The first to send people home were tech giants Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Soon after, Starbucks, Ford, Target, Viacom, JPMorgan Chase and virtually every big-name firm followed suit. By the end of March, the emptying of office buildings around the country was all but complete.
This evacuation was intended to be temporary, a decision made with an abundance of caution. But the nationwide shift to remote work, wherever possible, stretched on for weeks, then months, then quarters, and now coming up on a year, with no definitive end in sight.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact that COVID-19 has had on organizations and the way we work—at least those of us fortunate enough to have work—during this interminable pandemic.
These trends include automation and, as many of us have now experienced to exhaustion, video conferencing via ubiquitous applications such as Zoom, Slack and Teams.
“With some key technological innovations available,” Mefford adds, “we’ve adapted to challenging times in ways that we probably didn’t know we could adapt.”
But what will work look like when those challenging times have finally passed?
The big change in the workplace is that we’re no longer in the workplace. Or rather, the workplace is wherever we are. And it’s working… well enough. Employees have largely risen to the challenge. The systems and applications have been up to the task (with a few hiccups).
This emergency implementation of remote work technologies and practices has delivered a strong proof-of-concept to those who doubted that teams could remain productive when physically distant. We have seen the future, in a non-theoretical light.
Elizabeth Umphress, a professor of management and Evert McCabe Endowed Fellow at Foster, believes this unplanned experiment in workplace flexibility also represents an important opportunity to address enduring inequities in the workplace facing primary caregivers. Weighing duties at work and at home often results in lower pay and fewer promotions. “I am deeply concerned about what the demographics of our organizations are going to look like unless corporations make strong efforts to address caregiver status in the face of this pandemic—and after,” says Umphress, who serves on the UW’s Caregiver Taskforce.
She advises organizations to think creatively about how they structure work in order to retain valuable employees. Do all meetings need to be in-person? Can schedules flex?
“I hope that organizations will realize that the kind of flexibility we have seen during the pandemic is advantageous in terms of productivity and retention,” Umphress adds, “and that they will implement some of these creative ideas about getting work done. Get rid of what doesn’t work and keep what does.”
Will temporary become permanent?
Several big companies, including Twitter and Facebook, have announced that they will make their temporary work-from-home policies a permanent option. Others, like REI and Amazon, have already begun divesting of physical office space.
“This year, millions of people have experienced this other way of working,” says Jen Rhymer (PhD 2020), a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University. “And so they understand, in a very personal way, the pros and cons and what it actually feels like to work remotely. You’re going to see a larger number of people who want to continue doing at least some work outside of the office.”
But Rhymer sounds a note of caution. Her doctoral studies at Foster were a deep dive into “location-independent organizations,” designed to operate outside of a traditional office environment intentionally—not due to a public health emergency.
“If there weren’t a pandemic,” she says, “I would be very skeptical that any large organization would opt to transition to a remote work structure and do so successfully, due in part to the high cost and turnover.”
Among the litany of caveats to consider are the increased potential for overwork and burnout, as well as the challenges of socializing and relationship building. And this is before even mentioning the challenges to individual and team productivity once the novelty and urgency of virtual work in a pandemic wears off.
“When Facebook and Twitter came out with these announcements that remote work is working so well that we’re going to do this forever,” Rhymer says, “well, that was seeing the high of it. But they haven’t structured the company to work this way. They haven’t made the cultural changes required to build a healthy remote work culture.
“That being said, with this huge pandemic shock, there’s so much change and uncertainty and upset and disrupt that’s already happening—both at an individual and organizational level—that the challenges of transitioning to a remote organization appear more manageable than they did before.”
Location-independent companies tend to organize around one of two models, according to Rhymer.
Synchronous companies employ what you typically think of as a “work from home” environment, with people working independently but sharing documents and meeting frequently via Zoom. “Basically doing what you would in an office but doing it virtually,” she says.
Asynchronous companies tend to be more globally scattered, with the distance bridged by enhanced documentation systems and version control—and ultimate flexibility for all involved.
Rhymer believes that most traditional companies will migrate toward a synchronous model, though some multinational firms may adopt elements of the asynchronous.
She has found several important traits shared by all successful location-independent organizations that transcend technology and infrastructure. Those include greater transparency and access, meticulous documentation to create a shared context, and informed action (which is to say, proaction).
A fourth is trust. “The hiring process is long and rigorous in the companies I studied,” Rhymer says. “They’re really making sure that every hire is a good fit.”
To Zoom or not to Zoom?
The distributed companies that Rhymer has examined top out at 1,000-1,500 employees—orders of magnitude smaller than the corporate giants that are contemplating a more virtual workplace in their own futures.
And reports show that robust employee productivity during the early days of office closures is beginning to erode as pandemic fatigue builds. “Pandemic work from home is not the same as regular work from home,” says Rhymer, who is beginning to study firms shifting from traditional to virtual work models. “And remote work is not for everyone.”
But it is for some. And some of the time. She and many experts believe that a hybrid approach will emerge. Best of the old with the best of the new. And the popular open office concept may give way to a more partitioned future.
“I think there’s going to be an increased understanding that you don’t need to be together every day,” says Ben Hallen, the Longbrake Endowed Professor in Innovation, who worked with Rhymer at Foster. “But you want to balance that with the efficiency and efficacy of having everyone together to build relationships and do creative work and decision-making.”
Or maybe, by design or by habit, we’ll just revert to old ways when the virus is finally subdued.
Mefford believes the alchemy that occurs when people work side-by-side—riffing off each other, building on each other’s ideas—does not transmit so easily across screens. And a pronounced fear of missing out may build when colleagues start trickling back into the office spaces.
“We could see a big snapback,” he says. “As much as organizations are making structural changes, our behaviors might return to normal rather easily.”
Commercial developer Martin Selig (BA 1959) certainly thinks so.
“At the end of the day,” he recently told the Seattle Times, “people do not like to work from home.”