In the short term, we habitually overestimate the potential impact of technologies and approaches because we underestimate implementation complexities. In the long term, we often underestimate those impacts because we fail to appreciate the power of compounding. I imagine these proclivities will be on full display over the next 3-5 years as we reboot our relationship with the workplace.
The pandemic steamrolled office life to such an extent one can be forgiven for mistaking the present reality for The New Normal. Certainly many results of this interlude will prove sticky, ranging from the disruption of commercial real estate, the brutalization of related service industries, the migration of talent to remote locations, the pause of many careers in service of family, and the adoption of new tools and techniques by companies and their employees. And yet the current arrangement both stems from very temporary circumstances and has clearly engendered horrifically unsustainable pressures on countless people. A storm has swept away many of the incidental challenges around technology and culture, but as the tide recedes we will enter another phase.
I often think of a Physics thought problem in pondering the long term effects of notable events. The questioner asks you to describe what happens to life on Earth if a godlike power instantaneously disappears the Sun from our solar system. The beginnings of a correct answer: “Nothing. For eight minutes.”. For that surreal interlude we would continue to experience the radiation and gravitational effects of our erstwhile star. As we navigate this strange upcoming period we ought carefully ponder the long-term effects of the disappearance of The Office on innovation, social progress, social cohesion, mental health, and labor relations. For these facets of our reality one might reasonably expect high latency for properly appreciating the related impacts.
Every few years I re-read the transcript or Dr. Richard W. Hamming’s speech You And Your Research. The following excerpted commentary seems especially relevant to our long-term innovation prospects:
I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don’t know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.
I also find myself reflecting on the book Range in this context, a central tenet of which being that the generalists that form a critical component of our knowledge economy emerge and benefit from a highly fluid arrangement with a diverse collection of colleagues, projects, and experiences. I doubt it an accident that in its closing pages it holds up the lunchtime meal shared between colleagues as one of the most powerful forces in innovation.
While superficially and immediately the loss of office-induced serendipitous interactions may seem of no clear detriment to innovation, in fact we will likely be eating our seed corn, the consequences of which we will doubtless feel yet perhaps not quite comprehend several years down the road.
Prior to the pandemic, addressing gender pay disparity garnered a substantial portion of the policy conversation spotlight. Within the pandemic, however, we have observed catastrophic effects on the progress of women. Firstly, economic disruption has hit hardest many of the industries with historical over-representation of women. Secondly, for many families forced to make difficult trade-offs around monetary inflows and household orchestration, the short-term rational but long-term disastrous decision has been to keep the lower-earning partner at home, which statistically has meant the woman of a heterosexual partnership. Not only does this present immediate effects on gender parity and workplace diversity, but the situation also undercuts the pressure to solve problems around childcare availability and affordability, sending us on a downward spiral. Without a return to normalcy in the realm of Office and improvements in the realm of Childcare we will be cementing horrific setbacks for both women specifically and society as a whole for generations to come. The flexibility provided by the option to do remote work can serve as a huge boon, but only as a component of an holistic approach.
Cohesion & Health
More than ever during the pandemic people are leaning heavily on social media platforms to retain a semblance of connectedness and a modicum of mental health. This has resulted inevitably from the shuttering of offices, bars, churches, sports leagues, and countless other contexts that serve as natural circulators of diverse populations. The core business models of such digital platforms, meanwhile, rest heavily on engagement optimization algorithms that form echo chambers and promote contention. Without the normative effects and countervailing pressures of social mixing within physical spaces we will be more likely than ever to fall deeper into our divided communities and head inexorably down paths to explosive conflict. As the nexus to so many forums of social interaction, the permanent loss of the office might further a collapse of civil society at a time when we evidently can least afford it. Policy leaders ought take a long and hard stare at this piece of the puzzle instead of focusing only on the symptoms we are observing on social media platforms.
Theories abound regarding whether, when, and how we will collectively return to office life and the implications for employment relations. For each of productivity, happiness, compensation, and diversity one can find just as many arguments that this facet will improve as deteriorate. Some employees say that the switch to the current arrangement is a dream, others a nightmare, and others still that they are gradually adapting. Well positioned businesses have thrived, others have died, and most of the survivors are in a messy working-through-it period while wondering how temporary circumstances are. Many employers are telling their employees that they can expect reduced compensation if they work remotely. In fact the reality is as simple as it is complex: circumstances are highly situational.
By mid-2021, with many of the incidental difficulties of remote work washed away by a violent storm, we will begin to see the emergence of a range of modalities throughout industry that hinges more on company nature, employee archetype, individual preference, and balances of power, instead of a rigidly uniform This Is How Things Have Always Been. There will, of course, exist a fair amount of momentum that momentarily masks this trend, but the trajectory is inevitable. The availability of remote work will be one more knob that companies can turn to optimize productivity on both micro and macro levels and one more chit on the comp negotiation table.
Work that involves the regular and rapid mixing of ideas to foment innovation will continue to benefit from high-density talent hubs that foster serendipity. Complex creative work will forever benefit from schedule synchrony, latency minimization, and interaction fluidity of a kind that mere technology cannot yet offer. The supply and demand of talent, and its ROI when plugged into various contexts, are what will ultimately drive compensation, not where people call home, and not what many would call “fair”. Companies will ever respond to market and governmental forces, finding the path of least resistance to maximum profit or be outcompeted by those that do. Top-tier talent will continue to be able to write its own ticket while commoditized workers will ever experience a downward pressure on wages and a consequent rise of disenfranchisement, resentment, and radicalization. We will either proactively find a way to re-engage and re-integrate the people who are feeling left behind or tip over a precipice that requires us to deal reactively with an inevitable and violent upheaval.
The re-imagining of the office, the roboticization of countless jobs, a resurgence of onshore production, and an inevitable reckoning with the implications of our digital ecosystems in the coming years will prove incredibly disorienting, disruptive, and unpredictable. Best to remain resilient in every way that you can and think deeply about what you value.