The Return To The Office Has Begun. What Next?

39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work.

What happens next now more and more bosses are demanding a return to the office?

A six-minute meeting drove Portia Twidt to quit her job.

She’d taken the position as a research compliance specialist in February, enticed by promises of remote work. Then came the prodding to go into the office. Meeting invites piled up.

The final straw came a few weeks ago: the request for an in-person gathering, scheduled for all of 360 seconds. Twidt got dressed, dropped her two kids at daycare, drove to the office, had the brief chat and decided she was done.

Employees are quitting rather than giving up working from home

Gradually, glacially perhaps, we are returning to something like normal.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on one management overnighter (In a hotel! With people! And flipcharts!) and had two weekends away. It felt odd at first, but reassuringly familiar. After so much disruption it’s quite remarkable how quickly we can return to old norms and habits.

At our away day we all remarked how disorientating it was on arrival – seeing colleagues we’d not seen face to face for 17 months, and meeting several colleagues for the very first time other than through a screen. But just a few hours later, over dinner and in the bar, how quickly we forgot about metre plus distancing and our year of fearing any other human contact.

At a theme park a couple of days later, thrill seekers all compliantly wore their masks on coasters despite the fact the sheer velocity removed them from our faces. Within about two hours no-one was wearing a mask. Even the most well designed behavioural nudges fail in the face of social norms that have been in place for decades. You scream on rollercoasters, you want the wind on your face, not half your face.

My point here is not to be cavalier about safety – I’ve followed the rules as much as anyone. But for all the talk of a new normal, it’s the old normal we’ve missed and the old normal to which we’ll shortly return.

Which brings us to the return of the office.

As I write Apple has announced it wants employees to return to offices by September. Workers must return to their desks for at least three days a week, chief executive Tim Cook wrote in a memo, saying “I know I’m not alone in missing the hum of activity, the energy, creativity and collaboration of our in-person meetings and the sense of community we’ve all built.” Apple aren’t alone, with Google also seemingly becoming much more cautious about a remote first working environment.

When even the CEO of Zoom says he’s got Zoom fatigue , and other executives say the perils of remote work make a return to the office an imperative – you know that change is in the air. It’s over.

The flavour of the month is hybrid working. The best of both. A few days in the office, a few days out. Everybody who is anybody is predicting the future of work is hybrid, seemingly without any actual evidence or experience.

In all likelihood, you’re going back to the office. As Daniel Davis has pointed out – existing as a hybrid is a hard act to pull off. As he says ‘the cultures of remote work and in-person work are so different that it takes a cultural transformation to bring them together. Unfortunately, this type of cultural finesse isn’t a strength for many companies’.

On the other hand a survey of 1,000 adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. The generational difference is clear: among millennials and Gen Z, that figure is 49%, according to the poll on behalf of Bloomberg News.

The new drive to get people back into offices is clashing with some workers who’ve fully embraced remote work. As Anders Melin and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou write ‘there’s a notion that some bosses, particularly those of a generation less familiar to remote work, are eager to regain tight control of their minions.’

Not that this is just about dinosaur bosses – seemingly some employees want to have their cake and eat it too. People have been enjoying unprecedented flexibility to work when and how they want – and yet the trade union Prospect is calling for the UK government to give employees a legally binding “right to disconnect”. This would ban bosses from “routinely emailing or calling” outside set working hours. What are ‘set working hours’ and how can this realistically sit alongside a hybrid, or remote work policy?

Let’s also spare a thought for the people who never left the old normal. The healthcare workers, the supermarket staff, the delivery drivers. The only thing that changed for them is that their bosses spent even more time in meetings.

The truth is, we don’t know what happens next – there are too many variables here. Variables we haven’t yet begun to consider.

There are people who can’t wait to get back out there, meet people, to socialise and to travel. There are many who are more cautious. And there are those who have been deeply scared and scarred by the Covid experience.

Up to one in five of us are believed to have developed a “compulsive and disproportionate” fear of Covid, which is likely to stay in place for some time. Warnings about the dangers of Covid have heightened the problem, and mixed messages about the level of danger have made it worse, says Marcantonio Spada, a Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health at London’s South Bank University, who co-authored a report on the recently identified condition Covid Anxiety Syndrome (CAS). CAS is characterised by a fear of public places, compulsive hygiene habits, worrying about the virus and frequent symptom checking.

Our Post Covid world of work has to integrate some very different personas into the workplace. Some of our colleagues will not be the same people they were in January 2020.

What we do know is this:

  • Some people are raring to get back, or to get others back, to the office.
  • There’s a new strain of highly ‘office resistant’ employees who would quit rather than return.
  • There’s a group of people who have a fear of re-entry back into society.
  • And there’s the people for whom nothing has changed , those who worked on the frontline during a global pandemic putting themselves at risk whilst the middle classes moaned about Zoom Fatigue.

What happens next? No-one knows. However managers now have to learn to deal not just with different personality types and skill sets – but completely different mindsets about what work is and where it should happen.

Nobody can predict the future — but everybody can choose their approach to it.

The Productivity Paradox and Zoom Fatigue: Why Technology Won’t Solve Our Problems

“Imagine in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an 8-hr workday, an assistant followed you around with a handheld mirror, and for every single task you did and every conversation you had, they made sure you could see your own face in that mirror”

Jeremy N. Bailenson
Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue

Twelve months into the great remote work experiment, where do we stand?

A recent report from Steelcase which surveyed 32,000 people globally makes the bold claim that 95% of remote workers say they’d rather be back in the office in some capacity. Only 19% say they’re completely satisfied with their current work from home arrangements. More than half want to cap their remote work time to one or two days a week.

I don’t completely buy that, and suspect most would want to cap their office time to one or two days a week. Steelcase is a company that manufactures office furniture and clearly have a vested interest to declare. That said there is a lot of value in the report- particularly the findings that people’s experience varies significantly based on their circumstances and work ‘persona’.

As we emerge from our various lockdowns the model that appears to be gaining traction is that of the hybrid workplace.

Nearly a quarter
of all businesses
say they will continue to
work in the office
as the primary
destination.

However, the
majority of
organisations
will take a hybrid
approach to
work, in which
employees work
from home, the office, and elsewhere.

Clearly then for the majority of us technology will continue to play a defining role in our worklife experience.

The Productivity Paradox

There were clear signals long before the pandemic that technology often just makes it easier for us to be busy fools.

As Edward Tenner put it, technology ‘bites back’. What it gives us in efficiency, it takes away by giving us more overall work to do. Cal Newport whilst researching his new book illustrates it using the example of email. “In 2005, we were sending and receiving 50 emails a day. In 2006 this jumped to 69. By 2011 it was 90. Today we send and receive an estimated 126 messages, checking our inboxes once every 6 minutes on average.”

This is the productivity paradox of today – where growth in established economies is minimal compared to the speed of technology adoption. As Cal says – it seems clear that technological innovations aimed to make communication faster and more ubiquitous have clearly failed to boost our aggregate ability to actually get things done

Zoom Fatigue: “Everyone is staring at you, all of the time”

One fairly consistent feeling among people I know across different industries and age groups is a kind of exhaustion at the end of the workday. This seems counter-intuitive given we haven’t had to commute or rush from meeting to meeting, physically at least.

Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University has spent more than two decades studying the ways virtual communication affects individuals. At the beginning of the pandemic he wrote an article suggesting that the fatigue we get from video conferencing could be due to a kind of cognitive overload that occurs when we substitute in-person interactions for virtual platforms.

Now he has published a paper which explains the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” and its four causes: an excessive amount of close-up eye gaze, the effect of video on cognitive load, the increased self-evaluation from staring at video of yourself and the constraints of physical mobility.

The paper is fascinating and I’d recommend any remote/hybrid worker reads it, particularly if you lead teams. It outlines how quickly our behaviour has changed. Indeed behaviour “ordinarily reserved for close relationships—such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up—has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers.”

One of the other emerging impacts of videoconferencing is the effect of your own reflection constantly staring back at you from the screen. For decades researchers have investigated the effect of seeing ourselves in a mirror and its role in self image/perception. Bailenson points out most prior mirror-image research has only focused on fleeting glances at ourselves, not the effect at gazing at ourselves for hours on end.

“There is no data on the effects of viewing oneself for many hours per day,” he writes. “Given past work, it is likely that a constant mirror on Zoom causes self-evaluation and negative affect.”

The suggestions in the research for reducing fatigue are common sense , but arguably this is the problem. Many of us know that the behaviours we are adopting are bad for us – we just aren’t listening to what our brains and bodies are telling us.

We know we spend too much time staring at screens.

We know that meetings, especially back to back ones, are corrosive to mind and body.

We know we should move , or stand, for 15 minutes in an hour unless we want a lot of problems in later life.

We know there’s a better way.

Looking Beyond Technology

The issue here is that instead of taking the initiative and setting some rules for the new world of work we wait for the technologists to solve the problem for us. The only response from Silicon Valley will be to make the tools faster, ‘smarter’ and give us more of them.

As Cal Newport points out the solutions will not emerge on their own. We need to start experimenting and finding out what works for our varied teams.

Ironically what we are missing from meetings is the things that happened between meetings: the random human connection, the physical chemistry, the overheard conversations.

Technology has helped us immensely over the past year. The lockdowns have only been possible because of technology. But algorithms only go so far and are rarely designed to encourage the accidental collisions that lead to innovation. That feeling of running into someone, asking what they’re doing, and exchanging ideas. ‘The magic that’s sparked by serendipity’ as Steve Jobs described it.

Do we really think any tool or app is ever going to recreate that?


Lego image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay

Dog photo by visuals on Unsplash

Death By Zoom: Have We Failed The Mass Home Working Experiment?

One of the few positives of the pandemic lockdown was the opportunity to reset the way in which we spend our working day.

This was the chance to prove that remote work actually works.

As someone whose job it is to run workplace experiments I’d say six or seven weeks is a very good point to get an initial idea of how we are doing. Our experience at Bromford Lab has shown us that if we don’t reflect on the learnings and remove the pain points within the first three months, the experiment will very likely fail.

This mass remote work experiment is something very different though – it’s not some small safe to fail venture. With billions of people across the world in some kind of lockdown, we are conducting the largest social, workplace and psychological experiment ever – all at the same time.

With so many alien factors that’s not a good basis for any considered evaluation, so we may not get a sense of what’s truly worked for some time. People’s productivity for example will be influenced substantially by the psychological impact of lockdown. The Lancet has reported that people who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.  Where parents are quarantined with children, the mental health toll becomes even steeper.

Therefore it is vitally important to understand that this isn’t a remote work experiment, it’s an enforced work from home experiment happening at the same time as the suspension of the most basic of our civil liberties.

That said , there is still a lot of learning to be had and luckily for us we have access to social networks where people are blogging their experiences, contributing to articles and giving us a treasure trove of anecdotal evidence.

The-phases-of-disaster-response-Image-When-disaster-strikes-Beverly-Raphael-1986-
The phases of disaster response
When disaster strikes, Beverly Raphael, 1986

It appears that after the initial optimism about remote working (arguably the ‘honeymoon period’ in terms of disaster response) people’s experience now seems to be decidedly mixed. We are possibly entering our ‘disillusionment phase’ as we yearn for a return to normal – despite the fact we never really liked normal in the first place.

The Positives

People are already valuing the loss of commuting time with a poll for transport consultants SYSTRA finding that 1 in 4 people said they plan to work from home more,  saving on travel time and cost, and striking a better work-life balance.

There’s been a major boost for video-conferencing, too. As many as 67% of people said they believe virtual meetings will replace some or all future business trips or meetings. The longer we have a lockdown the more people who haven’t previously used such tools will get used to them. The longer people spend not commuting and spending their money on fuel and transport the more resistant they will be to return to it.

The Negatives

Lockdown should have given us the opportunity to design our own unique workday.

It’s been well established that an enforced 9-5 saps our creativity and harms our productivity. One of the reasons is that we all sleep differently – and our internal clock shapes our energy levels, ability to focus, and creativity throughout the day.

This is known as our circadian rhythm and it has a profound effect on our creativity. It doesn’t work how you’d expect – for instance many morning people have more insights in the evening with night owls having their breakthroughs in the morning.

Each day on average we take a few hours to reach peak performance – at around 10:30am. Soon after lunch those levels start to decline before hitting a low point around 3pm.  Our second performance peak, at around 6pm, is reached after most offices have closed.

Working from home for long periods is the ideal opportunity to sync your worklife with your circadian rhythm.  However , anecdotal evidence seems to show that many employers haven’t allowed people to fully explore this.

Instead it’s only taken six weeks to replace meetings with even more meetings.

Technology has made it easy to hijack any available minute of someones time in just a few clicks. Organising a physical meeting is a complex activity – the logistics of finding everyone in the same place is especially painful.

However a fully virtual meeting can happen today at 5pm, as it’s not as if anyone is driving anywhere anymore.

Instant availability allows meetings to breed like rabbits taking over our calendar’s. Strict checks and balances – a sort of virtual distancing – need to be in place to ensure that our new workdays don’t just become a succession of Skypes and Zooms.

There are a lot of advantages to online meetings, but as Steve Blank has said, none of the current generation of apps capture the complexity of human interaction. The technology doesn’t emulate how people interact with others in person. Indeed “every one of these video applications has ignored a half-century of research on how people communicate.”

We’ve already got a new term ‘Zoom fatigue’ that recognises that video conferencing  leaves us with “a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing.” Whilst perceiving subtle social cues takes little conscious effort in person, virtual interactions can be exhausting.

As Marissa Shuffler explains, if we are physically on camera we are very aware of being watched. “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.” Focusing on people’s faces, their bookcases, cats and home decor results in a sensory overload that makes us miss the the natural social cues that guide us in the real world.

So – the much maligned office actually did have something going for it. It actually restricted meetings on demand.

As Catherine Nixey writes in a must read piece – there’s one reason and one reason only that people miss the office: other people.

Skype, Zoom et al simply can’t replicate the social experience of chance encounters and just the experience of talking unguarded with our fellow humans.

“Humans need offices. Online encounters may be keeping us alive as social beings right now, but work-related video meetings are too often transactional, awkward and unappealing.”

It’s this conundrum that organisations must wrestle with in the coming months. The knee-jerk reaction would be to rid ourselves of offices. However, we could be storing up a huge problem down the tracks when it comes to social isolation and wellbeing.

We need to aim at least for a way of working that is more intimate, that embodies a sense of belonging and whose mainstay is quality focused time rather than being locked to a screen staring at a grid of faces.

We haven’t yet failed the remote working experiment.

However there are clear warning signs that we cannot allow technology to make it even easier for us just to be busier. New problems will emerge post-pandemic that require focussed, deep and productive work. Curtailing our nascent love affair with video conferencing is necessary – perhaps even requiring us to limit our screen time to a couple of hours each day.

The experiments we need to start – sooner rather than later – need to capture the best of home working (zero commute, flexibility, time spent locally) with the best of the office (random human connection, physical chemistry).

Anything less and we risk just swapping one dysfunctional model for another.


 

Photo by Edward Jenner from Pexels

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