WFO or WFH? That Is the (New) Question

Millennials working from home
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Isn’t it ironic?

In our modern Millennial workplace culture, companies go all out to outfit their work places with generous employee amenities — day care, fitness centers, free snacks, game rooms — to keep workers wanting to stay on site as much as possible.

Yet, in the midst of the office-as-second-home revolution, those amenities must be forsaken, as we temporarily stay cooped up at home working, and waiting for this persistent pandemic to play itself out.

Note that I said “temporarily.”

Instead of “To be or not to be,” the momentous question for our time is WFO or WFH?

If your answer is WFH, then ask yourself if that is the new rule, or an exception?

I’m voting for exception. Here’s why …

I totally am down with the pragmatism of having workers keep their safe distance from each other by not going to the office, as coronavirus was rapidly spreading and threatening America’s health.

 

GETTING BACK ON TRACK

Now it’s different, though. As Covid-19 continues to be moderated, the idea of not returning to the office at all is neither realistic nor good for business nor good for people’s livelihoods.

That means it’s also not good for the nation’s economy. With summer winding down, it’s estimated about one-third of workers have returned to their normal offices. I hope that trend continues in the right direcion.

When schools announced how they would re-open this fall, one word in particular was repeated over and over to describe their plans: hybrid. It describes a balanced approach to teaching students, both in the classroom and remotely, when they are at home.

The same can be said of plans for the business community to resume its regular rhythm. It doesn’t have to be all one way or the other, WFO or WFO. It should be WFO AND WFH.

We should take advantage of what each has to offer the employee and the employer, and then exploit their respective strengths.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a proponent of what’s being called the “distributed workforce.”

 

NATIONWIDE TALENT SEARCH

He explains that one obvious benefit of remote workers is that the company can cast a much wider net to hire top talent, no matter where the talent lives. The rationale at work there is that talent acquisition should not be inhibited by distance or geography.

Facebook’s human resource strategy going forward is to have half its workers in office space and half at home. That model epitomizes the hybrid model.

While we’re addressing the virtues of WFO versus WFH, let’s look at other pluses and minuses of each.

In WFO, the socialization and camaraderie of people hanging together, as Zuckerberg points out, should not be underestimated. Maintaining one-to-one relationships is difficult when each person is isolated in a different location, yet it that casual interaction is a critical factor when brainstorming.

Michael Gould, the former CEO of legendary department store Bloomingdale’s, makes a great point about the collective energy that inevitably is lost in a remote work situation. He questions how a corporate culture can be created that way.

 

ZOOM CULTURE

The disconnection that defines remote work creates not so much an authentic company culture as a Zoom culture. Young workers whose introduction to corporate America is through working at home will be adept at Zoom skills, but Gould wonders (as do I) how they will master the people skills of office politics that propel promotions.

Effective leadership is all about presence and persuasion. The best mentoring happens close-up, with a senior executive encouraging a younger associate, and with the associate embracing the unique opportunity to offer the leader her own perspective.

It is that irreplaceable intimate element of mutual mentoring that is lost outside the office.

The unplanned coming together of employees in a common area encourages spontaneity, something that Apple founder Steve Jobs believed in passionately. For that reason, he had no interest in remote work.

 

THE OFFICE WOMB

Being in an office is akin to a womb that gives us comfort, with a familiar routine. Expectations are not only explicit, but recalibrated continually. That keeps us on our game and focused day-to-day on the corporate goals, which inform our individual work goals.

That same clarity of purpose and accountability becomes a two-sided coin for WFH. It may feel liberating at first not to have a supervisor breathing down your neck, in the name of oversight, but that also can lead to some of your small, everyday victories — your incremental personal improvement — being overlooked, lost in the shadows of limited visibility.

I read somewhere that a well-run Zoom meeting can be just as effective as in-person conferences. I wouldn’t buy that overstatement even if it came with the bonus offer of a lifetime guaranteed immunity from Covid-19, because I don’t believe either is a realistic claim.

Zoom is not real life! I can’t say it any more plainly than that.

 

PEOPLE ENERGY

You and me standing face-to-face, looking at each other square in the eye, reading one another’s body language, interacting naturally within the same physical space, sensing our syncopated biorhythm, feeding off each other’s energy — that is real life!

I understand that for some companies remote work works better than for other companies. But it’s not a one-size-fits all panacea for the future either.

Companies like Twitter that are allowing their workers to stay home forever might get away with it, but it also raises the question whether, over time, people who work for Twitter will feel more like they are working for themselves.

Maybe the Twitter employees prefer it that way, but it’s hard to imagine what kind of palpable corporate culture there will be to plug into. Basically, you’re on your own. Is that where you want to be?

Right now, it’s a matter of expediency to allow, and to encourage, your workforce to stay home to get the job done. But what about your competitors?

 

COMPETITIVE EDGE

I can foresee situations where Company A devises a plan where at least some of its workers return to the office — depending to some extent on their job function — and Company B keeps all of its workers distributed outside the office. Company A creates a new product line extension that leaves Company B in the dust.

Why? Possibly because Company A’s hybrid model of office front liners, supplemented by home office researchers, were able to brainstorm and execute faster and more holistically than Company B’s fully dissipated braintrust.

Being anonymous in your home office also can create an identity crisis, and that in turn dehumanizes people. We all want affirmation of our presence and our contributions.

When we WFO, we all appreciate getting a few minutes of needed relief from a tough day in the trenches by telling a joke, or laughing at a co-worker’s joke.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for that to occur when WFH. It’s entirely possible that your dog has a great sense of humor and barks happily at your cat jokes. If the pooch does bark at your jokes, it could be a sign from above that it’s definitely time for you to get back to the office.

See you at the water cooler.

To learn more about my bookFisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer” — which includes many “School of Fisch Lessons” that can help anybody of any age — visit MillennialBabyBoomer.com.

Originally posted on Forbes.

Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer