The Telework tide became a tsunami

In the old days, pre-Covid, I used to write about telework as a tide coming slowly in. An inch at a time, unlike Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave. But with the advent of Covid the telework tide turned into a tsunami, seemingly sweeping all else before it. Now that the tsunami is slowly receding it’s time to review its impacts and their future.

Its suddenness

The Covid pandemic suddenly forced many organizations to become telecommuter-dominant early in 2020. Consequently, the majority of the employees at all levels of the organizations were forced, almost overnight, to work at home, mostly with no prior training or other preparation. I was conflicted at the time, elated that a massive, global demonstration of teleworking had been started, but worried that the lack of training and pre-planning would produce many organizational disasters.

Fortunately, most of those instant, tsunami-induced conversions to telecommuting worked well after a few days or weeks of frantic adjustment. The organizations — and employees — adjusted. Productivity rose. Many operating costs were reduced or eliminated. The pandemic was deflected if not avoided. Business operations normalized, at least when viewed from a distance. The “bottom line” improved rather than crashed.

Management dilemmas

As relative calm was restored, more than a year after the Covid tsunami onset, management started yearning for a return to the stability of the good old days BC (Before Covid). Many CEOs, including Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Case, urged, if not ordered, staff to get back to the office ASAP! Other CEOs, considering the significant reductions in demand for office space, were not so sure. Maybe some hybrid form of telecommuting would be better for all concerned. It seemed that “Back to the office” worked well for the C-suite, not so much for the other employees.

The current result is that many C-suite employees are already back in their mostly empty office buildings trying to decide the following, among other things:

  • Who needs to be in the office essentially full-time?
  • Who could be telecommuting essentially full-time?
  • How many staff members need to be in the office some of the time?
  • How often is “some of the time?” How do we schedule it?
  • What is the mix of in-office activities?
  • How must we redesign the office facilities to optimize support of those activities?
  • What are the implications of all this on facilities leasing/construction needs?

My experience with a variety of organizations is that offices are important mainly for face-to-face activities and for work that needs to be physically protected. This includes high level negotiations between executives; team meetings that are not adequately supported by teleconferencing; interaction with clients/public; some training and orientation; secret lab work. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for arriving at the answers to those decision issues.

Employee attitudes

One thing that became abundantly clear ever since we began testing telecommuting: there’s no problem finding willing telecommuters. This was as true BC as it is now. Many executives are now discovering the other end of that post-tsunami situation: there is a significant problem in enticing today’s telecommuters back to the office full time. This is particularly true for younger workers. That’s the basis of the decision list above.

Employee motivations for returning to the office include:

  • Inadequate space/environment for a home office.
  • Desire to clearly separate work from the rest of their lives.
  • Loneliness and/or feelings of being left out of work activities.

The first two of these motives are what drives the potential full-time in-office workers. The third is the main reason for returning to the office part time. Our national survey of telecommuters in 2000 showed that about a half-time split between home and office work was the result. I expect that to be closer to 60:40 between home and office these days.

Yet the primary fact remains: telecommuters like telecomuting and do not want to give it up. Many have claimed that they will quit and move to another telecommuting-positive organization if forced to. Managers of office-only outfits need to think about losing their best staff members before trying to force them back to the good old days.

The post-tsunami hybrid

All of this is to say that there will be a calmer post-tsunami form of telecommuting. Offices will still exist. There will still be ornate executive suites for prestige and policy-making purposes. There will also be office space for those employees not in the C-suite category. But that space will be quite a change from last year’s rows of cubicles or open space desks. It will be arranged mostly for both formal and informal gatherings; for employees and clients/customers to work together face-to-face. On the relatively rare occasions that all employees are gathered together it may be in some other, rented space; not in the central office. More than 40% of the U.S. workforce will be telecommuting at least part time.

This also means that all those auxiliary businesses, shops, restaurants and the like, may also need to downsize or relocate as a result of the diminished daily numbers of downtown office workers. How big an effect that will have is yet to be seen. Although the tsunami has passed there is still some turbulence in its wake.

Take two aspirins and call me in a year.

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