Thursday, June 11, 2020

Will People Work Remotely Forever?

Alain Dehaze heads up a Belgian firm called the Adecco Group. The Wall Street Journal says that it provides:

... temporary employment, outplacement services, headhunting and retraining services.

Fair enough. Now, the Journal reporter asked Dehaze whether he believed that remote work, work from home, work from your lakeside retreat, would eventually replace office work.

In truth, Yahoo! tried this years ago. It failed. When Marissa Mayer took over the company she banned telecommuting, because it had made the office seem to be a bombed out mess, and because company morale was flagging. Obviously, the absence of warm bodies at Yahoo! HQ was not the only reason, but it was one among several.

Anyway, Dehaze believes that remote work will only continue until we have a vaccine for the coronavirus.

He says:

I don’t like this term social distance. I prefer physical distance, because that’s what we need. The question is physical distance versus social proximity. By being with colleagues, you align, you share a lot of things. You cultivate your values, you cultivate your purpose. If you are permanently alone, I don’t know how you can cultivate this.

So, being present produces camaraderie, a sense of belonging to one group, a sense of group loyalty. And also, we ought to strictly separate home and office. They are different spaces, where different rules pertain. Getting dressed to go to work, leaving the house, and interacting with people who are also there to work creates a different set of social relationships. It creates a different mindset. It eliminates a considerable number of distractions. Don’t we all agree that the office is not the appropriate place to try out your latest pick-up line? Or to lounge around in your pajamas?

Dehaze adds:

It’s like friendship and love. You cannot cultivate friendship and love only from souvenirs, from memory. You need presence, you need to nurture. And with culture, it’s also about nurturing through experience. This social proximity will remain important.

Obviously, I would not have chosen the word nurturance. We nurture children in the home. We do not and ought not to treat our staff as children. And we ought not to treat our managers like parents. True enough, offices help people to develop friendships. They are not made to cultivate love. Surely, presence matters. Knowing that you have someone's full attention matters. Looking someone in the eye matters. You cannot belong to the same team if you are not together at the same time in the same place. And you need to feel like a member of a team, even a winning team, if you expect your business to succeed.


trigger warning said...

Had any co-worker at the office attempted to "nurture" me, I would have filed a complaint and investigated the possibility of a lawsuit. The very notion of "nurturance" at work is a stage-four symptom of Eu-nik Disease. It's often correlated, or so I hear, with addiction to diaper fantasy erotica.

David Foster said...

Remember, the separation of 'work' and 'home' is something that came only after the Industrial Revolution. Previously, the husband might have been a weaver and his wife doing the spinning, they might have also done a little farming.

'Going to work' initially meant walking over to the factory a few blocks away. Now it means driving 45 minutes each way through horrible traffic, or taking the crowded and unpleasant subway.

Also, in many cases, 'the workplace' is not geographically-defined. A field sales rep spends (or should spend) most of his time visiting customers. A product manager or marketing manager in a large company...especially one which has grown by acquisition...may work with business units and functional groups scattered over the country, or for that matter, the world.

I think there are many jobs which can be done remotely very successfully. It was extremely unwise of Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, and also of what's-her-name that used to run IBM, to edict 'no remote work' on a corporate basis. This is a decision which should be made by individual executives and managers, based on the nature of their organizations and the work being done by specific individuals. Federal decentralization makes sense for corporations as well as for government structures.

On the other hand, there are definitely things which can be lost when people aren't together physically. I personally know of several product and business initiatives that happened because of casual conversations between individuals. I've recently been reading some history about the development of the ENIAC computer, and it seems that physical proximity between the electronic engineers and the math people (who were doing ballistics work for the Army) was an important trigger for getting the concept of electronic computing off the ground.

I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer; this is one more item that needs to be considered in organization design.

UbuMaccabee said...

Soon, most of the major cities will be inhabitable only if you have an armed, armored security detail attached. Those are expensive and time-consuming to organize. So I expect people to work remotely. Yes, that is my prediction.