Why the Future of WFH Depends on Asking the Right Questions

Most of us who are able to have been working from home since March or early April. At first, we had to get used to it – even people who already worked remotely on a regular basis. Some people found WFH to be productive and flexible, even enjoyable; for some others (as I noted in this post from a few weeks ago), the pandemic-enforced experience was unsettling, unproductive, and even depressing.

What we’ve discovered after several weeks is that remote work can be all of those things and more. While the benefits of working in your own personal environment are magnified as you spend more time there, the drawbacks also become a lot more obvious. Many leaders, as well as team members, have begun to discover this, and we’re seeing a lot more being written about it.

“For those who wish that the remote revolution had succeeded, it’s tempting to think that the pandemic has pushed aside the main obstacle to its success: the reluctance of bosses,” Cal Newport wrote recently in The New Yorker. But, he argues, that’s not the main problem with WFH. Rather, it’s that the nature of knowledge work – the kind most easily done remotely – is “fuzzy and disorganized” and absolutely benefits from precisely the casual in-person interactions that occur when colleagues share a physical space.

We’re also discovering issues with Zoom and other video conferencing technology; not the privacy issues and Zoombombing that concerned us at first, but the problem of people becoming Zoombies who lose focus on what’s being discussed or get distracted by all the other windows on the screen (as parents with Zoom-taught kids can attest).

With re-opening moving quickly, the planning for continued remote work is in full swing at most companies where long-term WFH is possible. Some Silicon Valley giants have declared that the majority of their teams will work remotely for months, even after the pandemic is over – and others see it as a permanent plan.

I want to suggest that as we look toward the future of knowledge work, everyone is asking the wrong question. Based on our experience, instead of “Will most people WFH in the future?” the more relevant and valuable question is “How much time will different team members WFH vs work in the office?” Or put another way, as we plan this, we should be making decisions based on when remote work makes sense for the business and the team member, and when it does not.

Solo versus Group Creative

There are some instances where we’ve seen remote work make a ton of sense and argue for it to continue.

One such instance is individuals who are involved in deep work for long stretches and need only occasional interaction with their colleagues. This is where the casual interactions of the office can become constant opportunities to defocus. It’s difficult to be interrupted in the middle of a complex task and then come back to it; getting your mind back to that task and restarting the thought process at the point you were interrupted takes time. So it’s likely you’ll be far more productive in your own personal space with a limited number of high-priority tasks.

If you’re juggling a lot of tasks, though, WFH can actually make you less productive. Why? According to this research from Harvard Business School, people who have a long to-do list tend to prioritize the easiest tasks, rather than the most important ones. That tendency increases when people WFH – they feel the need to show that they are being productive, and so they focus on things they can finish fast.

Another place WFH doesn’t work is with people used to working creatively in small groups, where everyone should contribute and where decisions about strategy and direction need to be made. Shifting from having in-person sessions in a meeting room to watching a grid of 15 little squares is not conducive to enthusiastic participation, or even to easily managing a conversation. You lose the body language and signals you need to ensure everyone has input and you wind up talking over or past each other (anyone who has been in a Zoom meeting with 10 or 15 participants who all need to be active participants knows just what I mean).

The problem is in how the brain responds to technology. A recent article in The New York Times noted that the little delays and distortions in video chats can induce anxiety and the feeling of being disconnected. Researchers as far back as 2007 also reported that the use of systems that introduce these sorts of spatial distortions erode trust among participants. Finally, it can be stressful to look at our own facial expressions on a video conference and make the meeting uncomfortable and unproductive.

Going Big or Going Small

Video conferencing can be vexing but it does turn out to be pretty good for the extremes, and can support remote work better at the edges, when the number of participants is either very small (under 4) or very large.

One-on-one meetings, or very small groups, work well this way because people don’t get as lost – and they can’t easily hide, either. You can get a lot done, regardless of where people are located, and you don’t need to reserve a room. In fact, for companies with large offices or campuses spread over a big area, you can probably have two productive online meetings in the time it would take you to get everyone in the same room for just one. (A caveat here: Video conferencing is a poor choice for crucial conversations or resolving difficult or serious problems. These require the in-person, human dynamic.)

At the other end of the spectrum, video conferencing is a spectacular tool for large-scale meetings or presentations, where there are one or two people delivering information on an essentially one-way basis to a big audience. The logistics are much easier here than in-person meetings, and you can include people who may be traveling or otherwise not able to come to a central location.

Finally, big or small, the constant need to be on video chats can soon become a sinkhole for managers. When your days are endless streams of streaming…well, it’s difficult to find time to digest and analyze the information you’re getting and make decisions. Meeting guru Mark Murphy, writing in Forbes, says that we’ve gotten into non-stop video meetings that make work “exhausting,” and recommends they be planned well (and shortened).

What’s the Answer for Creative Companies?

Here’s where we’ve landed in all of this: We foresee a “new normal” that’s a hybrid of the old world of coming to the office each day and the pandemic WFH world.

Managers will wind up spending most of their time most weeks in the office, with occasional WFH time. Individuals might spend 2-3 days a week working from home, depending on the task, and that schedule will vary by both job function and the specific project. There won’t be a blanket policy; it will be fluid and flexible to meet the needs of the business and support the greatest productivity. That means our approach will be different from other tech companies.

That doesn’t mean we’re going to be gradually sliding back into the old ways, though. The pandemic has shown us that the remote working that we’d been reluctant to do on a large scale can work if you ask the right questions. Over the coming months, working from home will no longer be viewed as an unproductive negative or a panacea. Instead, it will be a valuable tool that managers have to ensure we get things done.

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