An odd thing is happening amid the tragedy of the coronavirus crisis. The working world is splitting into two: those who love working from home and those who don’t.
Some prefer working from home because they are more productive and have more fun. In the absence of long commutes, they have rediscovered their private life and their family. Their organizations are seeing that they are getting more done and have begun announcing that working from home will become permanent.
Those who don’t like working-from-home (WFH) do so for one of two very different sets of reasons. Some hate it because it makes bureaucracy worse—even more disruptive, intrusive, and intolerable than working in a physical office. Interminable physical meetings are replaced by even longer and more unbearable videoconferences. Meanwhile emails keep piling up and random instructions and new to-dos keep coming in. The horrors of micromanagement become even worse when working-from-home. These workers can’t wait to get back to the office, not because it’s good but because it’s the lesser of two evils. And their micromanaging bosses can’t wait to see them come back so that they can get on with finding out what these workers have been up to, discovering where they went wrong and plotting how to straighten them out and get them back on track.
The other subgroup hates WFH for the opposite reason. They love the office. They miss going there because this is where they socialize, hang out, have beers together and make friends. Whether their office is well-managed or bureaucratic, they don’t care: their life revolves around the office. They are anxious to get back. For this group, the office isn’t just about work at all. It’s about friendships and relationships and loves and hates and highs and lows. These people go to work for all of that—besides the work. For them, being at home can be a lonely business. Getting a hug or elbow shake is a vital part of living. No matter how workplaces look in future, this group hopes for a physical place to gather for work.
Why Happy Virtual Workers Have Agile Management
A key reason for those happily working from home, as an article by Cal Newport in the New Yorker notes, is that their firms have deployed “an unusually systematic approach to organizing their efforts” known as “agile project-management methods.”
Agile principles include “elaborate systems, punctuated by ‘standup’ meetings and coding ‘sprints,’ which help them track and assign tasks without overloading individuals or creating unnecessary interruptions or redundancies. Leveraging these systems, carefully organized teams of coders can operate smoothly without the informal productivity boosts that come from working in the same space.” In effect, in these groups managers enable the staff to get agreed things done, rather than controlling, adjusting, interrupting, and meddling with the work. It is tempting to shed the “agile” label and call this “good management.”
Newport apparently concludes that “agile” management is beyond the capability of most organizations. “The extensive efforts required to accomplish this feat, of course, only help underscore the importance of offices for everyone else.” In other words, for those not benefiting from good (“agile”) management, the physical office is a necessary second-best crutch to help firms get by, because they haven’t gotten around to practicing good management. In effect, the challenge of working virtually is just one more area where the principles of bureaucracy can’t cope.
Why Virtual Work Makes Agile Workers Happy
The article notes that “agile” management principles are more common in software development. “Software development is one of the few knowledge industries to have had success with remote work.”
But Agile management principles are not limited to software development. In recent discussions with an array of firms from different sectors practicing Agile management discussing how they were coping with the coronavirus crisis, the consensus is clear: working-from-home is better, both for the workers and for the firm, than working in the office.
It isn’t just the removal of home-to-office travel time, though in some cases, that is huge—as much as four hours per day. It is:
· an acceleration of the ongoing move to digital and collaboration software, particularly Microsoft Teams and Miro
· less time wasted in unproductive meetings
· greater accessibility to other workers and managers who were not stuck in meetings
· more time spent on getting things done
· processes being reinvented ‘on the fly’
Having the kids at home was certainly a distraction but for most, overall, it wasn’t a net drag. Participants felt that if the kids were at school, WFH would be even more productive.
This group of firms had particular characteristics:
· These are fairly large firms, ranging from several thousand to over a hundred thousand employees.
· The firms are in various sectors, including health, telecommunications, construction, and transportation.
· These are sectors that have not been radically disrupted like restaurants or hotels. None of them are in customer-facing sectors like retail.
· The workforce is mostly high-end professional and requires considerable collaboration.
· The firms are already fairly well advanced in digitization and implementing Agile principles, so the move to working-from-home was not particularly difficult, although they also had some less advanced pockets.
· The firms have been making multi-year efforts to become more customer-centric and doing most work in small teams.
The History Of Working Virtually
Working virtually has been around for some time. In 1966, long before the personal computer was invented, physicist Jack Nilles published a book, “The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff,” arguing for multiple tiny satellite offices in city outskirts to relieve urban traffic congestion. As Newport notes, “Nilles coined the terms ‘tele-commuting’ and ’telework’ to describe this hypothetical arrangement.
Then, “In the 1990s, during the so-called IT revolution, office workers started using networked PCs and teams embraced e-mail and file-sharing. People began spending less time in meetings and on the phone and more time interacting with their computers.”
A decade ago, a kind of work nirvana seemed to be in sight. “Office work seemed on the brink of a profound shift,” writes Newport. “Instead of commuting into crowded cities, white-collar workers would soon relocate to more affordable, bucolic areas; they’d enjoy flexible schedules, picking up their kids from school and sitting down for family dinners after productive days at home.”
But telecommuting nirvana was still more a concept than a practice. It ran into three roadblocks.
One was technology. Technology was still tied to the desktop. The user interface wasn’t seamless or integrated. The Internet of Things was still science fiction. Networks were slow and unreliable. Videoconferencing was in its infancy.
A second was the principles of bureaucratic management. It was hard to micromanage if your workers were out of sight and probably up to some mischief. Managers felt it was safer to keep them close at hand so as to monitor their every move and correct errors before they became worse.
The third blockage, paradoxically, was Agile management itself. The effort to enhance teams led to a strong belief in co-location as an almost necessary step for tech workers. Co-located teams became a mantra in the Agile world. “IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Best Buy, and other companies curtailed their telework programs; Silicon Valley companies became known for the ludic enticements—free meals, coffee bars, climbing gyms—that they used to keep workers at the office.”
Now, in a strange twist, as the coronavirus crisis is forcing even Agile firms to work virtually, they are finding to their surprise that working virtually is often to be preferred. It turns out that once a culture of collaborative teams is firmly in place, the technology is now good enough to enable it to do as well as—or better than—working in offices, and at much lower cost. As a result, top Agile firms like Twitter and Facebook are leading the charge back to creating a permanent option to working virtually.
In fact, there is a natural marriage between virtual work and Agile management principles. Books like Working Virtually (Stylus, 2017) read like textbooks on Agile management—teams, clear goals, trust, collaboration, networks of teams, speed, mindsets, and agility. The whole paraphernalia of Agile principles is there.
The thought is now dawning on corporations: if people want to work from home they should have that option, while flexible office space design will enable some people occasionally show up in the office and have workspace.
The positive findings about the superiority of having the option to work from home are confirmed by studies, including a 2019 study of over a thousand employees, which showed that remote employees work 1.4 more days per month than their office-based counterparts, resulting in more than three additional weeks of work per year.
In that study, WFH wasn’t better for everyone. Some 29% of remote employees said they struggled with work-life balance, and 31% said they have needed to take a day off for their mental health. The study suggests that the downsides could be reduced by taking more breaks throughout the day. Other studies have multiple suggestions for overcoming the downsides of WFH.
How long can teams work virtually? They may need to get started in person, and then once the team members know each other, they can disperse and work from home. They may need to come together in person from time to time to restore links or fix any issues that might have developed in the virtual world. But seeing each other face to face every working hour of every day simply isn’t needed.
We are also still learning how to capture virtually the value of informal random interactions that occur in the corridors or cafeterias of physical offices or bars after work. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. I already participate in several virtual conversation groups. They have open agendas and have been meeting together for months or, in one case, years. They have gotten to know each other better than most participants of physical meetings. The conversation tends to flow in unexpected directions. Participants bring ideas, thoughts and questions, which often spin further insights and hypotheses, like jam sessions with skilled jazz musicians. This free flow of ideas of course wouldn’t t happen if the virtual meetings had fixed agendas and a tight focus on the top topics. Ironically, informality needs to be deliberately planning.
Learning To Work Virtually
Learning to work virtually can also be seen as part of the larger task of learning to live digitally. It is yet another innovation flowing from the still-astonishing realization that any person or thing can communicate with any other person or thing on the planet, instantly and at zero cost. This means that everything that human beings do is being reinvented. Traditionalists mourn the loss of our old ways of doing things, just as in the 5th Century BC, Plato lamented the discovery of writing, and in the 15th Century religious authorities bemoaned the invention of the printing press. But change is happening.
Accessing knowledge, shopping, transportation, and entertainment are already being transformed. Today, for most people, these shifts to digital have made life quicker, simpler, more convenient, and, let’s face it: generally better. So, why not transform work also?
In the broader sweep of history, the shift to virtual work is part of the transition from oral communication to writing, to print, to analog computing and now to digital. As analyst Harold Jarche as noted, “When our various civilizations shifted from a predominantly oral society to the rule of the written word, we saw the rise of kingdoms and institutions….. When the written word was usurped by the printed page, the sharing of knowledge exploded. The accessibility of books enabled more universities to be built, and printing helped to create better bookkeeping systems, so that global markets could flourish…. The printed word continued to dominate, even as it was initially obsolesced by the electric impulse, first with the telegraph (dashes & dots) in 1844, followed slowly by radio and television (electrical signals), and only recently gathering speed with the Internet and the Web (zeros & ones).”
Changes in our mode of communication tended to change the architecture of our institutions. To radically oversimplify: oral communication led to tribes; writing spawned hierarchical institutions; printing created markets, and digital is generating networks.
Each has its own dynamic. In the world of tribes, society was held together by the bonds of kinship. Everyone knew everyone and there was nowhere to hide. By contrast, in hierarchical institutions and markets, the dynamic was one of power and control, with information being a source of dominance, and an expectation of direct reciprocity for anything done.
Now, as we move to a networked world, everyone again knows everyone, and the dynamic starts to resemble a world of tribes. Cooperative behavior without expectation of direct reciprocity can enhance reputation and create more links in a network. Our reputation in a network is visible to all. The cooperative behaviors of tribes are once again the best way to work together,
Physical offices epitomize the old era of hierarchical institutions, where keeping workers under the same roof and within the same walls is part of the dynamic of control and dominance. In a physical office space, everyone can see the meaning of the lavish corner office without being told what it is for. In a Zoom conversation, the hierarchy is completely flat.
Working virtually is thus a reflection of the evolution of the organization as a network. Your counterparts in your team or your network may be in the same room or in another part of the world. It doesn’t matter anymore. As Trina Hoefling explains in her excellent book, Working Virtually (Stylus, 2017) “The real purpose of virtual work is not to allow distance but to create synergy without limitations of time or space.”
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