Will our home office become our permanent office? I hope not.

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July 23, 2020

Will our home office become our permanent office? I hope not.

Image credit: Teka77

By Tracy Bain

Director, Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning International Fund for Animal Welfare

Let's start by acknowledging that I'm a millennial. I should love all things with screens, buttons to like or dislike something instantly, news feeds, video feeds, Twitter feeds, and the ability to find or buy anything I want online so I can avoid all unnecessary excursions that take me away from those screens. This also means I should fully revel in the glory of remote work, as I have a job where I am fortunate enough to be able to do my work remotely. I should be elated that I can wear t-shirts and shorts every day, not have to do my makeup, and my daily commute is between the bedroom and the kitchen.

Don't get me wrong, I do like some of these things, but I'm not the average millennial (and I don't think these stereotypes represent the majority of millennials). This pandemic has taken what were technological tools to make our lives a bit easier and thrown us into a fully virtual, simulated and separated world. On the one hand, thank goodness we can connect through online meetings, live videos, and chats. It allows us to achieve a somewhat state of normality and function in this new reality. On the other hand, I worry that it will become the "new normal" even post-COVID as people adapt to interacting from afar. Now I don't believe that families or close friends won't come back together and enjoy game nights and brunches again, but I do worry that how we engage in our professional lives could drastically change.  

I've already read articles and heard company leaders talk about how this pandemic has made them rethink their entire business operations strategies —how they can save so much money by shutting down offices and going fully remote.  They would no longer have rent to pay, office furniture to buy, kitchen restocking or commuter reimbursements to consider. Instead, an annual business license of Zoom or a similar video conferencing platform is all they need. They will hold all of their meetings online, communicate via email, Slack, Skype, Teams, or WhatsApp and be just as strategic and functional as they were in person (did I mention they'll save a lot of money?). 

I don't buy it. 

I know I am supposed to embrace all things becoming more technological, efficient, and online but I have seen first-hand the difference between video conferencing meetings and in-person meetings; between impromptu Skype conversations and those in the communal kitchen; between webinars and live panel discussions in a room full of people. 

I am worried that people and companies are racing to embrace all things remote and virtual (because we have to at this time) without considering the long-term ramifications of this type of permanent working environment.  Let's explore this a bit by playing a game of two truths and a lie.  

You are not fully engaged on a call as you are checking email, muting your mic to deal with yelling kids or barking dogs, or working on some other project in the background. TRUTH.

You are mentally exhausted because you are working more hours than ever before due to all of the hours of calls you must have to achieve the same level of communication with your team. You feel constantly behind in all of your other work as there is no time now to get it done.  And yet, even with all of these calls, you feel a little less connected to your team.  TRUTH.

Now that you are working fully remotely, you are so much more productive in your job and have achieved complete harmony in your work-life balance.  LIE. (At least partially.)

If any of these statements sound or feel familiar to you, you're not alone. Many people are struggling to achieve a work-life balance.Instead, they are filling their search histories with queries on self-care, treatments for repetitive stress injuries, and tips for parents trying to be teachers/parents/spouses/entertainment directors all in one. I find myself slowly starting each day earlier and working a little bit longer. 

All the time I thought I had saved not commuting is just added to the workday now.  I realize I don't know when my colleagues are celebrating birthdays, what they just did for fun over the weekend or even what their cat's been up to.  It may seem like these conversations are just a waste of time, but in fact, these conversations are how people build relationships with one another. These relationships are then the foundations for which trust is built, and collaborative efforts are achieved.  This crucial interaction is the way culture is created within an organization and is what motivates employees to work harder, embrace collaboration, and become devoted to the company because they believe in what they do and the team they work with. 

So where do we go from here? We know we have to work remotely for a while longer until it's safe to return to the office.  But, should we ever return to the office?  Should we make our sweatpants and slippers permanent work attire and call it the new normal? I believe there is a middle ground here instead that might allow us to benefit from what we have learned during this abrupt change in working.  

There are some benefits to working from home (truth). I do not miss the stress of morning or evening commutes, waiting in traffic, or being sandwiched between 30 other people on a subway train. I can now have earlier morning calls with teams in Africa or Asia without having to ask them to wait later in their day for me to get to the office. When my dog is pestering me to go outside, I can take a break and go for a walk with her, so she sleeps the rest of the day.  

But I miss my team. Even though I am on many calls with them, it's still not the same as being with them in person. I miss the impromptu coffee runs, the after-work happy hours, and I especially miss the fully engaging work discussions and collaborations that happen best in person. Those moments when a speaker on a panel completely captivates you with not only their words but their presence and delivery.  When an open and honest conversation naturally unfolds because a team has come together in-person to create a safe space, recognizing each other and encouraging each other to speak up.  I miss hearing from those people in a meeting that are too quiet to share their ideas and feel that it's better if they just silently sit in the background on a Zoom call. 

Whether we are Millennials, Gen Z, Baby Boomers, or Gen X--we are people. We are humans. And humans are naturally social creatures, built to communicate through speech and body language and facial cues and all of the tiny behaviors we display without even knowing it. We need connection, we need each other, and we need it in person.  

I hope once we are on the other side of this pandemic, we take a step back and look critically at what we have learned from this experience. There are certainly new ways of working, new online tools, and new systems that will become a part of our future professional lives that will allow us to be more flexible in our work-life balance. But I hope we also take an honest look at what we have had to sacrifice, where we lost productivity, how our organizational culture has shifted or stagnated, and consider that at least for some places, a fully remote workforce might not be the best answer. Let's see if we can take the best from both ways of working and find a middle ground that allows for more flexible work schedules, partially remote work, but still prioritizes in-person collaboration, discussions, and team building.  

After all, a smiley emoji is not the same as a person smiling at you from across the table.

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