What If We Never Go Back Into Offices?
People have conflicting points of view on what we should do about the pandemic right now. Many of us were in quarantine for months. Currently, restrictions are being lifted, yet new COVID-19 cases are climbing in the U.S. again.
Despite the risks, most people do not want to return to a shelter-in-place protocol. So, most businesses are reopening around the world with new requirements for distancing and wearing face masks.
Will this be enough to flatten the curve again?
Will we reduce the risk of a second wave?
Did we reopen soon enough to save most businesses?
Regardless of your opinion, we all must admit that the extended quarantines are significantly impacting the global economy. Researchers now estimate that 42% of the layoffs caused by this pandemic will result in a permanent job loss.
The unemployment rate in the U.S. hit 14.7% in April, the worst since the Great Depression. It was reported at 13.3% at the end of May, but the “realistic unemployment rate” is probably more like 17.1%.
This is a moment in time that tests Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility.
“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Numerous industries are suffering right now. Many businesses refused to adapt to a world were physical transactions became almost impossible.
They believed that this pandemic would quickly pass. Unfortunately, several companies shut their doors and have no revenue coming in at all.
Other businesses have already closed forever. More companies that cannot adapt will fail if the pandemic lasts much longer. Since it looks like it will, we can expect a tidal wave of bankruptcies soon.
However, have you also noticed that some companies are doing even more business than usual (e.g., Amazon, delivery services, online services like my career coaching)?
They aren’t just getting by during this unprecedented global event. They are thriving because their goods and services are in high demand.
That’s what it means to be antifragile.
You become more powerful and better under stress. What these business owners do and the services they provide becomes even more valuable in the current crisis.
“Antifragility is a property of systems that increase in capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.” — source
Companies and individuals must embrace remote work to survive. Those that do so ahead of the unemployed masses will thrive.
The millions of jobless people and shuttered businesses that are waiting for someone to “save them” will suffer and fail.
If you are already working remotely, then you are one of the lucky ones. Some of you may be enjoying this time because you’re experiencing the benefits. Some of you may hate working at home, and I understand that.
Remote work isn’t always preferred. Working alone can be very hard for many people. That’s one reason I created a community to help support each other while we’re stuck at home.
However, some of you may have been furloughed, laid off, or forced to close your business. You haven’t been able to work from home. If so, you don’t have time to wait for a promised vaccine or a miracle to happen.
Let’s start with empathy and compassion
We all need to understand that this current situation is not normal. It is so very far from normal. This is not an example of what remote work is like — at all.
- When you work from home, you usually are not also trying to educate your children at the same time. At some point, kids will return to school.
- When you work at home, you’re not typically stuck at home all of the time. When the world returns to some sense of normality, you can go out and work wherever you like. I sometimes work in coffee shops, at a ski resort, on the shores of Lake Tahoe, or even outdoors in the woods.
- Even when you work remotely, you’re not forbidden to visit the office. Most remote teams schedule regular meetups and all hands where everyone gets together to work and have fun too.
So, be kind to yourself. This is a stressful time that shall pass. It also takes time to learn how to work well remotely.
Also, be kind to your coworkers. They are struggling too. This hasn’t been an enjoyable time for anyone.
Perhaps all of the extroverts that miss the workplace — and the hustle and bustle of being around coworkers — now have more empathy for their introverted colleagues too?
For years, introverts have been trying to explain that open office plans and a lack of alone time interfere with their preferred style of working and getting things done.
Just as extroverts are being driven crazy by being forced to work alone at home, introverts are driven mad by being forced to work around others in a noisy office.
We need to find balance and respect each other’s needs. I hope that is one positive outcome from this experience.
Smart companies are embracing remote work
Large and small companies are scrambling to let their employees work from home. They know that they must find a way to keep their businesses running since we don’t fully understand when this will all be over (if it ever really is over).
For example, these companies announced that their employees could work from home forever.
Forever. What does that really mean?
Some people are interpreting “remote work forever” as meaning working at home alone forever. However, it won’t be like that.
You can look to companies that have been remote-first for years as an example of what life will be like as a remote employee. For instance:
- Buffer says, “In order to have deliberate face-to-face time together to bond and have fun, we have regular teamwide Buffer retreats each year where we gather the full team, and we hold mini-retreats throughout the year for smaller teams and areas of the company.”
- Zapier says, “twice-annually, we come together for an all-team retreat that includes activities like crafting, basketball, karaoke, and rock climbing.”
- Automattic says, “We get the whole company together once a year for seven days so that Automatticians can create bonds that influence them all year long.”
However, unless we experience a massive spike during the second wave, I think most companies will adopt a hybrid model. They will downsize their main campuses to save money. Some employees will prefer the office environment and choose to travel to that workplace.
Many employees will love that they no longer have a commute. They will also enjoy the flexibility and solitude of working from home most of the time. They will probably visit the office or campus for collaborative sessions once in a while.
I also envision companies having smaller workplaces distributed in other communities and cities around the country and even the world. These will be local coworking-types of spaces for people who want to work in an office environment but don’t want to relocate or commute long distances every day.
Many people see the silver lining
When the shelter in place protocols started in March, it thrust people into working from home even when they didn’t want to do it. This has been the most significant “remote work experiment” that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.
I’m relatively active on social media and friends with tech employees and knowledge workers. Many of them were posting about their experiences.
A few seemed to enjoy it (e.g., No more commute!). But, many were irritated and frustrated (e.g., I miss my coworkers).
However, I’ve seen a shift occur over the past month.
- People realize how much time they’ve recovered in their days by eliminating a commute.
- They are enjoying time for activities they’d put on the back burner forever (e.g., learning how to cook well, making time for exercise, getting more sleep).
- They are spending more time with their families and getting to know their children better.
- They’ve also realized that their working world didn’t end. Even though everyone hasn’t been able to gather in an office, work is still getting done, and people are actually more productive.
- The wheels of commerce continue to turn, at least for the companies that were able to make this transition to remote work.
- A few people now see that they could be hired by any company anywhere in the world. The local job market no longer restricts them.
While some people are more than ready to get back into an office, many would be happy never to return. They are asking, “Why can’t we work from home forever?”
“Three in five U.S. workers who have been doing their jobs from home during the coronavirus pandemic would prefer to continue to work remotely as much as possible, once public health restrictions are lifted.” — Source Gallup Panel
Will remote work destroy our lives?
Someone mentioned to me that this is a sign that “our world is becoming too distanced.”
I’ve witnessed a slightly different outcome with what remote work enables.
When you live in a big city and work 12–14 hour days, you have a limited social life. You often don’t know who your neighbors are, and you are not a part of your local community.
I don’t know. Maybe that was just my experience as an older guy with a family. But, I did notice that most people were only friends with coworkers.
Now that I’m working remotely near a small town, I’m becoming part of the local community. I’m building friendships outside of my old “tech bubble.”
When you run a local business or company that is entirely dependent on physical transactions (i.e., brick and mortar stores, personal services that require a physical presence), you are at the mercy of local economies and government actions that restrict physical commerce.
However, we now have a chance to undo the damage caused by the Second and Third Industrial Revolutions with this transition to remote work and working from home. We are in the middle of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and everyone must find a way to participate in this new economy before it’s too late.
If we manage this well, jobs, wealth, and economic opportunity will be more broadly distributed into smaller communities and formerly-dying cities across the world.
My income now flows into a rural community vs. a large metropolitan area. I’m supporting small business owners vs. big chains.
Also, you will no longer have to “move away from home” to find work. I grew up in a small farming town. Moving to the big city was my only chance of finding a job in my planned profession. That is no longer required when companies hire remote employees.
This new economic opportunity gives you the freedom to work anywhere you please, on your terms and schedule, and in a way that is more harmonious with your life.
Growth is always painful
Our shift to remote work won’t be smooth, and it might be painful for some (e.g., those in metropolitan areas). If you’re hitting some bumps in the road while working from home, check out my new Remote Work Mastermind group.
However, I think that this transition will be a good thing in the end. It is long overdue.
Of course, not all companies, jobs, and services will lend themselves to fully remote teams and work-from-home environments. For example:
- Hardware still needs to be built in factories.
- Biomedical research and pharmaceuticals will still have to be in labs.
- Physical travel (e.g., airlines) will still require employees on the ground and in the air.
But, the jobs that can be performed remotely, should be (e.g., the majority of tech employees, knowledge workers, etc.).
The positive impact on our quality of life, our public health, and the environment is too significant to ignore. I believe in this so much that I’ve partnered with two amazing people on a podcast dedicated to this future of work (check out The Brave New Workforce).
It’s a shame that it took a global crisis for us to admit that this was possible.
Larry Cornett is a Leadership Coach and Career Advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, a Great Dane, a rabbit, and a needy cat. He shares advice that helps you become an opportunity magnet for the best things in life! You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram @cornett.