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  • Is the Future of the Workplace Remote?

    The “New” Normal to the “Now” Normal and Back Again

    What is “normal”? Specifically, what is work normal? Where does work end and life begin, or is there any difference? To some people, “normal” is a one-hour train ride from a suburban residential community to a bustling metropolis some simply refer to as “The City.” To others, it’s enduring a teeth-gritting, white-knuckle traffic jam that seems to occur at any hour of the day…every day. To others still, it's a cup of coffee in pajama pants down the hall from the room in which they just awoke. Maybe the dining table, where last night's family meal took place, is now the hub of a multi-million-dollar enterprise. If you are one of the lucky ones, you perhaps have a room dedicated complete with standup desk, VoIP phone, and dual monitors. Any way we look at it, “normal” is just not normal anymore.

    Over a 10-day period, I spoke with over 20 senior leaders from a variety of companies on a national level. The audience reigned from larger companies like Cisco, E&Y, Nike, Google, Business Insider and Bloomberg to smaller 50-125 person shops. We connected using various virtual forums: GoogleMeets, phone calls, Zoom meetings, whichever form of communication people prefer to use these days. My topic: Is the future of the workspace remote?

    My purpose began with gathering some advice on how to manage a few things, but as I started talking to people, I realized that many people have just been plunged into uncharted waters without a map or a compass. There is a lot of confusion out there. My goal is to provide a summary of their perspectives, give you some guidance from my point of view and a lot of reassurance.  You are NOT in this alone and there are MANY people swimming in these uncharted waters with you. There is a light at the end of this, and although it seems distant right now, the darkest nights are when stars shine their brightest. 

    For simplicity’s sake, I have taken the many quotes I received from people and organized most of them into a list format. You’ll see many trends. 

    What do we know right now?

    There is a past, a present, and a future ...of sorts. The one true thing that I have found is that nobody really knows anything about what the future holds, how, when or if we will show up in our office ever again.  In fact, consensus suggests no one even knows what “normal” really is any more. One thing we do know is that our lives are being split into two dimensions: Pre-COVID-19 and Post-COVID-19. Our elaborate offices with their purposefully designed open pod office seating, ping-pong tables, guitar hero, kegerators, baristas and bottomless catered meals are quickly becoming but a memory. One from the not too distant past, but what seems like a lifetime ago. Our present is the walls around our dwelling, that same view out the same window and the shortest commute most of us have ever taken in recent history. We know we are here now and will be for the foreseeable future. Some never thought we would be in this nearly entirely virtual world, but here we are. 

    Do you currently have remote teams? 

    When I asked this, the short and simple answer was “Yes.  I’ve been managing remote teams for years.”  My audience immediately referenced their globalized teams overseas in Singapore, Ukraine, India, Latin America and many other countries. Within the technology arena, having a globalized team working remotely is relatively common. People have been managing these teams for many years and have been quite successful in doing so. 

    What about the team members that are in the same state or even city as you, let alone the US? I found that “yes” to this question was less common. Maybe a staff in another Corporate office in a different state, but only a few managed that lone employee in their house in South Carolina. Why is this? The common answer, “I don’t really know.” “If we were going to hire within the US, they should be local and come into the office.”

    The Past

    Why should someone be required to come into “the office?” What biases do we have about “working in the office” than we do about “working from home?” Some considerations – look back in history – it was about dressing for the job, making the commute, packing a lunch. Water coolers and cafeterias, drinks after work. There was a strong bias for many many years that the true professional is the one who puts on a suit, takes an elevator to a glass walled office only to talk on the phone all day. And the embedded bias in our culture about those who “work from home” was that “working from home” was lazy, slacking, playing hooky. It was watching TV while working, eating snacks all day, sleeping in and cutting out early. All inaccurate, but there is an entire culture worth getting into just from this one sentiment. An undercurrent for why the change is so hard for some and so easy for others.  

    The Present

    What we know as “the workday” has changed perhaps forever. The present version of getting to work on time is making sure we are somewhat presentable for our morning video call with teammates, bosses, peers, clients, and colleagues. The morning video call from home was once reserved for those proven leaders with years of tenure who had proven they could get the job done from anywhere. Even this privilege was only two or three days a week. But that was Pre-COVID.

    The change from before to after happened…quickly! Some companies loosely planned the possibility of a few weeks of a remote culture to help flatten a curve. That was in February or early March 2020. Forward a mere two months later and many businesses closed their doors and shut down their spaces to non-essential workers for the remainder of 2020 with a hope (and maybe even a prayer) that in early 2021, employees might make their way back into their office on a voluntary basis. Mind you, I am writing this in June 2020. Early 2021 is over 7 months out and we have been remote for more than three months now. Those three months were roughly 64 business days, encompassed 100% of Spring, and for some was considered long term planning. Some simple math and you now see where this is heading: remote is here for the unforeseeable future. We have no idea how long this will last, but for some it could be years. For Twitter, it may be forever. Some “essential workers'' are back, working in rotating groups, with stringent health checks, personal questionnaires, diary entries on activities and constant monitoring. IT (Info Tech) may never have to come back again. 

    So, are people craving a return to the office?   

    • Most are finding themselves so productive at home, they don’t know why they went to an office in the first place.
    • I’ve been trying to initiate a partially remote policy for years. With our office lease coming due, we might never go back to an office again. 
    • There have been more discussions of a hybrid culture moving forward depending on headcount, but teams working remotely seem to be much more common over the next few years.
    • Honestly, we’ve seen a mixed bag of people that want to go back, but only because they miss hanging out with their coworkers, grabbing lunch or happy hours. When we are allowed back outside, we have solutions to this, so even this issue is short-lived.
    • My teams are performing amazingly. I don’t know why we would go back to the old way.
    • I haven’t skipped a beat.

    The general census is this: other than a lack of personal connection, the majority of people are actually thriving and extremely appreciative of the opportunity to finally work remotely.  Are we starting to see a true cultural shift?

    There are many people I spoke to that actually like their jobs BETTER now! They don’t have to listen to that annoying person on the phone or use the public restroom. 

    Do you miss your commute?

    I had to ask this question. A few people only walked a few blocks. Others...

    • I hated my commute, but I do miss listening to podcasts and growing my knowledge.
    • Do you think I miss squeezing onto a subway car jammed in between people?
    • I will NEVER miss going through Penn Station.
    • I would try to leave early on Fridays to miss traffic, just to sit in traffic for two hours to get home barley earlier than I usually do.
    • It ruined my day, every day.
    • It took me 1.5 hours for 10 miles of travel.

    Enough said.

    When are you returning to your office?

    This is where the mass confusion has set in. Rarely do people enjoy living in a state of uncertainty, but this truth is 100% uncertain for all. After speaking to people representing over 20 companies ranging from Fortune 50 to small businesses, not a single person knew a definitive answer to this question. There are speculative ideas that might solve issues on coming back, but even these solutions raise plenty of questions and hesitations. Are you going back to an office any time soon or at all? 

    • We have unassigned seats on a floor in a building including booths and huddle rooms. In general, we have wide open spaces - how are we supposed to meet with our teams now, who and where? 
    • How are you supposed to sit in a conference room socially distant with a mask on? What is the real purpose of going into a conference room now?
    • We are in the process of mapping out the and reorganizing the entire facility. We will have staircases designated for up and down along with set cubed hallways heading north, south, east and west so people do not have to pass each other.
    • Marking the floors and color-coding various teams based on schedules.
    • We might be back in September but in a Building of 450, we have no idea who, when, what schedule or even why certain people.
    • Three people in the bathroom at a time, no more. There is talk of assigning windows of time for people to use the bathrooms. So basically, I’m allowed to use the bathroom from 10-10:30am as not to risk contact with another person. It's absolutely ridiculous.
    • No more hands-on support to staff unless it's really necessary. Even then, when am I allowed to go near their workstations?
    • We aren’t going back until major companies have gone back and shown results. We will follow their lead. We aren’t interested in being the canary in the coal mine.
    • Honestly, we aren’t even talking about it.
    • Our lease is up anyway, so we are out. There is some talk about remote spaces for people to plug in and meet again, but we are so far from that it's not worth mentioning.
    • How the hell are people going to GET to the office. Do you think they want to get on the subway or the bus? 
    • Our CEO said to just get comfortable where we are.
    • Rumor has it that once data shows 28 days of the consistent decline of positive test results, we will start to let no more than 20% of the staff back at a time.
    • We are talking about taking temperatures whenever you enter the premises and swab tests every 2 weeks. No one wants this and this is financially not sustainable. So basically, we have no idea.
    • We are really testing to figure out if we need to pay for the cost of the infrastructure before we make a call on anything.
    • Right now the plan is to re-open the office later this year for anyone who wants to come back on a voluntary basis, but I suspect people will be remote until 2021. 
    • A cleaning surface schedule is a huge ordeal. We are probably having cleaning crews come in every 3-4 hours to completely disinfect the building, which requires the employees to evacuate. It's a pretty complex issue.
    • There is talk about setting up a station to clean equipment as people enter the building - laptops, bags, but what about clothes? Are we going to make people strip and create a burn pile? Where does it end?

    As you can see, there is a lot of uncertainty as to when, who or how we are heading back “to work” anytime soon. No, you’re not the only one wondering what is happening in those glass skyrises.  One thing is for sure, lots of cleaning!

    How are you staying connected with your teams?

    This is pretty simple and straightforward. The most common ones are:

    • Zoom, Google Meet, Jira, Microsoft Team, Slack, Miro

    Ironically, companies already had all of this technology in place and have been accustomed to using them for years. Why did we decide to just start really using it now?  

    What are the challenges of being remote?

    There are advantages and disadvantages to everything. We need to understand the challenges that people face in order to overcome obstacles and provide a solution. The bottom-line challenge here is that people require human interaction. Everybody needs connection with other human beings, and everyone strives for and hopes for connection. An infant needs to be loved and cared for during a long period of time if it’s to develop normally. Infants who are not held and touched will die. This need for connection continues throughout our lives. It is epitomized by the concept of romantic love, the one person who will devote their life to us and make us feel complete. In some cultures romantic love doesn’t exist, it’s replaced by the love of relatives, friends, and tribe. Some people rarely experience love, but they have many ways of feeling a connection with others – in the community or in the workplace. The need to feel connected is characteristic of all human beings. When we remove this essential human need, we are inviting a whole new set of challenges unrelated to the working world. 

    When taking challenges into consideration, we need to look at people’s personal settings and family situations. Do they have children that are home practicing distance learning while they work? Are they also the teacher now? Do they have a roommate who is a musician and practices during the day while he/she is at work? Do they even have a space at home to actually work? Do they have the necessary technology to stay connected? The list of potential obstacles can be overwhelming…frustrating…without any reprieve. 

    As I was speaking to people, I saw numerous children playing or passing through in the background. I saw people remove the cat from their desk or shoo away their dog who was looking for attention. I got to meet a number of people’s spouses and kids while getting a front-row seat into a number of living rooms and kitchens.  Everyone’s situation is different. I also saw people with home offices that would rival a hedge fund CEO. I saw a crowded kitchen table complete with leftover breakfast and a child’s art project. Personally, I have a completely separate room detached from the house that is quiet and private. I am one of the lucky ones. The Very Lucky Ones.

    Setting these situations aside, everyone has some core challenges they see:

    • Getting burnt out. Work is right next to us all the time now, so I find myself working almost 15 hours a day at times.  Creating that real separation with work life from home life.
    • Only working on a laptop. No real desk or chair to work off of can make it difficult.
    • Homelife takes away from professionalism. How can I have a conversation with my CEO or a CDO from my client in this setting?
    • Non-verbal cues are critical in communication. There is only so much you can get from a video conversation.
    • Screen time! We are not meant to stare at computer screens for this duration of time.
    • People feed from the energy of other people. This is a significant disadvantage.
    • Communicating less frequently as a team - this can slow down creativity and seriously halt or pause great ideas that people can bring to products.
    • Everyone is their own IT person now. Not a lot of people know how to install a hard drive or troubleshoot an instance.
    • Understanding that just because people are home, doesn’t mean they are always available. When I was in an office, I went to the gym, went for a walk, went out to lunch, etc. When I do that while I’m home, panic can set in wondering “where am I?”. 
    • How am I going to give Entry Level or Junior staff the training and attention they really deserve and need to be successful? What about anyone who needs guidance for that matter?

    Challenges can be endless. The largest of them again is the lack of human connection, creativity, or effective workspaces. With that said, however, I found people to be pretty optimistic.

    What are the advantages of working and running remote teams?

    Talk about an energy shift. I heard many contradictions and corrections to the concerns listed above. Many people followed up their challenge with an empathetic “yea, but…” and had immediate solutions to combat them. Like our challenges, everyone’s personal situation is different.  

    The number one answer is obviously NO MORE COMMUTE. It’s simple, the more time “living” or “working” over transitioning from one place to another the better.

    The positive impact on working in a remote setting was refreshing to hear. 

    • We officially open ourselves up to a better candidate pool. We are no longer confined by logistics. If the best person for the job is 500 miles away, we can now recruit that person. 
    • I feel healthier than I have in a long time. I’m on bike rides and running daily. The lack of commute has given me the time to work out that I couldn’t afford prior.
    • I’ve never really spent this quality time with my family before. I feel more connected and more appreciative than I have in a long time.
    • We can do our job any hours of the day. The 9-5 industrial revolution culture is over. If you work great after the kids are in bed, then go for it!
    • We are solving a big “us vs them” problem we had before. Previously, there was the “in the office” teams and the “other” teams. Now we are all the same. This has actually brought us closer as a global unit.
    • The cost of the infrastructure and overhead of an office in the city is absurd. We would love to free up these costs.
    • Access to more people which can ultimately provide more and better solutions.
    • Less distractions. Less idle chit-chat in the office. Engineers pretty much came in, threw on some headphones and knocked out code before. No wonder they’ve been so productive while home. 
    • The market for talent was already extremely competitive, this really opens us up to some more options.
    • I’m genuinely more relaxed. The city can burn you out.
    • I’m down about 15 pounds. I’m eating better and healthier. I never thought I would miss my local lunch spots, but the waistline is quite happy!
    • My work/life balance is incredible. I get to work around my schedule now, not the other way around. 
    • I’ve really enjoyed meeting people’s spouses and kids. Seeing where they really live has opened a different set of authenticity from people.
    • It's refreshing to see a CEO or Investor lose the tie and just put on a fleece and be themselves.
    • I’ve been remote for 20 years. I don’t see what the big deal is. Why am I going into an office? I don’t work at a lumber yard.

    The common denominator here was around health and overall happiness with real work and life balance, plus access to a ton of talented people. Last time I looked, we weren’t brought into this world to spend 75% of our lives “working”. It's great to see some smiles on people’s faces. 

    Yes, there are still some stubborn ones that believe “unless you’re in an office, you’re not working”; but, I wonder about who their employees are and what their management style really is. Why is it required though?  Are you trying to tell me over the last three months that your employees have done nothing but sit around and play video games?  Call me new school, but I don’t buy it.  Some of my highest earning and happiest years were working remotely 4 days a week.

    How can we thrive while remote?

    “The hard workers will always work and the people that required micromanagement did the bare bones minimum to just keep their job anyway.” As a CEO, I don’t have time to micromanage my staff, but more importantly, I don’t believe in doing so. I thrive on watching my team take on challenges and flourish, invent, adapt, and grow. They are more organized than they have ever been! There are plenty of challenges and plenty of advantages to our current situation, but why live in the dark ages? The heart of the question is “are you willing to live in the solution?” There are plenty of solutions to thrive and keep your teams connected. Here are some general ideas from various sources to start with. Hint: make it fun and not forced.

    • Stipends for the employees for a top-notch internet speed ($100/month)
    • You own the phone, we pay for the plan
    • DISC profiles or other profile questions on how your team really wants to and needs to be managed
    • Mandatory days or hours off to prevent burnout and create a healthy work/life separation
    • Open video “meeting room” for people just to pop into or out of wherever they feel like it
    • Team building events online - either weekly or bi-weekly
    • Scrum - you have a product backlog of “to do’s” already. Teams will keep themselves accountable.
    • Virtual scavenger hunts - find an object in their home that represents something and explain it (favorite movie, favorite food, favorite book…)
    • Games like 1 truth, 1 lie
    • The always famous Virtual Happy Hour!
    • Virtual poker after dinner
    • Virtual trivia or old school game shows (Family Feud, $10,000 Pyramid, etc.)

    There are a number of personality quizzes out there and I would highly recommend you and your teams take them to find out how people need to be managed and communicated with as individuals.  Do you know your DISC profile? Do you know how to speak to your employees so they can really process the information you're giving them?  Most of the time it’s not the message but the delivery of the message.  How do people want to be rewarded?  Do they crave words of affirmation, physical connection, quality time or gifts?  What are their top needs as a human being?  Do they need a sense of certainty and steadiness or do they thrive on variety?  Do they need to feel significant?  How much of a connection and what kinds do they really need? 

    As a whole, a lot of companies have seen their production increase dramatically, mostly because we’ve gained a few working hours by not commuting. However, it's not like we have a controlled experiment to compare to during these circumstances. Also, we are all going through the same sort of things right now, so harping on your staff is not the best way to get the best out of them nor to build any type of loyalty.

    Are you hiring while remote?

    For the most part, the business hasn’t stopped. We paused, panicked, went to our room and closed the door. But then, we stepped out, got dressed and now, we are ready to get the wheels rolling again. In brief, answers were “YES! We are definitely hiring, but onboarding is a challenge.” Most of the people I spoke to have hired and managed remote teams before, so this is no different for them. What I’ve found is that people who are the stubborn ones are the ones that struggle with this. “There is no way I’m hiring anyone without meeting them first.” 

    Okay, I understand your philosophy, but what is your solution to this during a global pandemic? If you’re stuck on “company culture”, then you’re stuck. Let’s start thinking and communicating creatively.  Ask yourself:

    • Is there work that needs to be done?
    • Who is or is not doing the work?
    • Is your plan to still grow and expand on your product offerings?
    • Is your competition hiring?
    • How long are you going to delay your launch date?
    • Do you have the budget to hire?
    • What do you really look for in interviews?
    • Are they going to be meeting with your customers or clients for the next 6-12 months?
    • Is this really riskier than hiring someone after your normal hiring process?
    • Are you really going to pass on a diamond in the rough just because you can’t meet with them “in person”?
    • When do you need them in the office anyway?

    Some solution-oriented ideas:

    • Consider this, If the interviewee can effectively communicate during these times, think about how good they’re going to be when we are back in some type of in-person setting.
    • Inquire how much time they’ve worked remote in the past and get data to back up the results of their productivity.
    • Ask yourself, am I honestly going to stand over their shoulder all day long even if they are in the office?
    • Remember, it's easier to coordinate 3-4 people on a video call than it is to get those same people in a room at once.
    • Give them an assignment to do while on a video with them.
    • Have them show you their “work from remote” setting. Desk, chair, etc. Are they prepared for the present or are they on the floor in the laundry room?
    • Send them a laptop. You were going to have a workstation for them at the office anyway, right?

    There are hundreds of solutions to hiring someone while remote. Many companies have built incredible teams and are 100% distributed. “Culture” can’t be your default reasoning. Adapt or get left behind. It’s time to accept that for the immediate future, you are here. It's time to embrace the change and adapt to Post-COVID. You don’t need to love it, but maybe you didn’t want to stay at home for the entire month of April 2020 either. If you’re reading this, you have done just fine. You’ve survived, or maybe even better than that. It's time to move forward!

    What is “normal” now?

    This is a huge word. Any interest in unpacking this concept of normal and normalcy? Check out these different synonyms: orderly, natural, regular, routine, traditional. Maybe “normal” is the last thing we need. Maybe we don’t need orderly, routine and traditional, but rather creative, spontaneous and modern? Is back again really where we want to be going or are we re-defining normal at its core? 

    We know we need to keep moving forward and adapting. There are risks and rewards. There are upsides and downsides. There are questions and confusion. However, these are all the same set of issues that we’ve encountered our entire lives! Just because they’ve been magnified doesn’t mean they are bigger than before; it just means that they are now front and center. I’m sure you never loathed sitting in traffic, always ran on time daily, took time for daily self-care, helped your kids with their homework every night, and had a family dinner all while you were the most productive self you could imagine pre-COVID. Don’t worry, you weren’t alone.

    Achievement is a science. Fulfillment is an art. You may never get this time back again. We all have a list of things we would have done differently prior to March 2020. Now is the time to make the changes necessary to thrive and achieve for whatever the future holds for us. It's time to live in the present, not dwell in the past. Don’t long for the summer of 2019, embrace the summer of 2020.  This wasn’t on your vision board, but perhaps it’s time for a new vision! There is a light. After speaking to this incredibly generous audience, one thing is for sure, we really are ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. 

    It bears quoting again, the darkest nights are when stars shine their brightest. 

    If you would like to dive into any of these ideas or others you have in more detail, you are welcome to reach out to me anytime. Thank you all for everything you do to make the world a better place. One day at a time, we will all shine a little brighter. 

    For the record, no I didn’t get a chance to interview Mother Nature to find out what her plan is. I think I’m in the queue though.

    04 Sep 2020 Read more

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