A bit of history
For over a decade I have been a strong advocate of remote work. In 2006 it was something that most managers and business owners could not understand. In their minds if an employee was not physically present in the office, he was probably slacking (do not confuse with Slack’ing), sleeping or watching tv (there was no Netflix back then). It was unimaginable to let someone go home and do the work from there. Many were reluctant to adopt distributed remote work culture for several reasons. Some were related to data or network security: “how do we prevent data leaks if people work from home?”, “we can’t maintain internal security of our network if people log in from the outside of our office”. Of course you haven’t heard of any security breaches in office workforce oriented companies, right? No data leaks there too, huh? Those fully secured, impenetrable networks.
Other concerns were around controlling employees (hello control freaks!) – “how do we know they actually do any work? Maybe they just watch tv!”, “What if they don’t work 8 hours?”. I’ve always wondered how physical presence in the office gives managers confidence and peace of mind that something is actually being worked on. Countless hours spent on conversations in the kitchen during “short” (usually 30 minutes) coffee breaks, all the noise in the large fancy open spaces created by designers with only one goal in mind – impress visitors in the company’s office by sending the same message as you’d get when watching a large army parade. Perhaps I’m wrong and their intention was to make a meaningful resemblance:
Oh wait, someone would say they are not working on computers there. How about that one?
That’s perfectly normal, right? You can overlook all your minions from the office upstairs. That definitely bolsters the confidence in your workforce being efficient. On top of that you can also impress your customers with how many chicken, err, professionals you have.
Coming back to the ground floor shows a different, more realistic picture – all those distractions caused by phones ringing, people shouting to each other or someone always poking your chair while trying to get to their desk through a tiny valley packed with dozens of people. I understand some would say those social interactions are needed and all the discussions in the kitchen are still held on corporate or business topics (for sure). However, has anyone actually measured the productivity in that environment? Has anyone compared it to either cubicles or mid-sized rooms with just a few engineers having more space to get up, walk around, stretch, look through the window and think of different ideas? Doesn’t that boost the creativity and prevent burnout? For some reason most large companies prefer the “let’s make a statement” type of offices.
On the other hand there are small companies. Initially they were founded in garages (hello Amazon). However, around 10 years ago some came up with the idea to reduce spending and hire people from other cities or even different countries. Not only it was cheaper to run the business, as you didn’t have to spend a pile of money to rent a fancy office in prestigious location but it also opened the door to more candidates. Suddenly you didn’t have to pick someone from the same city – you could choose from thousands of people around the globe. That came with yet another benefit – resiliency and better out of office hours coverage. If done right, there was no need to put people on-call for a week, 24/7 and have them respond to incidents at night, totally destroying their day time productivity (and their private lives too by the way), no need to schedule meetings with customers on the other side of the globe at 4am or 10pm. But the most important benefit was business continuity in case of natural disasters or various black swan events and local emergencies (civil unrest, strikes).
Coronavirus or Covid-19. Hurricanes devastating homes, offices and data centers. Volcanoes not cooperating and spitting clouds of volcanic ashes.
I have to admit I was hoping to see more shift towards remote work after several mid-sized events. One of them was eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull (try to pronounce it) in 2010. Despite many flights being cancelled, it wasn’t significant enough to make a huge difference as it was mostly limited to some parts of Europe, people could still work from office, drive cars, commute by trains. However, those that had to travel around Iceland, Ireland, UK were mostly hit by it.
Then came the hurricanes in 2017 hitting the Caribbean and some parts of US which actually disrupted some businesses in those areas. Once again it was local and didn’t affect the entire globe. And then in 2020 came Coronavirus or Covid-19. Suddenly most of those large open space fanatics disappeared. Anyone sitting next to you in an office, touching a door knob or patting you on your back could potentially be a silent carrier of deadly (or not) disease. Not to mention if anyone accidentally sneezed or coughed – they would feel like Moses separating the sea.
As interesting as it sounds – the story of Red Sea was not in the minds of CEOs and managers. However, business continuity was. “How do we now continue working on things when people need to be isolated from each other?”. While for some businesses it wasn’t that easy, many call / support centers, software development houses, banks, insurance companies etc. came up with.. yes, you’ve guessed it – remote work idea! As most people were told to self isolate themselves at home, those same homes had to quickly become a work place for people that were told for years it’s impossible to work from home. How come I can still call my cable or electricity provider, mobile operator or my bank and there’s a human on the other side answering my questions and providing support that I need? The impossible made possible almost overnight. All those stories about people not giving a damn when they work from home turned out to be lunacies spread by people with no imagination, incapable of comprehending a simple fact that you don’t measure someone’s productivity by seeing them in the office. I’m sure none of those concrete minds would ever admit I was right, as that would automatically mean they were wrong and certain important people with egos are never wrong.
But wait, there’s more! As a side effect of Covid-19 containment actions, other significant achievements have been made too – namely CO2 emissions reduction. We were told it’s impossible to reduce CO2 emissions easily and it would take decades to make symbolic improvements. Perhaps some people should realize their ignorance – 1-2 weeks was enough to reduce CO2 emissions to levels not imaginable a few months ago.
Every person working from home translates to that person not driving their car for (at least) one hour in the morning, stuck in traffic jams, polluting the environment, lowering their productivity. Same thing on the way back. Then you’ve got all the consultants that provide their services online as instead of having to drive the car to the airport, taking a flight to another city or country, taking a taxi to customer’s office to give a power point presentation, they now do it online. My colleague who’s an English teacher does it online now with video conferencing tools. Even doctors provide advise over the phone or via video conferencing (for efficiency reasons and in order not to spread the disease).
I remember when I was applying for a job and I’ve been told the only way to proceed was to come to the office, even though it was more than 1000 kilometers (or 600miles) away. Sure – the company would pay for the flights but money is not my point. It’s about the environment. It’s about how certain activities are perceived to be absolutely necessary. I know for a fact that the same company is now perfectly fine to conduct the entire interview process over the Internet. I presume fear is a great contributor to progress. Fear of getting infected by a random candidate during an interview he or she didn’t want do in person, because they believed it was perfectly doable online.
Nevertheless those are not the changes or situations I was mostly surprised with. Usually it’s most difficult to change habits of those that have done certain things for extended periods of time. Think of years, decades, centuries or even millenniums. Have you guessed what I’m thinking of? Good. If you haven’t then here it comes – religion, church, mass. I’m not judging people or their beliefs. However, many couldn’t imagine not going to church, mosque (or their equivalent) and not attending a mass. It turns out one lady in South Korea was able to infect hundreds of those attending a mass she went to while being Covid-19 positive. Such events have changed the least flexible minds and it’s possible to participate in a mass online. Given that nowadays everyone has a laptop, PC or at least a smartphone, they can join the mass with the device of their choice without fear of getting infected (or spreading the disease).
Hypocrisy has no limits. First they make some things sound impossible or that they would take decades. Then it’s done almost overnight. Job interviews only possible on-site. A few days later on-site is not possible and online is the only option. Is this real? I must be dreaming!
One conclusion, a lesson for those with minds made of concrete – isolate yourself and don’t come out. Ever..
Ok, I was kidding. Everyone can be wrong and I know most won’t admit it. However, next time you hear someone try to convince you some things are possible, maybe it’s better to keep your mind open. Or better:
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
In simple term – be flexible (and stay healthy!).