June 18, 2020
Companies like Twitter, Facebook, Open Text and now Shopify have been moving towards cutting down their real estate because their employees are now working remotely, and there are rumblings that this is the way it will be forever. Tobi Lütke, the CEO of Shopify, is saying that “office centricity is over”. Whoa! Remote working is still new for many, so let’s not be too hasty with the big pronouncements.
We have long held that at a minimum, companies need two things to function well, a compass and glue. The compass sets the direction and the glue holds the employees and the company together.
Although organizations have formal and efficient authority structures of bosses and workers, a key component of the glue is the informal network of interpersonal relationships that individual employees create for themselves through their face-to-face workplace connections. These private networks that individuals build, turn to and trust over time, provide them with accurate, consistent and reliable information and feedback about their organization, roles and job performance, and yes, gossip, that are all so necessary for their personal growth, development and a healthy and stable mental platform. While they are not part of the formal organizational systems, these communities of informal networks, with their chatting and gossip, are the real lifeblood of the organization. It is through our informal networks that we make friends, invest time and skills in each other, and learn. They keep us fresh and up-to-date and stop us getting stale. In designing his new headquarters, Steve Jobs introduced a number of innovative ways that would encourage his staff to ‘bump’ into each other and have short but valuable exchanges. Under remote working arrangements, people can live on the memories of their informal network legacies for a while, but gossip groups may quickly become fixed as their important informal networks atrophy.
The research that these digital technology companies have undertaken reportedly says that the majority of their people can work remotely, and in the short term remote working has no effect on productivity. No doubt the idea of responding by gobbling up those flashing-light real estate savings looks highly tempting right now – but beware! Survey results like these should not be surprising. These employees are smart people. What else are they going to say and do, considering that their alternative includes a high probability of being laid off?
There’s no doubt that the people who have been compelled to work remotely because of the situation are doing their level best to make remote working work, some may enjoy it, but many are nervous. Of course they are putting a brave face on it, learning new ways of doing things, and doing the best they can while their own personal compasses and glue are all over the place. All the time they know that other people, who don’t know them, are making critical trade-off decisions about their own personal and family lives versus their livelihoods. There are benefits of course, eliminating long commutes, bringing an immediate allure of freedom to some, and Covis -19 shielding, but like the rest of us, they are living in a world of crisis and collective paranoia. They are doing their very best to look bright and intelligent in the Zoom meetings, despite their exhaustion and boredom, crappy haircuts and bad lighting. They don’t know how their jobs will change, or even if they will want those jobs in a few months; and they don’t like what’s ahead, many are afraid of either being let go, or of being told that they have to go back to an unsafe work environment, too soon.
If we have learned anything from this crisis, it’s that most people need human-to-human connections. We’re all over window visits, we need the friction of authentic, nurturing, face-to-face conversations that are wonderfully messy, inefficient and disorganized. Surely, we have learned that, today, physical presence isn’t necessary, but we need it! It’s only in the last ten years or so that the technology has been good enough to allow remote working to work at all. Yes, the technology is good now, and the remote working arrangements may be an efficient short-term fix, but they do seriously disrupt the private face-to-face individual networks, badly damaging the glue that holds the people and the organization together. As an ex-employee of IBM, I remember when IBM allowed its employees to work at home and then turned around and confused everyone by having them come back to the office, basically because of a concern for damage to the glue. Marissa Mayer did just the same at Yahoo!
Is glue important to digital technology companies and their millennial cultures, or has it really gone the way of corporate loyalty? Do these companies really want workforces that are happy to not have to work with other people? Even millennials love their happy hours! Let’s assume that the research is right, and that the people who are attracted to digital technology work generally don’t find direct human contact to be important and are comfortable with social distancing. To them remote working is okay; at the extreme, perhaps even preferring a stereotypical culture where ‘hell is other people’. I’ve worked in a group like this myself and I didn’t enjoy it, but others did.
If this is the case in digital technology companies, perhaps this is why our new concepts of leadership cry out for our leaders to demonstrate human qualities such as compassion, empathy, active listening and caring, because this is what employees find is missing in their workplaces, and yet these are the very qualities we so admire, respect, praise and even expect, in our health care workers and teachers today! Are health care workers really so different from digital technology workers? Perhaps so. So how do we develop these human relationship skills in our future technology leaders? These leadership skills will not be built in isolation.
The culture of collaboration and innovation will also take a hit. The power of real collaboration depends much more on building trusting, reliable, relationships than just putting up a digital whiteboard. The opportunity for each worker to create a trusted, personal, informal network and to be happy and willing to share their best ideas and collaborate together in that network, is key to the creativity, motivation, energy and enthusiasm that these companies will surely need for tomorrow’s innovations. Once again, this culture will not be built in isolation.
The corporate response must be thoughtfully and sensitively crafted, it’s not just a corporate economic decision. Our lived experience has shown that forced full-time remote working just isn’t going to cut it. The alternative of creating one group of employees with office advantages, and one without, will merely create a corporate two-class system, in which one privileged group, of a certain type, will have the opportunity to make the personal contacts and learn the soft skills that will prepare them for promotions much more than the other group. It’s not just a corporate ‘bosses’ decision. Now is the time to let the employees make the decisions about how to do their best work. Individual employees need to make personal work environment choices that suit their lives, preferences, and the work they’re doing at the time. The experience suggests that when things settle down, the employees will likely fit into a distribution with some working full-time in the office, some 100% on-line and most choosing 2-3 days in the office and 2-3 days working at home. Finally, flexible working arrangements that suit everyone!
I have huge admiration and respect for Shopify’s Tobi Lütke and his wife Fiona McKean and their family, for all they have accomplished. He may be right, perhaps the organization is getting hollowed out, but what will replace it? Where’s the glue? Shopify’s compass is in fine shape, and perhaps Tobi’s strong leadership presence and the skyrocketing share price is sufficient glue for the employees for now, but is full-time remote working forever really the answer to sustained success?
Shopify has been brilliantly successful in the cold, hard, digital technology business, but every one of the people who have created and maintained that success are warm, soft, human beings that love to celebrate, share ideas, chat and gossip. No doubt, many are looking forward to coming back to work, seeing their colleagues, and allowing their homes to become peaceful sanctuaries again, (the press recently reported Mark Zuckerberg as saying that more than 50 per cent of Facebook employees “want to get back to the office as soon as possible”), but right now they are most probably apprehensive, there is little trust and safety to be had, and no firm ground. Their informal networks are broken, just when they are needed for support and encouragement.
From the individual employee’s point of view, as we struggle out of the pandemic’s grip, we are more change takers than change makers, and we don’t like it. Right now, we need our leaders to demonstrate these new, caring human leadership qualities that we can trust and rely on, to help us get through it and to come out safely on the other side, where we can regain control. Today, employees look to their leaders for messages of kindness, reassurance, safety and security, not consignment to being marooned into lonely isolation.
Perhaps digital technology companies should hang on to their real estate for now, they may need it yet.
(The Howard Pyle picture is of a pirate, marooned by his ship)