Friday, February 16, 2024

Seven Takes on Remote vs. Office Work, and Where the Pendulum Is Now

In the past two-plus months, what’s been happening with observations on this shifting if not really evolving issue?

In Business Insider on December 9th, Diamond Naga Stu and Tim Paradis told us that “Making your job suck less means upending the workplace as we know it.”  They called “the four-day workweek” “the latest buzzy example of how some employers hope to combat worker burnout,” and that “other methods include pretty offices, paid sabbaticals, and” of course “remote work.”  Yet they claimed that “what’s needed most… is greater flexibility – and a more thoughtful definition of what that means for each company and industry.”  The possibilities they came up with were “letting workers pick their schedules,” “helping managers “unstick” how work gets done” or change that, and “radical flexibility” by offering more unusual time obligations. 

The same publication offered “Remote work stifles innovation” (Aki Ito, December 19th), which held that while that did not generally hurt productivity, “a massive new study published in the journal Nature,” assessing “24 million scientific papers and patents” (how did they do that?), found that “apparently, having better, more collaborative interactions… everybody gathered around the water cooler, as it were, actually does lead teams to pursue more novel ideas.”  I trust they sorted out the correlation-causation issues properly, but I rarely have confidence in that.

On a growing concern with working from home, Jacob Zinkula, also in Business Insider, let us tune in as “3 people who’ve secretly worked multiple remote jobs explain the top things to look for in overemployment roles.”  The three key factors their responders indicated were to “find a global company that’s accommodating of flexible schedules,” especially those which “provide flexible working arrangements for parents” exploitable by conjuring up children, “find a job you’re great at so you can make a good first impression” thereby minimizing training and avoiding “any kind of ramp-up period,” and “work in the IT field and try to work with your friends” with the latter providing “someone on the inside to understand there might be a meeting I miss here or there.”

A surprising assertion to be made in an article was that “The hybrid work experiment is failing everyone” (Alyssa Place, Benefit News, January 8th).  While “74% of employers have implemented a hybrid work schedule, where some of most of their workers clock into the office a few times a week,” “a third of remote workers have reported feeling lonely and isolated from colleagues,” despite hybrid arrangements and remote-work technology.  For example, on combination conference-room dial-in meetings, “best practice has always been to bring those voices from furthest away into the room first… but oftentimes, when the bulk of the team is in person, we forget that there are other people who are outside.”  This piece does not fully justify its title, but still conveys an impression of real weakness with workers physically elsewhere.

On January 12th, Goldman Sachs published an attempt to understand “How the shift toward remote work has changed consumption.”  It claimed that “remote work appears likely to be the most persistent economic legacy of the pandemic,” as a chart of the “share of US workers working from home at least part of the week” against the 3½ years of time starting July 2020 showed a drop from almost 50% to 27% about February 2021 and fluctuation wafting down to about 23% late last year.  That looked like a decrease, except for the note saying that the “pre-pandemic average” was 2.6%.  With services consumption lagging well behind goods consumption since 2020, another graph is consistent with “metro-level credit card data” showing “that remote workers spend less on office-adjacent services (such as transportation) and more on home office and recreation goods.”  The latter impeaches the view that away-from-office workers are using their freed-up commuting time to work more.

As if to concede that remote labor is not indefinitely sufficient, Stephanie Schomer’s January 11th Benefit News “7 things employees hate about the office – and how to fix them” offered solutions.  For “punching the clock,” she recommended “flexible arrival and departure times.”  For “a lack of connection,” it’s “in-person gatherings – for all employees” (italics hers).  To combat “inaccessible leadership,” it’s “more facetime with the C-suite.”  To deal with “top-down decisions,” try “granting department heads decision-making power.”  To neutralize “a casual approach to COVID,” employers can practice “embracing remote work as a safety measure.”  To handle “skills gaps for young talent,” they can “nurture young employees with face-to-face time.”  And as workers hate “no chance to give feedback,” well, “gather feedback – anonymously.”  While addressing only some issues people have with showing up in person, most are to the point.

Can the title of Kelli Marie Korducki’s February 5th Business Insider piece, “Bring back cublcles!,” be called a cry from the heart?  The author documented how cubicles became more and more common in the 1980s and 1990s, at times of “sweeping company mergers, acquisitions, and downsizing that rewarded space-efficient office layouts that were easy to reconfigure,” and became “symbol(s) of daily drudgery.”  Yet “open office plans,” which followed, proved “a mixed bag” at best, and employees found themselves increasingly relieved to be moving back to privacy-allowing cubicles.

How about the pendulum, which has gone back and forth between remote and in-office work since the first George Bush’s presidency?  It is halfway between the midpoint and the most extreme pro-office view possible, still moving toward reporting in person.  While, per the Goldman Sachs study, staying at home may remain more common, there is little current effort by companies to get people to do that, and plenty to get them to appear in person.  The pendulum’s speed may be slowing, but it’s still moving in that direction.  Tune in around 2029 to see it reverse.

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