Friday, February 18, 2022

What Is WFH?

Just what we all needed-- yet another acronym. We are already burdened with NFTs-- that is non-fungible tokens-- and we have ESG investing-- that is, environmentally sensitive and good governance--but now we also have WFH-- which means, work from home. I will not opine on WTF.

You see, the office vacancy rate in New York City is so high that it is threatening the city’s economic recovery. How high is it? Close to 70% of office workers have not returned to their offices. Apparently, they are working from home or from the beach or from their mountain retreats.

People are returning to restaurants, which are nearly as full as they were pre-pandemic. But, no one seems to want to return to the office. 

The Daily Mail reports:

... New York City offices ... are only 28.6 percent full when compared to their pre-pandemic levels, according to data from Kastle, which monitors keycard swipes into office buildings. 

New York City has imposed some of the most sweeping vaccine mandates in the country, requiring almost all city workers to be vaccinated and requiring private employers to ensure their workers get vaccinated as well.

Apparently, ginning up the crazy about vaccine and mask mandates has discouraged people from going to work. Let’s not forget New York City’s crime wave, up around 40% since our new anti-crime mayor and pro-crime district attorney took office. 

A lot of people do not want to risk life and limb on New York’s subway system. 

As a sidelight, New York public schools are losing students at alarming rates. This applies especially to schools in affluent neighborhoods, where parents might have simply left town or have enrolled in private or parochial schools. 

Somehow, someone imagined that children could study from home- a corollary to working at home-- and that they would not suffer for as much. One understands that this belief- trafficked by the teachers’ unions-- was delusional. Now schools are paying the price.

Anyway, the business world is debating the value of what they call hybrid work. Can people work from home part of the time and work from the office another part of the time? That is the question. 

It’s an important issue. Emma Jacobs filed an interesting study in the Financial Times on 2-7-2022. As you perhaps know, it’s impossible to link FT articles.

The first issue, Jacobs suggests, is loyalty. If workers spend less time in the office, if they have fewer interactions with their colleagues and coworkers, they are likely to feel less loyalty to their companies. Breaking down the barriers between home and workplace seems like the next best thing. In truth, it seems to undermine corporate identity. If you feel less loyal to your company you are less likely to put in a maximum effort to advance its interests. If you do not feel like a member of a group you are less likely to care what happens to the group.

She writes:

As the hybrid mix of office and remote emerges as the future of white-collar work, could employers face a similar battle? The competition for workers’ loyalty might not be industry peers but friends and family.

So, people are pushing the four day work week, which seems to respond to an old wish, promoted by economists like John Maynard Keynes, to the effect that people should work less and play more. The attack on full time work seems essentially to be rejection of the good old Protestant work ethic.

One suspects that the work ethic had been on life support anyway, but the pandemic has pushed things forward. More and more people are resigning to spend more time with their families-- as the old saying goes-- or are simply staying home and watching movies. One wonders how long it will take for them to succumb to boredom and feel disconnected from the world. Then again, we probably have a pill for that.

No one seems to care about whether a nation that loses its work ethic will continue to be as productive and prosperous. Are we becoming a nation of entitled aristocrats, living off of our rents?

As hybrid becomes the norm, such loyalty may diminish. One flipside of the four-day week trend is that work might become transactional and less social in the name of efficiency. The “great resignation”, which describes the high number of job moves in various sectors across the world, could turn out to be the future of white-collar work.

Weak social ties, more inefficiencies-- is this the future of work?

Jacobs reports:

If workers spend less time together, their social ties will weaken, as will the attachment to an employer. Meanwhile, the bonds with friends and family strengthen. Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research at Gartner, the consultancy, sees a potential “shift”, in that work simply becomes “less important” in our lives.

Before the pandemic, there was rigorous discussion on life without work, chiefly around post-work — a future where technology would eliminate jobs and plunge workers into unemployment or liberation, depending on one’s perspective.

The anti-work movement has long been promoted by radical leftist thinkers:

It drew on anti-work thinking, notably the 19th century Marxist, Paul Lafargue, and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, which has received a boost over the past two years —strikingly, membership of the anti-work Reddit community has swollen to 1.7mn.

And yet, just as regular in person learning benefits children, intellectually and emotionally and socially, so too does full time work provide tangible benefits.

Posts about exploitative bosses make a strong case for a life without work. Felstead reminds me, however, that work “provides individuals with a wide range of benefits besides the opportunity to earn a pay cheque. A time structure to the day, opportunities to interact with others outside the family, and the means of establishing an identity outside of the home.”

Studies suggest that a mere eight hours a week suffices to provide psychological benefits. 

Everything in moderation, however. Research by the universities of Cambridge and Salford in social science and medicine found “that when people moved from unemployment or stay-at-home parenting into paid work . . . their risk of mental health problems reduced by an average of 30 per cent.” This was achieved by just eight hours of work. They found no evidence that working more increased wellbeing.

And yet, the studies do not tell us whether companies will be as efficient and effective when workers are spending most of their time at home-- where they will obviously suffer some serious distractions.

Naturally, those who disparage the work ethic imagine that we will all develop more meaningful social connections outside of work. And yet, being at work represents most people’s primary source of social connection. If people replace colleagues with buddies, they will be replacing a purposeful activity with one that has little purpose. The studies do not seem to understand that work provides a sense of achievement and accomplishment, one that cannot be replaced by watching woke fairy tales on Netflix.

Jacobs continues:

It’s impossible to envisage an eight-hour working week. In their book, Out of Office, Anne-Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel argue that “work will always be a major part of our lives . . . however, it should cease to be the primary organising factor within it: the primary source of friendship, or personal worth, or community.”

So, companies are trying to adapt to the new circumstances.

Some employers will ignore such shifts and force staff back to the office. Emboldened by buoyant labour market conditions, employees might quit. A report by Microsoft suggested that more than half of UK office workers would leave if forced back to the office full-time.

Other employers will adapt, putting resources into recruitment and alumni networks, as well as job crafting — changing the scope and tasks of a post to fit employees’ ambitions. They may try to create social and emotional connections that do not depend on the office, says Kropp. He cites the example of an organisation with an internal app to match employees with shared personal interests.

One founder, whose staff work remotely, told me that they enjoy socialising, peer mentoring, and career development from professionals. 

It just does not always come from their coworkers. “A lot of organisations would find that threatening.” For those that loosen the leash, he says, “it will be scary. It should be.”

One suspects that this will change when the labor market ceases to be quite as buoyant. And one understands that as soon as companies start losing money or start malfunctioning, they will start insisting that workers return to their cubicles.

For now many people have learned how to work from home. They have developed a new habit, and new habits are difficult to break. The strange mix of a new habit with what seems to be a strong economy produces conditions where people want to continue to work from home-- forever.


David Foster said...

Paul Graham, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist, at twitter:

"I'm in the US for the first time in 2 1/2 years, and talking face to face with people is immensely more productive than talking over Zoom. If Zoom were the default and someone just invented face to face, it would seem like an amazing step forward."

"One way to figure out where we'll reach equilibrium is to imagine if face to face were in fact a new invention. How would early adopters take advantage of this amazing new technology?"

Bizzy Brain said...

Who the heck do you talk about the weekend games with if not your co-workers on Monday morning?

markedup2 said...

they are likely to feel less loyalty to their companies.
News from the 1950s?

Any employee who is loyal to his company is an idiot. Company's consider employees to be replaceable widgets. Any employee who doesn't consider a company in the same light is not facing reality. Does he expect to retire at 65 with a gold watch, too?

talking face to face with people is immensely more productive

For twenty years, when asked how to make the company more productive, I've said, "close any five development offices; it doesn't matter which five. Put all the developers in one building and productivity will skyrocket."

Productivity is not the only factor.

markedup2 said...

Companies. Apostrophe penalty box for me.

JK Brown said...

There's a long term connection between the breaking of the conditioning of schooling and the "return to the office". For more than a century, we've broken kids to the classroom by 3rd grade. And that kept most of them broken into the office or factory floor. Oddly, as the top-down has broken down in work, more schools have moved toward inculcating "school helplessness"[1] in their students. This school helplessness becomes work helplessness and has been a boon for cube farms.

It is natural that we, who were conditioned, find horror in no longer going to the office. But as someone who crossed 50, along with lots of friends, being attached to your office can be devastating as you will more than likely be cast out without warning. Your social life and well-being should not be wrapped up in your employer, or perhaps even your work, as you age.

But with schooling disrupted, more and more kids will escape the damage done by schooling. Not only disrupt school helplessness, but as Paul Graham wrote in December 2019, the incentive of schooling is to get good grades, not real learning. Imagine if most of childhood was spent focused on learning rather than passing the test and getting good grades.

[1] "In spite of the fact that schools exist for the sake of education, there is many a school whose pupils show a peculiar "school helplessness"; that is, they are capable of less initiative in connection with their school tasks than they commonly exhibit in the accomplishment of other tasks." ---How to Study and Teaching How to Study (1909) by F. M. McMurry, Professor of Elementary Education, Teachers College, Columbia University