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How to Win the Hybrid Workforce Revolution

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The most important work-related debate of our time is stuck on repeat. Many senior executives continue to believe that working from home is tantamount to pretending to work, with Elon Musk saying out loud what his more restrained colleagues say in private, while many remote-work enthusiasts continue to believe that they have an absolute right to work where they want to, the organization be damned. The result: a never-ending cycle of get-back-to-work memos, not-on-your-nelly responses and accumulating problems.

It’s time to recognize that a new world is here to stay: We are at an early stage of a revolution in the distribution of work, driven by the miniaturization of smart machines and the ubiquity of the internet, that is as fundamental as the one that occurred with the industrial revolution in the 19th century and the office revolution of the early 20th century. (Perhaps Musk will be remembered as the Ned Ludd of the flexibility revolution rather than the Henry Ford of the electric car.)

It’s also time to recognize that both sides in the debate have a claim to be heard. Workers are right to want to work wherever they can be most productive. Forcing someone to endure a morale-sapping (and sometimes dangerous) commute just to keep a row of office desks filled is counterproductive. But employers are also right to worry that flexible work brings new problems. We need to shift the focus of the debate from the ideological to the practical — from the desirability of a change that is probably inevitable to the question of how to manage a distributed organization.

The new flexible model is still in its early days. Julia Hobsbawm, the author of “The Nowhere Office,” points out that the flexible work movement has not yet found its Patagonia, the sportswear company that epitomized the shift to a socially conscious capitalism. Hybrid working covers a multitude of forms, from traditional companies that want all employees to come in for three days a week (which normally means two days a week in the eyes of employees) to more experimental companies that are embracing “remote first” work. Lynda Gratton, the author of another new book on the subject, “Redesigning Work,” points out that we are still in “series 2, episode 3” of a series that will run for decades. That said, some generic problems from the new flexible world are already becoming apparent, along with a set of passable solutions.

The most obvious problem with flexible working is the multitude of demands it imposes on managers. Even before the flexible-work revolution, management was in danger of becoming an impossible profession, given the range of problems managers face from digitalization to hyper-entitled workers. Flexible work supersized all this. The simple job of organizing work is much more complicated: Right now, for instance, managers must deal with the traditional problem of summer schedules as well as the new one of scattered workers. Then there is the question of motivation: How do you encourage (or reprimand) people whom you see episodically rather than routinely?

Some of these problems can be solved by technology that can monitor and organize workflows (though managers might not relish having more apps to deal with). Some can be solved by scheduling face-to-face time so that managers routinely meet their charges. Yet the flexibility revolution will clearly be hard on an already harried class — and companies will need to recruit more middle managers as well as devolving more managerial responsibilities to frontline workers. A quid pro quo for flexibility may be having to take a more active role in managing the organization.

A second problem is the hollowing out of the corporation. Companies are more than just bundles of tasks that can be disaggregated and distributed to individual employees; they are living organizations that depend on their unique cultures for their competitive advantage. In the past, organizations left employees to absorb those cultures organically (with a little help, more recently, from “on-boarding” professionals). Now they need to do consciously what they previously did unconsciously. One popular solution is to immerse new employees in training camps led by company elders; another is to assign new employees with mentors who can help them both off-line and on.

The third is the emergence of a two-tier workforce. The nature of the tiers may vary. In some cases, home workers may be seen as a corporate aristocracy who can stay at home while the proletariat has to struggle with the commute. This is particularly likely if senior knowledge workers stay at home while junior and technical people go to the office. In other cases, office workers may be seen as insiders, who are more likely to get promotion, and home workers who face “proximity bias.” Sandeep Mathrani, the CEO of the office-renting company WeWork Inc., mused that employers may see people who opt to stay at home as less committed to their job; more bluntly, Cathy Merrill, the CEO of Washingtonian magazine, suggested that it’s easier to lay off people you don’t see regularly. Whatever the dynamic, a two-tier system inevitably generates resentment and disdain.

One solution to the two-tier problem is to create the same rules for everyone — usually a certain number of days in the office and a certain number at home. But this one-size-fits-all-solution risks negating the virtues of flexibility: If somebody needs to be in the office, there is no point in obliging them to work at home. A much better solution is sunlight: Accept that organizational variety is an inevitable consequence of flexible working and explain clearly that where you work is determined by the nature of your task (or in some cases personal circumstances) rather than your position in the hierarchy or your ability to pull strings.

A fourth problem is dealing with what might be called “flexibility fatigue” — the array of emotional problems that are attaching themselves to our evolving way of working. There is the problem of overload. The other side of having your “office” at home is that your “home” is in your office, as Peter Cappelli, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, puts it. It’s harder to switch off when you don’t have a boundary-defining commute and when you have a nagging worry that your boss might secretly agree with Musk about pretending to work. One of the few companies that has made a systematic study of how the world of work is changing, Microsoft Corp., found that one of the biggest problems was the way that work overflowed traditional boundaries, with a surge of work after dinner, presumably when children had settled down, and an increase in working at the weekend.

Then there is Zoom fatigue, which is even more taxing than old-fashioned meeting fatigue. You find yourself anxiously watching your own face as you speak, or listening to a Zoom bore without any recourse to fidgeting, or fixating on somebody’s flagrantly displayed nostril hairs. Julie Boland, of the University of Michigan, argues that Zoom promotes cognitive dissonance because it creates a weird mix of natural cues (face-to-face contact) and unnatural ones (rows of disembodied faces staring at you and strange time lags). Geraldine Fauville, of the University of Gothenburg, points out that videoconferencing messes with the brain’s sense of appropriate intimacy, because, thanks to evolutionary programming, a face that remains a few distances from your own for a prolonged period of time “is perceived by the brain as a situation that would lead to mating or conflict.”

There are some short-term solutions to these problems. You can create symbolic barriers between “home” and “work” that perform the same function as the daily commute. You can switch off the function on Zoom that shows your own face. Managers need to keep Zoom meetings as short as possible — half an hour should be a maximum — and find gentle ways to discipline Zoom bores. But Julia Hobsbawm suggests that we need to go further and create new social rituals designed to deal with digital overload. A digital Shabbat is a good place to start.

The workers who are most vulnerable to alienation are “remote first” workers who, either through choice or domestic circumstances, seldom come into the office. Here, “born remote” companies can model good practice for more traditional companies. Zach Boyette and Irina Papuc founded Galactic Fed, a digital marketing company, in 2017 as an all-remote company partly because they wanted to spend much of their time traveling (Boyette says that he hasn’t paid any rent since 2016), and partly because they didn’t want to put physical limits on their ability to hire the best employees. The company now has a workforce of more than 150 people spread over 24 time zones.

Galactic Fed strives to create a sense of community to make up for the lack of physical interaction. This starts with intensive screening — several rounds of tests and interviews — to make sure that recruits are self-starters. It then extends to a carefully planned on-boarding — or perhaps on-bonding — process that lasts several months and emphasizes building ties as much as technical skills. New recruits are allocated three or more “friends” to introduce them to the company. Online work meetings are balanced by online social meetings, such as “show-and-tell” sessions where employees are encouraged to talk about something that means a lot to them, or on-line competitions, such as competing to see who can do the most physical steps in a day. The company also has a proliferation of Slack channels devoted to purely social things such as pets, child-rearing, cooking and, a particular passion with the sort of people who they recruit, travel. It’s not all fluffy kitten shows: Galactic also uses a mixture of soft and hard metrics to make sure that employees use their working time efficiently and to spread good business practice, as well as prizes and promotion to reward good work. 

Cynics warn that “a hard rain is going to fall” in the coming year, as recession grips, unemployment rises and workers lose their temporary bargaining power. The halcyon days of working from home will become a mere memory as employers release their inner Musk. This would be a mistake. Why? Because forcing workers, particularly elite workers, to adopt alien work rhythms is not a basis for sustained competitive advantage — better times will come eventually — and because far-sighted companies will use the coming years to devise a flexible work regime that improves job satisfaction while also enhancing productivity.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Goldman Sachs Now Has Wall Street’s Best Vacation Policy: Sarah Green Carmichael

Some Unsolicited Career Advice for Gen Z Graduates: Erin Lowry

Are Career and Family Incompatible?: Virginia Postrel

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

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