There’s a physics/engineering term called stiction. Stiction is defined as the force required to get a stationary object to move; the force needed to overcome the friction that make the object stick to where it is. In my experience organizations, even individuals, have stiction. It takes some force to get them to leave their comfortable places. For years, even decades, I have battled to get organizations to move out of their familiar positions and adopt telework. The process often takes years of urging and cajolery. The response has been slow to move from interesting but too risky to OK, lets do it. Now an unlikely force has made it happen, almost overnight. Coronavirus has defeated organizational stiction. Worldwide. It’s disaster time once again.
In or shortly before February 2020 many organizations worldwide started getting worried about the impacts of COVID-19 on their employees. By mid-March the most responsive and responsible organizations acted. Overcoming stiction they instituted teleworking for their staffs almost overnight. Working in the office on Friday; working from home starting the following Monday. Yikes! Not the careful planning and preparation we had been touting for years but sudden conversion.
My reaction? The good news is that we are now in the midst of a global test of telework. That’s also the bad news: how many of these instant converts will blunder into telework carrying the same bad organizational habits and attitudes that will make it impossible; will give telework a bad name?
The news so far
Three months into the global crisis it seems that at least no one has died from overtelework. Anecdotal evidence is that telework has been accepted very well. I was recently a participant in a webinar with energy industry executives. I am amazed at the rapidity of the progress they have made in implementing telework at scale. I am also heartened by the depth of their commitment to make it all work, damn the torpedos. This despite the fact that the employees are teleworking full time, with no visits to their erstwhile offices.
Their analyses of their own teleworkers verifies our predictions that productivity would increase along with job satisfaction and feelings of self-worth. Yet, as always, concerns about burnout are there as well. It is too early to replicate our experience that productivity will continue to increase as everyone gets the hang of teleworking and that burnout concerns will diminish. Teleworking will evolve from full-time for everyone to some combination of teleworking and office time as conditions dictate.
My recent experience was with organizations that saw the problems and and opportunities and acted on them properly. Yet I suspect that there are still many organizations that plunged ahead without thinking of how best to deal with it. I haven’t heard from them yet.
The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?
Telework is also the cause of headlines the media forecasting the end of the office or the collapse of downtowns. That is still the topic of much discussion. As I said in the earlier blog teleworking will certainly produce a reduction in downtown space used for offices, redesign of the remaining space and repurposing of the newly-available space but hardly wholesale abandonment of large central city buildings.
In short, the coronavirus, while defeating stiction, has not defeated the teleworkers of the world. The future will definitely be different from today. Interesting times are ahead for all.