Home Is Where the Heart Is, Office Is Where the Work Is

 

Imagine if your boss gave you a lie-detector test and the first question you were asked is, “Have you been putting in a full 40 hours a week during the pandemic while working at home?”

How would you answer the question, assuming you didn’t want the polygraph machine to show your boss you were being anything other than honest?

The inclination to work from home (WFH) fewer hours than work from the office (WFO) shouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever worked in both places.

Does that mean people are salivating at the prospect of WFHF (work from home forever)? Not so fast!

It’s human nature and the nature of a comfortable living space that the kind of distractions not present in office culture — such as frequent kitchen breaks and interruptions from family members — will get in the way of achieving quality work in the home office.

In fact, one study revealed that almost half of people who work at home have to share their space, which pokes holes in the assumption that it’s easier to concentrate on your work at home than in an office.

 

CHANGE IS GOOD … SOMETIMES

My decades of experience in corporate America have convinced me nothing can or should completely take the place of a traditional office experience. I also believe that change is good if it is good for business and for people’s livelihoods.

What change doesn’t mean is throwing out all the advantages of working in an office that can’t be equaled at home or by sitting in a Starbucks as you lean back to stroke your laptop and lap up your lattes.

There is room for both experiences, within reason, but there isn’t room to think the office suddenly became obsolete just because people got used to working at home.

If anything, the pandemic has reminded us that working with others in the same structured atmosphere of an office is irreplaceable when it comes to teamwork and achieving quality results.

As the pandemic works its way toward a brighter outlook — thanks to growing immunity from vaccinations and millions of Americans who don’t confuse common sense rules with nonsensical politics — it’s time we take a closer look at the ongoing debate pitting WFH against WFO.

For starters, let’s dismiss out of hand that this is an either-or situation. That point of view is an oversimplification. It muddies the waters in identifying the distinct advantages each work location delivers.

 

A LOT OF SPECULATION

Hybrid models that combine WFO with WFH make sense for a variety of occupations and industries. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to how the state of work will evolve following the pandemic. What there is a lot of is speculation.

In post-pandemic life, how will work change and how will work remain the same?

We can be certain that the look and feel of work will change. Some of the change can be attributed to the pandemic. But not all of it. The way business is conducted is always changing. If the pandemic never happened, the tools and techniques of business would be changing anyhow. It’s part of the natural course of progress.

How we work always adapts to new technology, whether it’s a fax machine decades ago or mobile apps and video conferencing today.

When remote work became the go-to Plan B for workers to stay productive and sustain business during the pandemic, we started relying on technology more than ever. That will continue, except we’ll be using it not only remotely, but as part of our office routine.

Workspaces already are morphing into the so-called “six-foot office,” with increased distance between desks, plexiglass dividers, touchless sensors, air quality upgrades, and other transformations.

 

LOOK, MA, NO COMMUTE!

There are obvious reasons that staying home is so appealing. There’s no need for a commute, so the convenience factor can’t be beat. Not only time is saved, but the expense of commuting is near zero.

Speaking of expenses, the pandemic has spoiled us in other ways. Parents who could get by without day care while working at home now face the prospect of adding day care back into their household budget. That’s a tough one to swallow. I get it. But it’s simply a return to normal.

For slackers, work from home is a chance to “hide” from the boss, or other colleagues, and be less directly accountable for your whereabouts — which I call a cop-out. If that’s your “M.O.,” then in my book you’re just taking up space, no matter where that space may be.

At some point, the individual convenience and cost savings of WFH disrupts a company’s overall performance. In other words, can a company perform as well without in-person collaboration as it can when workers are free and eager to connect within the same physical space?

My answer is an emphatic “No”! To me, it sounds like plain logic and common business sense. I’m far from alone in that view.

 

DIMON THE ZOOM DOOMSAYER

“I’m about to cancel all my Zoom meetings,” Jamie Dimon, one of America’s elite captains of industry (as CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase), told The Wall Street Journal, adding, emphatically, “I’m done with it.” That leaves no doubt where he stands on WFO/WFH. For him, WFH equals WTF?!

The Journal further reports that Goldman Sachs is bringing its workforce back to the office by mid-June, and this summer Deutsche Bank will do the same.

In fact, four out of five financial services firms say that, once the pandemic has run its course, they expect employees to spend four to five days a week in the good, ol’ office.

Admittedly, financial services is a highly specialized and sophisticated industry, but it’s also a bedrock of our economy. How it conducts business is watched very closely and often emulated by other markets.

Transitions like the one we are in the midst of can be unpredictable and volatile. Things can turn on a dime, so let’s not jump to conclusions about permanent changes in how and where we work. It’s reasonable to assume the result will be somewhere in the middle, striking a sensible balance among the emerging WFO/WFH options.

 

WHERE MUTUAL MENTORING HAPPENS

That brings us to looking at ways the office will not change and should not be different from the way it was before the pandemic.

I’m a tireless advocate of not only mentoring, but mutual mentoring, especially where millennials are concerned. I have a motto that you’ll find on the cover of my book “Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer” — “I teach them business, they teach me life.”

There is no way I could have mentored key members of my team at specialty retailer rue21, where I was the founding CEO, via Zoom … nor would I have wanted to. I need to feel the other person’s energy and fully connect without any filters getting in our way. Zoom has been of great value during remote work and will continue to serve a purpose beyond the pandemic, but compared to actually “being there,” it is a barrier.

I continue to mentor today. Throughout the pandemic, I was happy to use Zoom, but I supplemented that by selectively meeting in person with my mentees and with other millennial influencers as much as practical. One type of meeting doesn’t have to eliminate the other. If you try hard enough, you can find a balance that works for everyone.

 

BEAR MARKET FOR PROMOTIONS

If effective mentoring presumes physical proximity and constant give-and-take, what about the number-one desired outcome of being mentored — getting promoted? Heading into the fourth quarter of 2020, it’s not shocking news that promotions were down by 40% compared to 2019.

How do you adequately prove your leadership and overall people skills through a screen or through text messages and email as dynamically as you can command respect and buy-in when on premises?  Frankly, how can you master the delicate dance of office politics when you’re not even on the same dance floor as your peers and supervisors?

Another promotable quality much more provable in person is personal responsibility. It might be tempting to sneak in a quick run during lunch hour at home, but who would ever, for a second, consider doing that during office hours in the office?

The office environment is the best teacher of accountability, through constant conditioning and pressure to perform at ever higher levels. Competition in the office is palpable; it toughens you up where working from home softens you up. The difference is dramatic and undeniable.

 

THE NEXT UNICORN

For entry-level workers, there’s no substitute for starting a career in a place where you can pick up pointers and follow the lead of senior co-workers. If you see yourself one day in upper management or becoming an entrepreneur who scores the next unicorn, there’s only one surefire place to acquire basic skills to build on, and that’s a real office.

Finally, the role of socializing in the office can be underestimated, or misunderstood. Any number of productivity and innovation studies bear out that spontaneous conversations and collaboration, even if it seems like small talk at the moment, can create significant value for workers and the company as a whole. Over a 15-minute coffee break, fertile ideas may surface when you least expect it.

While I see hybrid WFO/WFH scenarios gaining currency under the right circumstances, I also am convinced that, ultimately, home is where the heart is, and office is where the work is.

I’m not being insensitive to people for whom traveling to work is a daily drag, but those people should know they won’t be getting much sympathy from masters of the workplace like Jamie Dimon, who has a two-word response to commuting complaints … “So what?”

See you at the water cooler.

Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer