As a consequence of Covid, telework acceptance is undergoing a damped oscillation on a global scale. Of course it has been doing this at organization scales since the mid 1970s but now it is visible everywhere. Here is the process.
If you are unfamiliar with the term, oscillation refers to a process in which something starts to vary by changing radically in, say, a positive direction, going to a maximum value, then changing course to the opposite direction, reaching a minimum value, then repeating the cycles forever.
A damped oscillation is a process in which each additional cycle past the first one is progressively smaller in size, slowly fading away until it reaches equilibrium. Typical examples are echoes, the sound from a struck tuning fork or piano string, and the like. But more complex processes, like organizational behavior, can also show damped oscillatory behavior. Newly introduced teleworking is one such process. Here’s how it typically works.
The Covid example
Imagine an organization going along, minding its own business, when suddenly a disaster strikes. A disaster like Covid. Immediately everyone understands that, because of the infection dangers, it is very important to isolate the employees from one another wherever possible. If the organization is primarily information focused and technologically prepared, all employees are sent home to work. Thus begins the first transition.
Now everyone who was working in a central office now begins working at home (teleworking) while the crisis continues. There are inevitably issues that interrupt this hoped-for serenity as a result of training, infrastructure capacity and similar problems that occur because of the novelty of the situation. This adaptation process has its own damped oscillatory characteristics over a period of months to a year or two. But at some point matters settle down, some sort of equilibrium is reached, and teleworking becomes business as usual.
Except when it doesn’t. As the threat from Covid subsides, management decides that a complete return to pre-Covid practices is in order. Another damped oscillation starts because many of the now-experienced teleworkers prefer teleworking and resist returning to the old office. Particularly the highly-skilled teleworkers.
Now begins the tug of war between in-office and at-home working, a series of alternate pushes and pulls. It appears to be a damped oscillation that is tending toward a fifty-fifty split. An example of the current adaptation situation is given in an article in The Wall Street Journal titled: “Why Bosses who praised remote work sour on productivity from home.”
My experience over the past five decades is that the fifty-fifty split works reasonably well for organizations that are still fairly new but the ratio slowly moves to more teleworking as the management and employees grow more accustomed to the process. One key to success is that in times of uncertainty, such as new project (or employee) starts and/or direction changes, work may best be done face-to-face at some non-home location.
Another caveat is a long-standing one for us: it’s not a great idea to have new hires, who may not know the usual routines, culture and attitudes of an organization, to work full-time at home. Getting to know “the system” is best done in the office. Except when it’s not.
So the oscillations keep getting progressively smaller as our collective experience grows. To the point where business as usual will not be business as it was.