Last week, the jewel of Australia’s tech sector, Atlassian, was lauded for giving staff the privilege of working from home – forever.
After posting this on our team slack channel with a comment by me warning of the longer-term impact of ‘remote forever’, one of our senior team members had this to say:
“Why do people travel in the morning to an office, in a packed tram/train carrying a laptop , then work on that laptop only to carry it back home in a packed train, wasting precious time?”
When I worked for another technology company, we spent a lot of energy trying to convince leadership that WFH did not mean a free ride. And, in fact, would unleash productivity and improve engagement. COVID has brought forward the idea of WFH as an alternative arrangement for many that wouldn’t have otherwise considered it.
Whilst we may be revelling in the success of dismantling the long-held bias, that you need to see someone at work to trust that they are doing the work, it comes with its own set of challenges around organisational relevance.
Does it matter what company you work for if the only difference between one job is for whom you are completing a task, and perhaps the one or two people that you work with closely?
Work is a relationship, and relationships thrive on intimate and frequent connections. When we all worked in offices some of that intimacy was built by the serendipity of conversations that you had while going about your day’s work. There was always the potential to catch someone from outside of your team and share an idea and solicit a different perspective.
There was an ease of connections and interactions that can be hard to replicate in a remote work context. Being remote is a little bit like trying to establish a long-distance relationship. Which all of us know have the chances of success stacked against them.
Then there is the influence of place, and of space. At REA Group where I worked for some years the building fed the culture. Its design and redesign were carefully thought through to maximize connections and space to collaborate. With anyone. Not just those in your immediate team.
Why do people go to church to pray, the pub to drink, and the footy to watch their team, when they have the bible at home, beer in the fridge, and a TV in the living room? Because they are looking for connection, community, and inspiration.
Once the novelty of WFH wears off, and for many it already has, comes the very real challenge of maintaining connection, building affiliation, and building cultures when people and teams are not spending time together – physically, in any shared space.
Ongoing remote work presents very practical challenges for organisations, particularly around company culture and organisational HR.
There is a real risk that our employment relationship becomes transactional, which then impacts engagement, which then impacts productivity etc.
We know from our own work in this space, personality is not 16 types on a table, it is way more nuanced and diverse than that. In a population of 85,000 equal men and women, we find at least 400 uniquely identifiable personality types.
While we live in a world of hyper-personalization – our morning news feed is our feed, our Netflix profile is our personal profile based on our viewing history,
How can an organisation retain that diversity of perspective when it usually thinks of two binary ways of working – in an office, or at home? It can’t.
That’s why the future of work has to involve a new type of technology, a technology that can navigate the rich mix of types we work with, adapt to their communication style, their working style.
While I have championed for WFH in senior HR positions I’ve held, this experience has highlighted for me the many things I might have always taken for granted in an office environment.
It has nothing to do with fancy décor and an ergonomic chair. More those human moments of serendipitous connection. It all disappeared so quickly without almost any time to say good-bye.
I’m learning what my motivations are, and what connections I want in a day.
From the conversations I’ve had with friends and workmates, they’re also making similar self-discoveries. I’d like to think we all emerge from this situation with a mind to honour the things we’ve learned about our “work selves.”
And most importantly, to build company cultures that thrive by accommodating those diverse needs.
Barbara Hyman, 03/09/20
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