Workplace after COVID. Prophets of the New Normal vs. Digital Denialists.
After the yearlong disruption of onsite operations caused by the pandemic, many companies are yet to arrange plans for a big comeback. The game, however, has changed profoundly during this disease-ridden year, and no one seems to know the new rules. Here’s a quick overview of the emerging approaches regarding the future of the workplace — and the people behind them.
The Prophets of the New Normal
“If we can move past decades of orthodoxy about 9-to-5, office-centric work, there’s an opportunity to retain the best parts of office culture while freeing ourselves from bad habits and inefficient processes” – says Slack’s CEO and co-founder, Stewart Butterfield, in a statement for BBC Worklife. Of course, Butterfield might be biased. During the pandemic, his company has seen a 35% rise in the number of paid customers and was bought for USD 27.7 billion by software giant Salesforce. However, this does not mean he is wrong.
The popularity of tools, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, has its basis – in the past few years, more and more sectors have been embracing the urgency of digitalization, sending worldwide spending on digital transformation skyrocketing to USD 1.31 trillion in 2020. Firmly, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for these processes, but they were long in a making before we even heard of the virus.
For many, the Prophets of the New Normal, such as Butterfield and others like him, are stating the obvious. The narrative, asserting that the future of the workplace lies in cutting back on the non-essential processes and establishing a hybrid remote-onsite system, seems only logical after this turbulent and (to some extent) cathartic year.
It’s tempting to embrace this logic. However, the prudent thing to do, appears to be to inspect it more closely, especially since it tends to simplify a complex set of factors to a single truth: that gathering in the same place ceased to be an essential part of conducting a business.
The Digital Denialists
No one can deny that in the present conditions, optimization is inevitable. We’ve known for quite some time now that a happy employee leading a balanced life is much more productive. Nonetheless, there’s a certain lack of clarity when explaining what work-life balance means and how it relates to remote work.
In another statement for the BBC Worklife article, the professor emeritus of Oxford University, Robin Dunbar, calls the whole remote thing overhyped: “Alas, it is all hype. We have forgotten that we tried it 20 years ago and very quickly gave it up”. In his opinion, “the workplace is a social environment, and business in any form is a social phenomenon”. He then proceeds to explain how the face-to-face engagement and casual meetings around the coffee machine create a specific synergy or, in his own words, a flow. This point is certainly hard to ignore, but at the same time, it’s already covered by the Prophets. It’s not about shifting the paradigm completely, it’s about tweaking it to boost the efficiency of our workplace interactions.
However we look at it, then, the Prophets seem to be right. And yet, there are still those who oppose them. Two big fish of the financial sector, David Solomon from Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan’s chief executive Jamie Dimon, have both spoken against the New Normal, with the former calling it “an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible“, and the latter stating that “working from home has had a negative effect on productivity“.
The second statement is particularly important. What it says is that for some the promises of the Prophets might be empty — and that they won’t fly in the real, material world of the financial sector. Now, it’s all too easy to dismiss such attitudes as stubborn and conservative, but there is a chance that Digital Denialists are, at least partially, onto something worth further exploration.
Let’s take a look at it from yet another perspective. In March, the Harvard Business School released an article containing several statements from HBS faculty members regarding the subject of remote work. Although most of them were positive about the changes we are experiencing, they still pointed out that the road ahead is not paved with roses.
Julia Austin, the executive fellow at Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, said: “I encourage leaders to […] create time blocks, either online or in person, for the random connections that are critical for developing team culture”, partially corroborating the point made by Dunbar. Arthur C. Brooks, professor of management practice at HBS, pointed out that “while not apparent yet, a permanent work-from-home model may well start a slow-rolling mental health crisis in the American workforce and a resulting HR nightmare.” So much for the work-life balance, right?
These two statements show us just how important it is to consider the ramifications of all the propositions regarding New Normal. The companies that consider switching to the full-remote model would probably encounter a lot of problems in terms of maintaining efficiency, managing human resources, and developing team culture. The ones that want to return to the old normal as soon as possible could soon realize that it’s simply not acceptable for the employees looking for more flexibility. And those claiming that the best place to be is somewhere in the middle might find it’s not as easy as it seems.
“Moving past decades of orthodoxy” and “freeing ourselves from bad habits and inefficient processes” certainly sounds great. However, there’s one trope that keeps resurfacing — that, in the end, we are all social animals. Let’s hear it from one more expert, Vaibhav Gujral from McKinsey and Company:
“As the crisis dragged, we realized that it wasn’t sufficient to measure productivity by the simple yardstick of hours worked. We were missing the ‘heartbeat’ of the workplace: the energy that comes from serendipitous encounters that aren’t boxed into Zoom screens; the creativity that comes from spontaneous collaboration; the trust and relationships that are built through countless and unsaid small gestures and interactions.”
Can it be achieved in a hybrid model? Maybe. In a full remote? Probably not. Does that mean it would be best if we just got back to our offices and sat there for eight hours a day as we used to? Not really.
What this whole debate shows us is that enthusiastic buzzwords and simplifications on both sides tend to obfuscate the essence of the problem. Remote, onsite, or hybrid models are not, per se, a solution to the issues we are facing. Careful analysis of our situation in terms of employees’ satisfaction, productivity, or preference regarding conditions of employment, can bring us closer to a resolution.
At least so the smart people tell us.