The Office Strikes Back II
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global public health emergency. Three years later the WHO has decided that the emergency isn’t over. Maybe this virus remains the existential threat pharmaceutical companies and politicians have interpreted it to be, but for most people I know, we have moved into a new normal where COVID-19 is like the flu – some people get sick every year – some worse than others – some even die. But staying locked in at home isn’t a solution any longer for most, although admittedly, some folks remain very cautious and find themselves very isolated – by choice – not by government order.
As we all adapt to the new normal, employers and workers are trying to redefine how work gets done. Clearly, the factory workers are back in the building – some never left. But for office workers, the pandemic has facilitated the introduction of new locations for work – most common among them being the home office and the kitchen table. The technologies allowing us to work from home are not that ‘new’. ASI has had work-from-home (WFH) since Jason joined the team remotely in 2006 (before that I drove back to the office in the evening to work) and even though video calls have exploded since 2020, the technology has been available for many years.
I have written about the evolving landscape here and here. What is surprising to me is the continuing struggle of employers and workers to reach an agreement on how we are going to work going forward.
At ASI we have figured out who wants to work in the office 100% of the time with everyone else using a hybrid office-home dual location arrangement. We are lucky that we are a small team of highly motivated professionals that share a very high level of trust between us. Sadly, for many executives and workers we continue to see daily stories of the disconnect between what employers want and what workers want to see for the future of work.
I didn’t think that a resorting of workers among employers was going to be easy or quick, but I did think that there would be a universal recognition that worker expectations for work arrangements had permanently changed. What strikes me as odd is tone-deaf executives who don’t seem to be in touch with the ‘new normal’ that workers see in this world. Equally odd to me is the defiance of workers in their unwillingness to understand employer needs and wants. Negotiations are going slowly.
What Workers Want
Life for most is very busy. Everyone is unique, but everyone is the same. Some have kids, some have activities after school, some have elderly parents, some have groceries to buy and a lawn to cut, some want to go to the gym and walk the dog. Regardless of what requires our time, most of us find there isn’t enough time to do it all.
So bluntly, what workers want is more time – or more accurately, they don’t want to waste time. Most workers see the commute to work as the biggest time waster in their life (a minority like the time to mentally prepare on the way in and de-stress on the way home). We thought that pre-pandemic commuting was a necessary evil for the jobs we chose. Post-pandemic commuting is completely up for discussion.
Not to be lost in this conversation are all the other things that workers want: interesting work, good pay, a nice boss…but this commentary is focused on the great divide between employers and workers on what the new normal should look like and that is mostly focused on the ‘return to office’ paradigm.
What Employers Want
In my October 2020 commentary I wrote “The measuring stick is no longer ‘face time’ but metrics like results, productivity, and value.”
In my opinion this is still the benchmark for employers. The catch is that employers can clearly see that productivity for many workers has not returned to pre-pandemic levels and customer service levels for their organizations are falling. I am confident that right now several of my readers are nodding their heads. So, what isn’t working? If employees are at home and not commuting – shouldn’t they have at least as much time to get work done? Clearly there isn’t going to be a single answer to this multi-variate problem, but I think there is one central theme around the issue. The issue to me is distraction.
Paula has been working from home since 2007 (and she thanks Jason for pioneering this option). Paula is one of the most focused people that I know and with our kids in school back then it meant that she has had a completely uninterrupted 6 hours of focus time at home each day. In addition, because she has a workload that can’t wait an extra week (payroll must run) she has no choice but to find the extra hours on nights and weekends. When the pandemic hit, there was no change to Paula’s job and how she did it. Things changed for the kids at school but because we were in the post-secondary phase that was their problem and not ours.
But what about the people like me that struggle to focus? WFH has been a mixed blessing. I have saved a small fortune on gas, but I have admittedly wandered off with my lack of focus – to the benefit of my dogs and the owners of TikTok. The good news for my employer is that I have been very transparent about my productivity so there are no hard feelings that I am ‘cheating’ my employer and frankly I still get my work done because with grown children I can dedicate a longer day to catching up. Surely, I can’t be the only one spending time working from home and being less than 100% productive. I have had a glimpse into how hard it was during the pandemic at Dean’s house with mom and dad both sharing the office/kitchen for work and with two primary school children that were expected to be learning online. Dean’s evening and weekend hours are off the chart compared with pre-pandemic days where he more successfully delivered a 9- or 10-hour day of focus Monday through Friday.
So, the problem that arises is when a WFH worker is distracted during the workday but either can’t or won’t pick up the extra hours to make up the lost productivity. You see, if you spend a distracted 8 hours at work you are just as tired as if you spend a focused 8 hours at work and if you measure your commitment to work in hours – you have given your time.
Of course, employment laws exacerbate the problem. Employment law grew up around industrialization and is an attempt to make sure that workers are treated fairly. But old rules like limits on hours in a workday or mandatory lunch breaks within 5 hours of starting work are structured for a factory that looks nothing like the modern in-office, hybrid, or WFH knowledge worker life. Ontario’s new Working for Workers Act, 2021, requires employers with 25 or more employees to develop a written policy for staff regarding disconnecting from work. In my mind the legislation is a good step forward – it doesn’t say that employers can’t ask employees to work ‘after hours’ or that employees can’t voluntarily use ‘flex hours’ to work when it suits them. The point to the legislation is to document the rules of the road for required availability.
One of the key reasons that employers want workers back in the office is to have them focus better. Of course, employers don’t want to give up being a distraction to employees after hours when something comes up – especially if it is urgent. In this sense employers want to have their cake and eat it too. There are a growing number of workers that do an hour or two of email every night after dinner. Ironically, the more workers that take up that approach the more pressure it puts on those that want to close the books on work at 5pm to ‘stay connected’. Some commentators suggest that the return to office movement is grounded in trying to get value out of existing leases. That is a terrible reason if it’s true and I would think most executives understand ‘sunk costs’ and wouldn’t let existing leases distract them from legitimate solutions.
The other angle I see on the issue is culture. Not everyone wants to spend 30 minutes at the water cooler each day chatting about their personal lives. But there is no doubt in my mind that being friendly with your co-workers builds trust and commitment. We have lost some of that ‘connecting time’ when we click into a virtual meeting and get started right away and then clicking off as soon as the meeting is over to either click into the next meeting or to sprint to the washroom.
Also, the 100% WFH warrior should be warned that if you don’t come into the office at all then your productivity and quality need to be first rate, or it won’t be long before your employer looks across the country or even around the world for a 100% work-from-anywhere worker to take your spot. Worker shortages have given workers an advantage in negotiations; however, if the long-promised recession hits things might change quickly.
Finally, workers need to remember it isn’t all about them. I am hearing more stories of young workers joining a company and missing out on the learning that comes from being around seasoned professionals. In the virtual world, if you aren’t invited to a conversation then you can’t learn by overhearing and in fact you don’t even know what discussions are happening. Seasoned workers that can get their job done remotely still have a role to play in developing the next generation.
The New Frontier
As an actuary, I have been trained to categorize things and put them in boxes. It is one of the first things you learn in underwriting. This habit is so ingrained that I often find myself looking to create a new rule that will capture a new way we want to do things. The problem we all have when it comes to the new landscape for working is that we are all different in our focus and our approach to flexibility. At the same time, roles require different levels of ‘availability’ measured both on an in-person basis and on a 24-hour clock. There just isn’t a one-size-fits-all job or way of doing it. As a result, writing down the rules is going to be hard.
One of the solutions I think we are going to need include more satellite work locations so that workers can be ‘in-office’ without the brutal commute. It is no surprise to me that here in Windsor and Oakville we are back in the office full-time or on a hybrid basis because the commute is an average of 15 minutes for our team while workers whose offices are downtown Toronto are outright rejecting going back to 1+ hour commutes. Even at our enterprise I see a correlation between distance from the office and WFH frequency.
The other solution that we are going to need is new agreements on how we measure time and value. If workers must be online one or two hours a night – especially in 5- and 15-minute increments – then what is the quid pro quo for time off during regular hours? How does it all get measured and how does it get balanced? The most progressive employers and workers have figured this out together. Unfortunately, employment law still has some catching up to do.