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This article was written by Dustin Ray, Chief Growth Officer and Co-CEO, Incfile.
The residual odor of microwaved fish in the office kitchen. The drone of water-cooler chatter about that game or television show you didn’t watch. Desk chairs that would make a chiropractor wince. Music so loud you could hear it through your coworker’s headphones. Constant interruptions of varying relevance to your professional output.
Among the many societal fault lines exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps none was more exposed than our fundamentally flawed 9-to-5 office culture, which has been lampooned since at least the days of Dilbert, Office Space, and The Office. The concept of an office 9-to-5 from Monday to Friday goes back not much earlier than those parodies, itself a 20th-century reimagining of “mill culture” that added religious sabbath days to the horrors of the truly “always on” industrial age work schedule. For decades, nothing was able to shake society’s collective inertial consensus around the five-day workweek, sunrise-to-sunset commutes, cubicles, and physical work locations that were geographically inconvenient for nearly everyone compelled to travel to those locations.
That is, until the pandemic. The taste of the “work from home” life that most of the global workforce experienced seemed to be the one thing people did not want to give back from the strange pandemic year. People realized that most work could actually be done remotely, and they only needed to physically be wherever they already were, whether that was the cheapest place to live, the place where it was easiest to maintain relationships, or the place where there were the best schools for their children. Employees at some of the top American companies were willing to give up tens of thousands of dollars just to extend the privilege. Their bosses were just as enthusiastic to get them out of the house and back into the office.
Well, as the Chief Growth Officer and Co-CEO, I want to be one of those voices that supports better integrating “work from home” in our future. It makes no sense to go back to the way things were, a system that created a false sense of activity around ultimately diminished productivity.
The time has come today
The technology world, which is always looking at ways to streamline and create better efficiencies through innovation, has long looked at ways of shaking up the traditional office.
From the tech startup game rooms in the early 2000s to the lean startup philosophies of the 2010s that emphasized short production cycles and maximum worker efficiency, less staid companies in the Fortune 500 found flexible new approaches toward utilizing their labor supply so they could actually better utilize that labor supply. This culminated in a company like WeWork, which was able to scale those tech startup environments into a chain of “third places” that could be used by workers anywhere.
Of course, things did not end well for WeWork, but it was merely a first-mover on an idea whose time had clearly come, in the same way Airbnb and Uber rethought the way people used the homes and cars they owned. It was the black swan event that was the pandemic that finally gave the “work anywhere” idea the push it needed, creating a rubicon for all of business.
Time is money
The greatest waste the pandemic exposed when it comes to work was the greatest resource we have both personally and professionally: time. The average commute time for the American worker to make a round trip to the office is just under an hour. In big metropolitan areas with large residential suburbs, that number almost doubles. There are certainly ways workers might still be able to make use of that travel time, and perhaps self-driving technologies will help them do that, but it is foolish to think it is more productive for the worker to spend that time in traffic or on a subway car. It is sunken time and, thus, sunken cost, pure and simple.
More than the waste of time, commutes and mandatory in-office time also restrict your talent pool to people within driving distance of your office. Do you want to be limited to the best salesperson in San Francisco? Or would you rather have the best salesperson in the country? Or the world?
From its very start, the internet helped flatten the world of communications. In the decades since, it has changed not just communication, but media, commerce, and countless other industries. While the lockdowns of the pandemic were crushing both economically and psychologically, the one thing that did work about those lockdowns was demonstrating how much the internet could replicate everything that worked about an office environment while eliminating many of the things that never have.
In the impromptu experiment created by the pandemic, working from home “just worked.”
Addition by subtraction
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, the bosses who think nothing was broken to begin with will continue to push back against a total conversion to “work from home.” Worker revolts at companies like Apple and Google could be brewing over in-office time. On the other end of the spectrum Facebook, seeing the writing on the wall, will expand remote work to all its employees.
That doesn’t mean you entirely throw out the collaboratively productive baby with the bathwater of those in-person minuses. Balancing remote and in-office time will hopefully also mean fewer meetings just for the sake of having those meetings. The onus is now on “collaborative time” sparking actual and communal creativity and problem-solving rather than being a chore steeped in performative theater. The pandemic also helped create new ways to create “casual collisions” that don’t require eight hours worth of office time and three hours worth of commute time, whether those were virtual coffee breaks or virtual happy hours.
Along with the slow drumbeat of the changing 21st-century office, the last two decades have also brought modern tools to better measure production and worker efficiency. As work culture moves increasingly toward “work from home,” these tools will only continue to improve. Now, in this new world, workers will be judged more than ever on what is actually being produced.
As some have pointed out, this will create a new in-office vs. “work from home” culture war, with vastly disparate measures and outcomes across multiple organizations and industries. However, as in any culture war or as with any business idea, the side that chooses “because this is the way it has always been done” is less likely to win. Those CEOs and other business leaders who can give up the vague and inaccurate suspicion that their employees are trying to get one over on them, while dismissing the false allure of fallacies like a constant need for “casual collision,” are the ones more likely to attract and retain the talent they require.
Dustin Ray leads strategic partnerships, business development, and growth initiatives for Incfile.
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