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Giving Work Room to Breathe

Malinda Sanna

There was a lot of press related to “Return to Work” culture this past weekend, from talking heads on the Sunday shows to the NYT endlessly featuring articles for the past few months  entitled things like “Say Hello Again to the Office, Fingers Crossed!” (apparently NYT headquarters are requiring workers back in person this month.)

Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan has said repeatedly that working from home isn’t for people who want “to hustle.” 

Even Malcolm Gladwell, who I absolutely revere, sounds tone-deaf on the subject, accusingly asking, “if you’re just working in your pajamas from your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live?” 

I don’t think I’m alone in responding, “um, YES, sometimes…?”

Maybe not all day long, or every day. But the entire point is – if you work in the knowledge economy, shouldn’t that be an individual decision? Especially for stay-at-home mothers who are absolutely pulled apart at the seams, for whom remote work has been a game-changer (notwithstanding the unfair responsibilities of becoming home-schoolers for much of 2020. That totally sucked.)

Granted, we’re a small firm that employs ~25 people, some of whom work on a flexible project basis. Maybe it’s easier for us to create and foster a work culture virtually than it would be for a larger firm. Even prior to Covid, however, we enthusiastically worked virtually and we will always continue to do so, especially because half of our people and many of our projects are located in other time zones around the world.

The key opposition to remote work often raises these concerns: 1) Young people can’t be mentored; 2) It’s impossible to collaborate; 3) There’s no spontaneous ideation; and 4) People miss socializing and being part of a special “work culture”.

It’s worth taking a look at the plethora of experiments and solutions that gained traction during the pandemic that can help with all of the above. Slack has gotten really, really good in the past 12 months. It’s amazing at facilitating spontaneous and really efficient communications, with its “Huddle” capability of calling someone and adding others ad hoc into the conversation, even if it’s only for 60 seconds. It is the audio equivalent of peeking your head into someone’s office down the hall. We have Slack channels devoted solely to sharing ridiculous memes and pictures of our pets. We share and celebrate each other’s work (again, on Slack, in channels where we can easily comment on and collaborate on projects.) We invest heavily in training and mentoring using video and screen sharing. We regularly use Drizly to send drinks to team members for virtual happy hours where we don’t talk about work. Can any of the above be done in person? Absolutely – but interaction doesn’t have to be IRL if you work in a knowledge profession where so much is done in writing and in a digital space.

Recently we had to hire a native Dutch speaker for a research project in The Netherlands; it took us about 30 minutes to identify 7 viable candidates via Upwork; we hired a young Belgian living in Seoul. There are amazing solutions out there and they are evolving at a very exciting rate to meet the needs of businesses that are accepting of remote work.

Most importantly, we can all get our work done on our own time, with no one questioning if we have to go to the doctor’s, take the cat to the vet, go get highlights or do other life stuff during the day. We tuck in to work when it makes sense to do so, within our individual lives. If anything, I feel a responsibility to encourage people to work LESS, not more.

Remote work levels the playing field on so many levels. It provides more flexibility for parents. It opens up so many possibilities in terms of where you live. Nearly everyone on our staff moved during Covid, often to bigger spaces farther from a city, with lower costs of living. It allows introverts to thrive alongside extroverts. It helps unclog severely taxed highways, trains and subway systems. 

Now, I fully acknowledge that it doesn’t work for a majority of businesses, most obviously ones that rely on face-to-face customer service and interaction. But for those that rely heavily on the written word, ideas, and conversation/discussion to get things done, in an increasingly digitized economy, I think we need to be creative and understanding with solutions. It’s time to accept the fact that people treasure freedom and flexibility. And with no requirement to commute, we can all invest more time in getting outside, taking care of ourselves and seeing people we value IRL. 

At the very least, businesses should consider some flexibility in giving employees a few days to work as they wish, either from home or the office. Involve them in these decisions as we all struggle to figure out solutions that are right for our organizations in this new world. It will pay off handsomely in the culture you are asking them to buy into. 

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