July 7th Business Insider “Less me-space, more we-space:  How a future-of-work architect advises companies to redesign their work environments to get employees back to the office.”  As I have mentioned, business knowledge is forever being lost – the example here is that we have already found that depriving workers of personal space is ultimately detrimental.  The author suggests that “concentrated work” can be done at home, but that not only calls for people to be allowed to stay there but have the ability to choose what work is done on which days.  The interviewed “future-of-work design expert” was planning spaces that looked like living rooms – fine for part of the time, but all day?  That idea will grind to a halt later this decade, as managers discover the wonderful advantage of saving square feet.  And, sometime later, the idea will return…

One side effect of more remote work is that “The Business Lunch May Be Going Out of Business” (Brett Anderson, July 11th, The New York Times).  Called a “power lunch” in the 1980s, the custom of workers, especially those relatively high-ranking, taking long mid-day breaks at usually fancy restaurants goes back longer than that – do you remember the “three-martini lunch”? – and if the title of this article is an overstatement, such indulgences, generally accepted as perks, are rarer, not only due to fewer worker-office days but unsettled in-person reporting mandates.  One high-end place owner asked “With this hybrid workday, is Wednesday the new Monday, or is Thursday the new Friday?  If I can crack that code, I might have a chance.”  Well, so would employees.

What people think they want may not be the same as what they should have, as Chloe Berger expressed in “Millennials and Gen Z are better off returning to office, says future of work expert” in the July 12th Fortune.  She relayed from a former large company chief human resources officer that younger workers have had “feelings of frustration over being less connected to their colleagues in a remote situation,” and “since remote onboarding takes time to catch workers up to speed and feel personal,” they need to be “intentional about how they foster their relationships and the time they come into the office.”  Others have mentioned difficulty in starting new hires in careers, as opposed to contractors on limited assignments, when it is harder to meet others in person.  That’s a problem, and it certainly contributes to the high rates of job-hopping which Berger cited.

Not every flag raised gets saluted, and as published by Berger in Fortune on July 18th, we learned that “Workers are calling their bosses’ bluffs on in-office mandates.”  When employers tell them that they must report in person, many “turn a blind eye,” with, in a recent survey, 35% thinking that “their employer would likely do nothing if they or their peers didn’t go into the office as much as required.”  Another study found that “only half of workers who were expected to return to the office are actually going in five days a week,” and Goldman Sachs’s and Apple’s CEOs got far from universal compliance when they announced office time requirements.  That’s one response, and with a perceived shortage of job candidates, it may be more common.  Yet it would take only one large firm consistently sending people down the disciplinary sequence, and firing some, for that to stop.  Will we get that?  As with everything else about remote work, we don’t know.

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