Let’s imagine, for a moment, that distributed work had always been the norm. In other words, not what many of us experienced at the beginning of the pandemic, when we had problems connecting to Zoom or Teams because we’d never had to before or e didn’t even have a place to work in our homes.
Instead, let’s try to imagine what things would be like if we all knew how to use the tools and we had a private space with a broadband connection and a green screen at home, and that we were comfortable using a virtual camera program to enhance our meetings and presentations, as well as being fluent in the netiquette involved. The offices of the companies we work for would be designed for that reality: we would go there to meet with our colleagues, clients or suppliers, etc., but they would not be set up for working long hours in, because that would be seen as nonsense: who would want to spend eight hours or more in an office when we could do our jobs much better from home?
Obviously, I’m not talking about all jobs: there are some — not that many — which require a physical presence in a particular place: whether to oversee specialized machinery, face-to-face interaction, or other reasons. But given that many jobs, thanks to readily available technology, can be done in a distributed manner — let’s not say “remote”, because there’s nothing “remote” about working from home, it’s not like we’re “lost” or “at the end of the world” — let’s imagine this had always been the norm.
In which case, what would happen if, overnight, a company tried to force its employees to go to an office five days a week and stay there from nine in the morning until at least five in the afternoon? “From now on, you will have to get up much earlier to accommodate a commute to the office, you will have to dress in a specific way than you would if you were comfortably settled at home, you will have to manage your lunch near the office, and return home, probably in the middle of another traffic jam, in the afternoon.”
Logically, this would be seen as unacceptable. We would object to such an imposition, protest to our unions, argue that this was unreasonable, and certainly try to negotiate significant compensation for the imposition.
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Imagining reversed historical situations is a worthwhile exercise to visualize isomorphism, the tendency of all human organizations to resemble their normative environment. In reality, going to a particular place each day to work is rooted, in the factories of the industrial revolution, where workers performed almost exclusively physical jobs that required specialized equipment or machines and demanded direct supervision. But in case you hadn’t noticed, things have changed over the last 150 years: fewer and fewer jobs are physical, and in reality require — or should require — little direct oversight. If you need to be constantly on top of your employees in order to get them to be productive, then your corporate culture clearly has a problem.
We are emerging from a pandemic during which many of us have now learned the basics of distributed work. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t be more efficient, but any deficiencies we have seen over the last year are largely the result of having to teach ourselves and get on with it. Moreover, having to work from home due to an emergency is not the same as choosing to do so oneself so that we can organize our time as we see fit.
What if organizations were to train people to work in the most logical way, avoiding unnecessary travel and improving their quality of life? Cutting-edge organizations increasingly see this as the future: trusting their employees, providing them with the right tools and practices, and giving them the freedom to work from wherever they want. What’s more, these companies will gain a competitive advantage as a result: in a short time, companies that have bucked the trend and stubbornly insisted on working as they did before March 2020 will soon find themselves obsolete. And we all know what happens to obsolete companies…