The Future of Work Isn't Fully Distributed or Remote

by Lisa PicardMay 27th, 2020

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Big tech has lead workplace and talent strategies for the last decade — Namely how to attract and retain the best talent (e.g. onsite cafes, casual dress, summer hours, paid sabbaticals, etc). Now Facebook, Microsoft and others are outlining new work from home policies given recent productivity gains reported during sheltering in place orders telling employees that they won’t be required to show up until at least 2021: Zuckerberg also said that 50% of his workforce will be WFH by 2030 (even when just 20% of his employees had interest in working remotely long-term). And Coinbase’s CEO published his organizational policy as being “remote-first” or part in-office and part remote providing “optionality” as its primary talent attractor. Coinbase also outlined a vision to pursue a hub and spoke strategy where the company would have “one floor of office space in ten cities, rather than ten floors of office space in one city.”

The first moves appear to be more about addressing the short-term fears and concerns of office workers than long-term value. But the future of work isn’t fully distributed or remote — as we see the tactics emerge. The most effective strategy for innovative work requires agility, flexibility and optionality for the work at hand (i.e. we produce creative products, ideas) — also called work from anywhere. Clearly organizations, leaders and the workforce is looking for a point of view and a direction, not just grandstanding. Understanding which trends emerging are short-term (fear subsiding) or systemic is paramount to the future of work and our cities.

The pandemic removed friction for many latent workplace trends — (i.e. remote work, distributed workforce, automation, etc). And WFH is nothing new, Gallup found in 2017 that as much as 60% of the workforce used the home as an “occasional” work venue, likely as lifestyle required it. More importantly, employees that spend some (but not all) of their time working remotely have higher engagement than those who never work remotely. This pandemic has pushed work more substantively into the home, making it an “optional” work space. This optionality is fostering a dramatic shift in the purpose of the corporate office. However, some levels need increased socialization and mentoring at work to be effective; so the office will need to be highly experiential and of high utility for collaboration, learning and creation to draw the workforce in; the worker has choice.

Solving for safety with permanent isolation threatens the creative, problem solving ecosystem of the organization— Permanent WFH addresses current tension yet threatens value of the employees and the organizations’ ability to grow and change. Applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when employee safety (real or perceived) is threatened, a company must provide protection or it will fail to access higher levels of performance from its talent (i.e. productivity and creativity).

Why?

Work done in isolation is often routine and to defend the business — As time in WFH extends, without substantive training, mentoring and collaboration, there is decreasing returns to that labor (not to mention declining engagement). This workforce can only continue performing the work it has known and the new work, methods, patterns, ideas will not come easily or without more effort (a unit of labor).

There are three essential workplace typologies for effective work — (i.e. spatial alchemy); (1) concentration, (2) community and (3) collaboration. We all know the dense open floor plan was over played and “too collaborative” when deficient in places for concentrated work. Now an entirely work from home (WFH) workforce structure over supplies concentration and makes collaboration, learning and growth challenging. Although some organizations have shifted to a largely distributed WFH workforce, I’d argue those organizations are driving repetitive tasks that do not depend on the formation of new ideas (e.g. call centers, sales reps, etc). The non-collaborative, repetitive job functions are commonly replaced by technology over time.

Short term productivity gains are observed in concentrated work. WFH strategies are catching the C-suite given the immediate returns (output) observed by the workforce. It’s worth keeping in mind that this is a population trying to prove it is working in an environment of distrust; and the C-suite noticed. However, after this initial push in productivity, value is likely to diminish over time without work in community (exogenous learning) or collaboration (endogenous learning).

The workforce choosing WFH exclusively, will likely not experience the career and wage advancement of collaborating counterparts

And, unfortunately the workforce that chooses to exclusively WFH, or work in isolation will likely not experience the career and wage advancement of their collaborating counterparts, given the drive to automate these tasks and job functions which can be “watched” through robotic processes.

I offer these thoughts as we are all exploring and testing ideas that get us humans to the higher levels; self actualization. And, I acknowledge being a commercial real estate executive who also thinks of herself as a cultural anthropologist for humans at work. A good friend reminded me of the writer Upton Sinclair, who said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Holding the economy flat, I don’t see the demand for office space increasing or decreasing as its tremendously inefficient to adjust space without a clear understanding of the work to be done — but jobs (i.e. demand) will continue to follow people. I know I can work anywhere, but there are environments where I am able to realize my best self.