This question of the future of work is, naturally, a popular one these days.
Countless smart, interesting people are addressing it regularly, in outlets from The Economist to The Harvard Business Review. The reason, of course, is that there’s simply so much to say about this topic due to the pandemic-related mega disruption.
So naturally, maybe inevitably, I’ve got some thoughts as well. Here they are.
First things first: The way we work was already changing.
Work already looked vastly different in February 2020, right before the shutdowns started, than it had 10 years earlier. The way we shop was already changing, and the way we engage with each other was already changing, so more change was inevitable. But we could not fully expect all that 2020 brought.
Remote work has been around for the last couple of decades, and was beginning to gain general acceptance before the pandemic hit. You had, for example, businesses that wanted to attract talented people who wouldn’t otherwise work in a normal 9-5 environment, or they lived in a different city from where the office is located. There were parents who wanted to cut down their commute and have more time at home with their kids, or people working in decentralized organizations that had multiple offices. Even if people were sitting at a desk, they were at those desks in different locations. Jobs today are also based more on outcome than process, meaning people want to see the end result rather than the hours employees put in. If goals are met, most people are happy. We have changed our processes and adopted new tools to make work more efficient overall.
The tools we’re all using to communicate today have allowed a lot of us to work fully remote. Zoom, Google Meets, Slack—you probably had used all these tools, even if only occasionally, 18 months ago. The only real difference between Zoom at that time and Zoom now is that it’s more ubiquitous. Everyone has adopted this specific tool to engage each other in lieu of face-to-face meetings.
The point I want to make is that this ecosystem was already in place—it’s just that many of us weren’t using it. Because we’re creatures of habit, it took the necessity created by the pandemic to push us into making this transition. So what COVID did, essentially, was accelerate the widespread adoption of these trends that had already been put into motion years ago.
Now, is all of this good? Some is, some isn’t. I’ve discussed some of the problems with working from home and Zoom burnout before, and I’ll come back to this question later.
What work will look like—or, will there be offices in the future?
This is one of the big questions, right?
And it looms especially large when we’re trying to participate in our millionth Zoom call (which could have just been a phone call) to the sound of our kids’ virtual English lesson, or our spouse’s latest fundraising presentation—or, on the other side of the spectrum, the deafening silence that comes with spending 8+ hours a day for 11 months on a computer in an empty apartment.
Offices, no matter how unpleasant or bland they may be, do clearly serve a purpose. So I’m certain that yes, in the future we will have offices, and businesses will have people in those offices.
The thing that will be quite different is the nature of the work that goes on in those offices. I believe that we will mainly be limited to:
- People who need to be together, in-person, to effectively collaborate.
- There’s no question that it’s much more impactful to meet someone in real life than it is to see their face pop in on a video call, or see their name in an email or on your messaging app. Those real-life meetings are crucial to getting a read on someone, being able to read their body language, and all of the other idiosyncrasies that come with in-person interactions.
- People who are new to an organization and still being trained
- Many businesses at the beginning of the pandemic lacked the proper resources to effectively train employees from a remote location, and many are still scrambling to keep up with the demand. Online training platforms are more important now than ever before, and an effective training program communicates value to your employees.
- The workplace as a social community for young people in the organization
- Many people, especially the younger generations, rely on the workplace as a sort of community and social outlet. Instead of going to happy hour after work, people are limited to interacting with their coworkers online. After a long day of Zoom meetings, it is hard to want to hop on another call and have small talk.
Now, while these things can also be done digitally, I think it’s been over the past year, that they are simply better done in person. Maybe I’m dating myself here, but I still believe there are certain things that just cannot be done using technology.
For example, when you’re in a room and on a roll, everyone feeds off of each other. You can’t quite get that same energy on a video call. There is a spontaneity that can happen when collaborating in person and interacting with your coworkers that’s really unique.
Now for the downsides
While there are some positive developments that have come out of the way we all work now, there are also downsides to this fully-remote work world that need to be considered.
In order to be truly good at something, two things need to happen – time in the saddle and apprenticeship. You have to be taught along the way, and these two things go hand in hand, but the importance of mentorship can’t be stressed enough. Experience should not be a hamster wheel that keeps you going but never really moving you forward. It must be coupled with someone helping you improve who is continually improving themselves and their skill set.
One of the easiest to overlook is the potential disadvantage to workers who are new to an organization or industry. To put it bluntly: how do they build the relationships they need in order to grow and advance in their careers?
There’s no question that it’s much more impactful to meet someone in real life than it is to see their face pop in on a video call, or see their name in an email or on your messaging app. Those real-life meetings are crucial to getting a read on someone, to getting to know them on a more substantial level than what job they’re interested in having or what skills they possess.
And likewise, it’s these substantial relationships that really drive success for many people, especially when they’re early in their careers. That’s something we really don’t want to lose.
Another definite problem is that we haven’t adjusted our standards of productivity to this new reality. That’s causing widespread burnout.
Let’s take that pandemic-era superstar, Zoom, for an example. For whatever reason, many organizations have gotten Zoom-happy, scheduling video calls for things that could easily have been phone calls or even email conversations.
I don’t have to tell you that Zoom is exhausting. You already know that just from living and working at this particular historical moment, but there’s also scientific research that’s showing that video calls are more draining than face-to-face conversations, and that they make it more difficult for employees to maintain work-life balance. Not to mention the downside of layoffs and firings having to happen over video. And what manager wants to hear an employee is quitting over email? That’s like breaking up with your boyfriend or girlfriend over text (which, young people, is actually not a fine way to behave).
Why are we doing this to ourselves? I think it’s just the newest iteration of that age-old productivity trap: confusing activity with accomplishment. It’s easy to do, especially if you’ve never worked from home before and working in your living room or home office doesn’t really feel like work. A schedule packed with meetings can feel more productive than one where you’re tackling tasks on your own. But what’s the desired outcome? We cannot confuse activity with accomplishment. Your schedule might be packed, but at the end of the day, you need to know you are reaching the desired outcome for your business.
We’ve got to remind ourselves that if you’re on Zoom meetings all day every day, it’s impossible to get anything else done.
Final thoughts: Will the way we work in the future be better, or worse, than before?
The billion-dollar question here is where will we all find ourselves once the necessity of working remotely has passed, and it’s safe to do things like go back into an office, fly around the world, and shake hands with strangers again?
My belief is that we’ll find ourselves in a better place. I believe that there are a lot of things we’re learning about work right now that will serve us well in the future. Take, for example, asynchronous communication, meaning communication that does not expect an immediate response. Outside of collaborative tools used in the workplace, most coworkers do not need to do tasks together in the moment, and we don’t have to get on a plane to see people and be road warriors anymore. Because of the adoption of these new tools, it is socially acceptable in business to meet with people by video as opposed to in person, even if you have never met them before. This frees up huge amounts of time in your day to be engaged with others in different fashions without the need to travel.
However, with every positive there is a negative. The downside is a lot of us relied upon our airplane travel time for reading and catching up on things. Now we have to consciously schedule time in our day to do that, otherwise, every day will be absorbed with meetings because we can’t rely on the cocoon of the airplane seat to catch up on our reading (but thanks to GoGo wifi, that is disappearing anyway). Thousands of organizations that used to send employees on business trips once, twice, three times a month found out that missing all that travel didn’t have the feared negative effect on their sales or service contracts. On the contrary, much of that travel has turned out to be an unnecessary expense, and a huge one.
While collaboration for certain projects will always be better done in person, we’ve all grown our ability to digitally collaborate over the past year whether by trying to speak up more proactively in meetings, since we can’t rely on our physical presence to spur engagement, or by putting our brainstorming documents into Google Docs so we can share them and work on them with our teams in real time.
While these kinds of productivity tools have been here for years, as I mentioned earlier, the accessibility of them has increased dramatically since 2020 started, and they’ve become far more mainstream.
They’ve also become more streamlined and efficient, making it easier than ever to toggle between projects, hop on unscheduled calls, and brainstorm together. We can record our video conversations, transcribe them, and keep them to spur ideas, tackle problems, and refer back to when we have questions.
So work won’t ever return to the way it was pre-pandemic, but it’s for a positive reason: because we’ve figured out a better, more effective way of working.
Our challenge now is how to iron out those areas where we’re still learning.
We need to mature out of that reflex telling us everything needs to be done on video instead of the phone or messaging.
We need to find ways to set and honor work-life boundaries so that we don’t turn into a bunch of people who are half-working, half-doing everything else 24/7.
And we need to figure out how to adjust our productivity expectations so that we’re not confusing activity with accomplishment, or getting so focused on immediate priorities that we’re forgetting to consider our long-term ones.
I trust we’ll be able to do it.