Tuesday 2¢: Work in the “new normal”

This post is a bit more than two cents, as I continue to ruminate on what’s next, plus someone asked some questions on Twitter that needed more than 280 chars. One thing is right, although days in lockdown are blurred, it is Tuesday!


Following some posts here on my blog and the interview I did with Paige O’Neill (CMO, Sitecore) I’ve been having some interesting discussions, online and offline about what we think (hope?) will be the “new normal” once this crisis subsides. Including this thread on Twitter with Andy Iddon and as I was struggling to fit replies into 280 chars, I thought I’d share some of what’s coming out in these discussions.

I use the phrase “new normal” as I think that two factors of the current crisis of enforced remote working and the overnight shift of consumers to digital commerce will have a lasting impact on our world of work, beyond shifting the laggards on the adoption curve of digital transformation (that I wrote about last week).

Remote working is not a technical challenge (DUH!)

From a work perspective, it’s clear that digital transformation is not just about handing someone a laptop and accounts for Slack and Zoom. Remote working is not a technical challenge, and it hasn’t been for over a decade. I was handed a laptop, a mobile phone, and a plane ticket as a tech consultant in 1996.

Today that experience (without the plane ticket) is the new reality for all that can remotely work, and the challenge is how will this work, both in this period lockdown but going forward, now that everyone has experienced the benefits of remote work. As I asked in this post, will anyone want to go back?

The mistake is to think of remote work, specifically knowledge work in the same way we have thought about work since 19th-century industrialization, that offices are like factories and to do the work we need to be present, only now remotely.

Work is not just showing up

It’s not just employers thinking like this, wanting to survey their battery of chickens laying the eggs, but as employees feeling like we’ve achieved something by merely showing up.

Going somewhere else isn’t getting shit done. I’m guilty of this; if I go to a meeting, I feel like I did something however productive that thing was. It’s the same when you go to and return from an office. You did a thing. When you are remote, to feel like you did something, you need to, you know, do something.

Shift focus from THE OFFICE to THE WORK

Flexible remote working changes our relationship with the work, and it enables us to live around the work, not the office.

When we think about commuting, we tend to focus on the time we would save. But, what about the folks for which the commute to the office is a barrier to the work. For example, the experienced workers that leave city-based jobs as they settle and have kids in the ‘burbs or people that find commuting physically challenging.

It also enables those for whom 9-5 may not be the optimum time to work. It enables equality in domestic labor and childcare—a change in lifestyle.

Good for all?

It’s not just the employee that wins. In the Twitter thread I referred to earlier, Andy expresses a concern for the employer.

Getting remote, flexible working right gives employers access to a new diverse talent pool, outside commuting distance to their office.

To use a specific example from the marketing agency industry. According to this article in Campaign magazine:

The average age of employees at all IPA membership agencies is just under 34. If you look around your average London creative shop, you would be forgiven for believing that women simply shrivel up and turn to dust after the age of 35

Yes, the point of the article is about ageism in agencies, but if you are under 34, before kids and commitments, it’s way easier to live and work in the cities where agencies are based. And the agencies (in my experience) are not big on flexible remote working. So while yes, we need to consider ageism in agencies, the lack of diversity is also self-selecting.

Flexible working is an opportunity for employers to diversify their workforce and bring into the business talent that might not have been on their radar.

Splendid… but, what about getting shit done?

Ah.. but hang on, what about productivity? There are plenty of studies that support the high productivity of remote staff, written by people that presumably know more about this than I do.

For my perspective on this topic, I am reminded of probably the first blog I followed (Joel on Software) and his book of the same name, in which (in around the early 2000s) he talks about giving developers individual offices due to the productivity lost by distractions. The lost productivity is not just the distraction, but the time it takes to return to the task, a challenge for creative and knowledge workers.

For some, working from home is that distraction-free environment, and the most productive place to be. Maybe not so much now as we are all locked down with our kids, but you know what I mean.

We need to learn to remote manage

In my own experience, I have managed teams remotely, all in the same office, mixed groups, freelancers, and agency partners, and I honestly can’t correlate the performance of the work with being in an office.

What I can say is that it’s an individual thing, that as a manager, you need to figure out what works for who. Remote work could be the very thing that unlocks a level of commitment to the business and getting the job done, which will impact the quality of the work, more than getting that much-coveted desk by the window in the open-plan office.

No doubt, it’s tough as managers. Two hundred years of industrial thinking has hard-wired us to associate presence with performance. It’s also easy to overlook staff who are not present, lose some of the serendipitous problem solving, and it’s harder to monitor the welfare of the team. Still, these are not impossible to replicate virtually. It’s just a new skill.

Cultural moments

I was having this discussion with a chum that I only know as a remote colleague, who became a friend. The term I used to describe how we formed our relationship was through “cultural moments”, the off-site meetings, the sales kick-offs, the reasons why we were in each other’s cities.

It was the same back in the day when I was handed a mobile phone and laptop in the late ’90s and moved to the US for the first time. I was on the road 80% of the time but based in our Rockville, MD office. We made an effort to be in the office on Friday, discuss projects, catch up with admin, share what we’d learned that week, and maybe most importantly, grab a few beers together.

Once we are out of lockdown, if remote work does become the “new normal”, employers will need to pay attention to these cultural moments.

Finally…

Embracing this potential “new normal” that we’ve all been flung into the last few weeks is not easy. It’s more than having a broadband connection and a laptop.

There is a lot written about how to work from home, but there are communication skills we will need to hone as colleagues and management skills we will need to learn as managers.

But I think for many the flexible working genie is out of the bottle and we need to be ready.