(It might depend on whether your job involves moving carbon or moving electrons…)
Perhaps the Work From Home (WFH) phenomenon burgeoned by the pandemic might not just be a temporary workaround until things get back to “normal.” Emerging reports from some business executives suggest that many companies have been pleasantly surprised by the business results they are getting from their home-bound staff and many of those employees are also giving a “thumbs-up” to this new working arrangement.
“We’ve been thrilled by our teams’ abilities to rapidly migrate to using technology from home,” one bank executive said in a July 17 CNBC article. “The transition was much easier than we would have ever anticipated.”
A recent Forbes article article identified the plans /timetables— at least as of now — for return to the office for many major companies and its a mixed bag, with high profile companies like Amazon and Microsoft extending their WFH policies until the end of 2020 and others, such as Twitter, Square and Shopify suggesting a permanent WFH scenario for those interested in doing so.
There’s been much speculation and navel gazing these past few months about whether this pandemic-driven diaspora from company offices would be a blip we would all chuckle and story tell about in the future at social and business gatherings when everyone relocated back into their offices. “This will really crack you up — One time when I was working at home during that period, the power went out while I was on a video call and blah, blah, blah…”
Maybe not just a blip.
Perhaps this is more like the new normal and not a temporary anomaly. COVID didn’t start the WFH fire (sorry, Billy Joel) but it sure did throw gasoline on it. And while this is certainly not the death knell for co-location and in-person interactions, there are becoming fewer and fewer reasons for retaining the traditional “industrial” model for many kinds of work.
Part of this transformation to WFH has to do with whether a manager or associate primarily moves CARBON (tangible objects, including paper) or moves ELECTRONS (computers, digital).
Let’s return to the banking industry. Some years ago, all of our banking records existed on paper. I remember as a kid having a physical passbook that a bank teller would hand-write in deposits or withdrawals. Paper, of course, is carbon based. Since even copy machines were not widespread in the early and mid-1960s and into the 70s, employees needed to show up at branches and other bank offices to process (“move”) the paper.
WFH made no sense because the work was restricted to a physical location which housed all of the paper records.
The CNBC story about the banks and brokerage firms re. WFH also focused on their trading operations which have largely migrated to electronic means. The traditional trading floor or pit used the “open outcry” system in which human traders would gather in one place and buy and sell stocks, commodities, etc. by interacting with each other. If you didn’t show up physically you could not trade. Also not exactly a good fit for WFH.
Then, starting in the 1970s electronic trading began to transform that industry and at present time there are few trading operations which still require people to gather in one place to trade. There are exceptions, of course, but computer-based electronic trading now enables investors of all stripes — including you and me — to make trades from the kitchen table or anywhere else in the world.
Banking has migrated to electronic means in other areas as well. ATMs eliminate the need to step into a branch and make deposits or withdrawals. Electronic banking allows us to deposit checks and make other transactions with our cell phones — no one at the bank handles a piece of paper documenting the transaction. It’s all bits and bytes.
All of that means there are fewer employees needed to show up on a daily basis at the bank. At the same time, a quick internet search for “home based banking jobs” or a similar phrase pulls up hundreds of examples of WFH job opportunities in the banking industry. The shift is real.
Traditional industrial and administrative work, then, was all about “moving” carbon, whether that was represented by a piece of paper or by metal and plastics as in building a car. And moving carbon usually requires people coming together in a factory or in an office to do that. For many different kinds of work and jobs, that will remain necessary, so until the robots completely take over the assembly process for building cars, for example, WFH will be a non-starter for many employees.
Work that involves processing information electronically, on the other hand, uses computers which have chips which in turn have transistors, and transistors control a flow of electrons and ultimately information. In fact, the origin of the word “electronic” means “pertaining to electrons.”
Hence, work that is largely electronic based (digital) involves “moving” electrons and eliminates the requirement for people to gather in a common physical space to accomplish work.
Those are the kinds of jobs or occupations that are a better fit for WFH and that’s what banks and other organizations are discovering. In many cases there is not only no value-add for having people come into the office but there is a business cost in doing so (energy; rent) as well as social costs (traffic congestion, lost time commuting and myriad carbon footprint issues).
Of course, the carbon-based vs. electron-based aspect of work is not the only consideration for whether WFH is a viable option, good for the business and good for the employees. In the healthcare arena, while telemedicine is becoming popular for routine consults and check-ups, there is still an obvious need for healthcare providers to show up in clinics, hospitals and doctor’s offices to help patients get well. Star Trek level medical technology is still a long way off.
The pandemic has been particularly challenging for the call center industry (electron-based) as companies have had to quickly move many Customer Experience (CX) employees and supporting technology from centers to employees’ homes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics there were almost 3 million people doing that kind of work in the U.S. at the end of 2018.
While the pivot to WFH has been difficult, especially with data security and connectivity issues, many companies might discover that co-location is not so necessary in an age where smart bots and AI can provide CX reps most of the information they need to deal with customers’ questions and complaints. The concept of the call center itself is bound to come under scrutiny if the WFH model proves viable.
Additional considerations for WFH
Other dynamics about work are also factors in whether WFH makes sense or not. Relationship building that is facilitated by in-person interactions; project work — especially innovation-driven work — is often aided by people who are co-located rather than working remotely. And there are other considerations as well — WFH is not the panacea or even the reality for many industries and jobs (see my recent article “Is ‘In-Person’ Suddenly Obsolete in Business and in Schooling?” ).
In sum, although the pandemic-forced experiment with learning-from-home or remote learning has been less than successful so far for the school systems, many businesses are not only surviving with their associates working from their residential foxholes, they are thriving.
And we’ll likely see more of that. It would not be surprising if many other companies extend their WFH policies well into 2021 and beyond. Especially if employees and their leaders find this arrangement positive. On a personal level, I have 20 years’ experience as a commuting, office-based employee and leader and also have 20 years’ experience as a WFH employee and leader and I know what my preference is. Psst… it ain’t the office.
So, this might be a permanent inflection point. The business case is being made as leaders and their teams experiment and innovate.
These are indeed interesting times.
About the author: Mike Hoban is a leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics, sometimes in a whimsical way. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and also wrote a business column for 12 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.