As IT leaders we’re more familiar than most with the nuances of the physical location from which our colleagues work. Since the early days of IT, technology has impacted everything from where office buildings are located, to how they’re designed to accommodate technology and make it accessible to workers.
In the last decade as technology matured, we often found ourselves being asked to facilitate remote working, either for our technology staff or other parts of the company. A technology model that assumed workers connected to a “fortified” local network from a few discrete physical locations evolved into a model that allowed connectivity “outside the walls” and allowed workers to be productive from almost anywhere.
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While this was nothing new for most technology leaders, COVID-19 forced a sudden and dramatic change: Rather than remote work being an exception, it is now the norm for everyone from the CEO to the new analyst. This sudden change forced even the most reticent leaders to acknowledge that it was possible to be productive outside the four walls of the company, and also forced workers to quickly learn and embrace remote working technologies.
Whereas people could safely ignore videoconferencing and collaboration software when they encountered most of their team in the same physical space on a daily basis, they’ve now been forced to embrace these tools or risk becoming entirely disconnected from their team.
Is the future remote?
One obvious hypothesis about the future of working is that for office jobs, it will become disconnected from physical offices. The technology to support remote work has been around for over a decade, and COVID-19 served as a “trial by fire,” both for the technology itself, as well as users and support staff. Most employees like the idea of breaking away from the typical 8- to 10-hour day in an office, and it doesn’t take a master’s in accounting to understand the benefits of removing a large Real Estate line item from the expense statement. In the extreme, some predict companies will become entirely virtual, with teams that are not only working remotely, but could be working from nearly anywhere on Earth, during hours of their choosing.
The contradictory hypothesis is that this period of remote work has underscored the intangible benefits of in-person interaction, many of which cannot be replaced by the Brady Bunch grid of a half-dozen smiling faces scattered in square boxes around a screen. Some of the more extreme versions of this theory predict an explosion of business travel once the pandemic crisis clears, as hundreds of deferred meetings are scheduled, and executives “make the rounds” to reestablish personal connections. Offices will theoretically be packed to the brim as everyone seeks the human-to-human interaction they’ve missed.
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The problem with these two competing visions is that they assume we’ll return to an extreme version of a pre-COVID-19 scenario, either doubling down on traditional remote working arrangements, or spending even more time traveling and sitting in offices, working the way we always did before the virus. I believe that the key lessons many of us will take from this period of enforced remote work are less about location, and more about time and work management.
One thing I noticed and confirmed with several colleagues early in my COVID-19 experience was that productive video conferences were mentally more exhausting than an equivalent in-person meeting. A two-hour workshop over videoconference had the same mental drain as an all-day affair in an in-person meeting, especially for the presenters and facilitators. The medium seems to force more intense interactions, and more planning to successfully orchestrate.
Collaborating in the same physical space was the pre-COVID-19 norm since it was easy. Getting a half-dozen colleagues in the room when you’re all physically proximate for 40 hours each week took such little effort that it created dozens of useless meetings, and turned 30-minute sprints of true, collaborative work into days spent in a conference room physically together but mentally all over the map.
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The new frontier of office work
My hope is that post-pandemic there will be less acceptance of the dozens of “junk” meetings, where every 30 minutes is equivalent to about five minutes of productive work. There is going to be an initial reluctance to assemble large groups in the same physical space, so this may have the positive side effect of elevating in-person gathering to a new level of importance and allow remote work and collaboration tools to earn their keep facilitating and preparing for decision-oriented meetings.
Rather than a binary choice between in-person and remote work, COVID-19 could make us all more effective collaborators, remotely and in-person, and provide a deeper respect for the value of in-person interactions and the pre-work that’s required to maximize their success.