Monday, June 29, 2020

The Pandemic and the Future of Working from Home

Teleworking has gone in and out of fashion over the past 30 years; some companies have embraced it for a while and then give it up, ordering everyone back to their cubicles. 
Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, created a furor when she forced employees back into offices in 2013. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings,” a company memo explained.

Tech companies proceeded to spend billions on ever more lavish campuses that employees need never leave. Facebook announced plans in 2018 for what were essentially dormitories. Amazon redeveloped an entire Seattle neighborhood. When Patrick Pichette, the former chief financial officer at Google, was asked, “How many people telecommute at Google?” he said he liked to answer, “As few as possible.”
Depending on who you ask, these and other companies ended telework either because they realized it wasn't working or because their numbers took a downturn and they panicked.

This time around, the numbers for most companies have been good; here is John Sullivan, a professor of management:
The data over the last three months is so powerful. People are shocked. No one found a drop in productivity. Most found an increase. People have been going to work for a thousand years, but it’s going to stop and it’s going to change everyone’s life.
That isn't true about the past and might not be true about the future, but it seems to be true about right now. For now, things are going great with millions of office workers working from home. What does it mean?

It might turn out to be just another way to micromanage employees, or to make them compete against each other. Here is one CEO:
I kind of learned who was really doing the work and who was not really doing as much work as it looked like on paper that they might have been doing, . . . With some of the supervisory, middle-management people I’m starting to wonder if I really need them.
I find that I am about as productive as ever, but I am having trouble separating work from everything else. Working from home with four children in the house I get a steady stream of distractions, so that to really get in eight hours I have to get back on my computer after dinner and work for a couple of hours. It's great not to have to commute 90 minutes each way, but on the other hand I'm getting a lot less reading done. Plus it's sort of lonely.

I think the brutally efficient thing for my company to do would be to close our DC offices and make us all work from home. I don't get anything out of working in the office that would really justify the cost of renting that space. On the other hand I have worked over the years with many home-office people who were manifestly not invested in the success of what we were doing together, so I can see that there are sometimes costs.

So I don't know. But I have a feeling that after this is finally over most people will go back to their offices and their commutes.

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