“The new normal” was one of the most hackneyed phrases of 2020. This week marks a year since I began to work from home. Except for me, it’s isn’t new: it was a return to the way I used to work for the 12 years from 2001 to 2013. A year ago, a friend asked how he thought I’d adapt to working from home.
“Pretty easily,” I said. “I did it for 12 years.”
“And how was that?” He asked.
“I hated it,” I said.
“Twelve years is a very long time to do something you hate.”
One of those things that make you go “Hmmm…”
By no stretch of the imagination am I an enthusiastic home worker. However, I do recognise that I’m exceedingly lucky to have a job still and to have a job that means I haven’t had to put myself in harm’s way.
There are definitely some things that we’re doing better this time round:
We have video calling. We can see each other’s faces. During my 12 years of exile from the office, I had two bosses. I met both of them exactly once during that time and only because I happened to be travelling to their cities on holiday. I had no idea what either of them looked like. I remember suggesting to one of them that we meet while I was visiting my brother-in-law in Atlanta. He replied, “Why would we spoil the illusion?” When I met the other boss in Cambridge, MA, I only found her in the open meeting space because I heard her on another call and recognised her voice.
Unfortunately, we learned some terrible habits during the long years that we conducted meetings over conference calls. “Meeting multi-tasking” took off big time during those years. “I’m sorry, can you repeat the question – I was multi-tasking,” was a phrase you heard frequently with no irony whatsoever. I got a lot of email and Amazon shopping done while on conference calls. At least you can see whether people are paying attention on a video call. But old habits die hard. Nowadays, even in face-to-face meetings, I see people routinely typing on their laptops.
We’re more respectful of people’s private lives. The intrusion of video into has had good outcomes as well as bad. We’re forced to recognise that our colleagues are also parents and carers, something we could ignore at work. Equally we recognise that video is an intrusion. The blurred backgrounds for video conferencing are sometimes necessary for worker’s privacy. Not everyone wants to advertise what happens at home or who lives there. For example, not every LGBTQ+ person across the world is comfortable sharing images of their loved ones with their office colleagues. One of my team members uses the phrase, “Shhhh, Mummy is talking to Danny” as a way to quieten her daughter (sometimes, even when she’s no intention of talking to me at all.) But the same phrase, in a different household, could easily be a sinister warning.
We’ve maintained productivity. Studies after studies have shown that people feel “just as productive” in their new environments. They’re getting stuff done and they don’t have to commute to do so. That’s a useful two- to four-hour saving in time for everyone. Extra hours that we can fill with video meetings. But let’s not forget that that lack of commuting has also been good for the environment too.
We still have good team spirit. By and large, we’ve maintained the level in the well of team spirit through the lockdowns. But I never forget that we filled those wells during a time when we were all in the office together. We never travelled to meet each other during my previous 12-year sojourn at the well of loneliness. How could we? We were a team scattered to the corners of the earth. My nearest teammate was 800 miles away in Eastern Europe. The next closest after that in Massachusetts, 3,000 miles away.
People benefit from a level playing field in meetings. I can’t remember how many times, as the sole remote worker, enduring his 12-year isolation, that I would struggle to hear the jokes made in the room where most of the meeting took place. Making your voice heard was hard work and often just not worth it. Now everyone is in the same place. OK, so the person with the best wi-fi can win the argument or have the last word but generally we’re all failing to make jokes land over zoom equally.
Meetings are not just for work. While our audio conferences would sometimes concede that the attendees were people with lives, generally it was confined to a brusque “How’s everyone doing?” before getting onto the real business before us. The lockdown has invented team meetings, happy hours, virtual dining, online cook sessions, gaming sessions etc. Meetings online, like meetings in the office, aren’t just about getting stuff done.
But there are some problems that we’ve still not solved.
Productivity is not the same as creativity. I’m with Reed Hastings on this: remote work is a killer for innovation and skills development. I know from my own experience, during my 12 years of home incarceration, that I was good at getting the job I was currently employed to do done. But that wasn’t the same as changing my current job or developing skills for my next one. Most jobs in most corporate environments are done by teams; we have very few corporate poets. It’s true that software engineering is a creative endeavour but it’s applied to a problem that’s best solved by the attention of many minds. It’s OK to spend a few nights on quiet programming at home but you need to review your work with others to make it sing. I know programmers who are now coming into the office to escape the pandemonium of home life. Who would have thought that the office would be a place on quiet refuge in 2020?
No one makes friends over zoom. When I returned to the office after I concluded my 12 years in solitary confinement in 2013, I fully expected to enjoy talking to people, chit-chatting and having a laugh. I had forgotten that you can also make deep friendships at work, but you do so as a result of all that easy interaction. If you really want to excel at work, you have to like and understand the people you work with. Despite all the happy hours and remote game playing activities, making connections over video is just not the same.
True collaboration – is it really just one innovation away? We’ve added a lot of functionality to help people collaborate online. We have virtual whiteboards, break-out rooms, private slack channels, online brainstorming sessions with Trello. But none of them comes close to the experience of actually being there. You can move a card around in Mural but it’s not the same as the eureka moment that happens when two people tussle over the same card in a physical brainstorming session. Perhaps we are just waiting for a digital whiteboard the size of my wall and 3D rendering of other people.
You promote the people you see. During my 12 years of darkness, I was promoted exactly once. Some of it that stagnation was down to me – my skills, as I acknowledged above, weren’t growing. But I also think it’s true that those who get ahead are visible. “I can’t be it if I can’t see it” is a mantra of inclusion and role-modelling; “You can’t be it if I can’t see you” is a mantra of lazy management. Executives in my company outside the US were as rare as hen’s teeth. I was shocked when I visited the corporate HQ to discover that the janitor was a VP.
There are lots of meetings now. Unfortunately, for us executives that don’t have real jobs, meetings arethe work. They are the place where people who do the work come to explain to us who don’t, what it is that they’ve done. So that we can explain it to other people who also don’t do real work. So that credit for good work can be appropriated and blame for problems apportioned. That takes a lot of meetings. Your calendar doesn’t lie about your priorities; in the virtual world there’s a lot of overhead in keeping people up to speed. No one schedules meetings that are the equivalent of the five minutes spent in the corridor.
It’s Women’s History Month here in the United States and actually International Women’s Day today. One of the books I read in 2020 was Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s One in which she ponders the question about what would have become of Shakespeare’s equally talented sister and what needed to change to make her successful. She concluded that an independent income and a place of quiet solitude to work were necessary. I’m lucky to have a job but especially a place where I can do quiet work; according to Woolf I should be churning out a sonnet a week. But Woolf also includes a passage from Jane Eyre where Jane bemoans her isolation from the world of ideas.
I have access to the world of ideas digitally. Nonetheless I will be scuttling back to a world of embodied, corporeal ideas, i.e. interaction with other people, as quickly as my vaccinated feet will take me – certainly before this turns into another 12-year stretch.