Illustration by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

The Future of WFH: Owning what we don’t know

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Published on December 04, 2020

Illustration by Fanny Luor

If you roll your eyes whenever anyone says “the New Normal,” you’re not alone. There’s nothing normal about the year 2020. We’ll look back on this as a chaotic transition period, especially for those of us who work in fields that have emigrated from offices to working from home.

But what will WFH be like long term? Companies that have announced permanent policies are the exception while prolonged uncertainty remains the norm for most.

Management consultants have produced plenty of reports on what business decision makers should expect, and how to plan for the post-pandemic workforce. They’re helpful, but we should be clear with ourselves that we’re heading toward a future even harder than usual to predict. 

Two partners from Innosight, the firm founded by the late Clayton Christensen who made “disruption” a business mantra, wrote bluntly mid-year that we still don’t understand WFH as a long-term way of work:

“We suspect that the workforces of Twitter and Facebook will be less remote in 10 years than their leaders are predicting today, but much more remote than they could have imagined six months ago … Work from home is a system in and of itself, with many interfaces and interdependencies, both human and technological … it’s possible that what works for Twitter and Facebook won’t work for you.”

Still learning to WFH

Work from home is not merely office work transposed to a new location. It’s a new skill—a new human technology—that we’re learning in fits and starts. Like all technologies, first we emulate what came before. 

Throwing ourselves into too many video conferences was the WFH equivalent of the horseless carriage. And just as we scheduled meetings that could be emails, we sent emails that could be hallway chats. All in all, many people found themselves working more hours, and felt more stressed.

A recent study we did with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) on the sudden shift to distributed work details this journey. While only 17% of respondents felt that the negative aspects of WFH outweigh the benefits, twice as many reported that their workload increased rather than decreased. Part of the cause, 71% said email volume had increased and 55% said they had more scheduled meetings. As a result, 43% said they were experiencing more stress than before, compared to 30% who said less.

Looking back at changing attitudes about video conferencing over the past year, we see a roller coaster ride of newfound elation (we can do this!) followed by newfound problems (who ever heard of Zoom fatigue?) VCs are a metaphor for so many aspects of WFH: It can replace some (not all) office interactions, and offers new opportunities for flexible collaboration, but we’ll need to learn better when and how to use it. For now, working remote is in many ways like trying to sing “Happy Birthday” on Zoom.

How the sands are shifting

“You have to basically seduce your people to come into the office and work there instead of from home,” said Coen van Oostrom, CEO of Dutch real estate developer Edge, told CNBC in September. Indeed, the office drain had already been happening before COVID-19 arrived. Companies that went against it, keeping everyone in the office all day, haven’t spawned any wild success stories. Yahoo’s no-telecommuting reversal in 2013 has become the go-to tale of why not to do it. CEO Marissa Mayer explained that she had hoped to rekindle Yahoo’s culture of innovation. We’ve since learned that there are better ways to do it.

As they consider what arrangements to pursue after the pandemic subsides, many companies plan for a hybrid model that offers employees a choice between remote or in-office experiences. At Dropbox, we’re focused on what we call a Virtual First work experience. Its goal is to have a similar mix of in-office and WFH for every employee, rather than creating an uneven playing field.

Hybrid workforces may be the most obvious approach, but will be the hardest to manage. It’s human nature to team up as Office vs Remote. At-home employees may feel marginalized, while in-office workers may feel more clued-in, unwilling to listen to someone who’s “never here.”

Meanwhile, all-remote advocates predict the best talent will leave for all-remote companies, betting that location flexibility will win the day. 

“You can’t explore new worlds with old maps. Christopher Columbus thought he had reached the Indies.” —Angela Salmeron

Our EIU study quantified that WFH is a gift to some, a hurdle for others. Some once-flourishing employees will struggle from home. Others will finally bloom given greater autonomy over their time, space, and way of working. The result will be more change: Some people will move on to find new opportunities. Others will finally get promoted. And there’ll be many new at-home workers who weren’t even in the pipeline before.

Job trends are changing fast alongside companies’ needs. Dozens of industry surveys show execs automating and trying new AI to digitize everything from customer interaction to supply chains. The skills to power these trends are likely to stay in demand, just as e-commerce traffic shot up back in March to Black Friday levels and may never go down again.

But the most foolish presumption would be to assume remote work is something everyone will just have to get used to. Frustrated extroverts and room-filling personalities may be determined to find new career opportunities to work with people in person again. Also, let’s not leap to the conclusion that all introverts want to work from home.

A top-down focus on company culture

Company culture had already been flagged as a widespread weak spot. In one pre-pandemic exercise, a roomful of CEOs shown a list of anonymized corporate statements about culture were unable to identify their own words

With no shared workspace, executives are coming around to the advice they’d been given for years: “Don’t let your company culture just happen.” They can’t communicate values and behavior by onsite example. They can’t walk through the office and know what’s going on. 

If they heed the advice of their own consultants, managers of distributed teams will encourage rather than punish risk, lest WFH employees play it safe. They’ll focus on flexible practices rather than strong onsite personalties to establish norms. Yet at the same time, they’ll let employees own the outcomes of their work: Don’t just follow the boss’s instructions at your home desk, suggest ways to get better results from there.

The unknown unknowns

Angela Salmeron, a London-based Associate Research Director with IDC’s European Future of Work practice, says many of the most senior executives at the world’s top companies have told her that for the first time, they simply don’t know what’s ahead. “We discovered in the last six months that employees can work from home,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean that work-from-home is the model. It’s a means to an end.” 

She cites parents with at-home children as a group who’ll affirm that we haven’t yet figured out a model that will support everyone. What happens when singles who loved WFH become parents themselves?

And what happens when travel restrictions are eventually relaxed? For now, it’s no different to hire someone in London or Glasgow, Salmeron says, since neither will be able to come to the office. But forward-thinking managers are wary that it may become a disadvantage to be reliant on fully remote workers too far away to travel regularly. The flexible advantages of a distributed workforce can be undercut if they lead to two different types of employee experience with inequalities in career progression and access to information.

Moreover, she says, there’s a lot that we don’t yet realize we don’t know. She sees today’s workforce as akin to Spanish explorers like Columbus and Magellan, sailing into the unknown. The mistake is to think you're fully aware of what you don’t know—to think you’ve got all the questions and are only seeking answers. 

“You can’t explore new worlds with old maps,” Salmeron cautions anyone who thinks they can forecast the future. “Christopher Columbus thought he had reached the Indies.”

What we have to work with

On the upside, she says, those explorers had ships that were the era’s state-of-the-art technology, ample funding, and experienced crews that knew how to work together. 

We’re sort of there today as we explore the frontiers of remote work. But outside of tech startups, Salmeron says that most companies “don’t yet have parity on digital tools” for home versus office workers. Many rely on software that was never planned to be used entirely remotely. 

Even after they finish fumbling with VPNs, 2FA, and other IT basics for secure access, a bigger problem comes to light. Even tech startups have processes that rely on face-to-face interactions, real-time collaboration, or mandatory paperwork that can’t simply be moved into their distributed tools.

We’re still sailing into uncharted waters of long-term WFH. Most of us are still figuring out how to make it work. Many of us wish we could turn back. That’s not likely to happen. On the upside, though, we can take a lesson from explorers anywhere, anytime, who went past the borders of their maps: Despite the risks and setbacks, we’re likely to discover that what’s beyond the end of world we know is a much, much bigger world.