As the coronavirus lockdowns stretch into months, the apparent success of the remote-work experiment is fraying at the edges. Lack of personal contact has worsened the situation of an already polarized and fragmented society, and the idea that everything can be made virtual has been proven a myth.
As the lockdowns swept the nation, governments and companies encouraged employees to work from home. Almost instantly, the number of remote workers is believed to have doubled or even tripled. The business world was thrown into a gigantic, unplanned experiment involving work habits and relationships with many unresolved questions. Tech-giant Google has committed to keeping most of its workers offsite well into 2021.
In the novelty of the change, the first impression was that the remote work was a success as people adjusted to the new normal with determination. They seemed to find the formula of mixing home and office, family and business, security and crisis. Many firms declared that temporary measures could well become permanent. Others proclaimed the end of the office was nigh.
Not All that It Appears to Be
However, appearances are deceiving. As the lockdowns stretch into months, the experiment’s apparent success is fraying at the edges. Firms are finding that people are losing those human ties so needed for society to function. The machine-mediated, distanced interaction cannot substitute personal contact. Some things cannot be taught via Zoom or communicated via text message.
Everything seems looser in the new regime. Projects take longer, and training is more complicated. New workers are harder to integrate into production teams when everything is online. Throughout it all, there is the sensation of disengagement that plagues the virtual workplace.
According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, the emerging consensus in the business world is that when everything is remote, it is too remote.[*] The present lockdown work regime cannot sustain itself in the long term. People need to interact. They also need separation of work and home to maintain their focus. After four months of lockdown, many workers are experiencing fatigue from distance working. There are signs that the remote experience can prove harmful to souls and society.
The Problems Workers Face
One major problem with remote working is the logistics of getting everyone together to solve problems, big and small. It is much easier to talk over problems when everyone works at the same site. Remote working can cause logistical nightmares when coordinating with other team members and their schedules. Thus, problems that once took hours to solve by simple consultations on-site can now stretch into days as team players on Zoom struggle to connect with others.
Another problem with distance working is the loss of comradery that plays a vital role in project management. If a project has a physical dimension, it needs the physical participation of its members to convey dynamism to the project. The quality of work suffers when added piecemeal from a distance. Project members benefit from the brainstorming session, where everyone can bounce ideas around.
People also communicate through body language, and much of that is lost with video conferencing. The new casual look of home fashion has its effect upon work; those who study business have long made the connection between work and dress.
A Need for Face-to-Face
Managers are finding that nothing can replace the face-to-face contact that communicates more than just knowledge. It also provides context and criteria for evaluating concrete situations. It also conveys much of the company culture and jargon that facilitates communications.
The in-office experience is also essential because it provides occasions for spontaneous interactions. Conversations over coffee, lunch, or a chance hallway or water fountain encounter can lead to solutions that cannot happen on a scheduled call.
An important part of learning comes from being around experienced associates who have long known the ropes. Younger people can learn much from these mentors by watching them work and measuring their reactions to problems. This time with the experts is an integral part of employee training that cannot be transferred online. Decreased time and access to these figures will slow down the learning process, hinder personal development, and diminish career advancement.
Ronald Kruszewski, CEO of Stifel Financial Corp. that employs 8,000 people worldwide, expressed his worries about the remote workplace in this way: “I am concerned that we would somehow believe that we can basically take kids from college, put them in front of Zoom, and think that three years from now, they’ll be every bit as productive as they would have been had they had the personal interaction.”
Employees working from home give the experiment mixed reviews. Many like to work from home and managed to be productive. Others appreciate the time saved by not having to commute to the office.
However, many managers feel the need to provide at least some time together with other company members. For this reason, companies suggest using “blended hours” that mix home and office hours. Arrangements include schedules that require three days in the office and the rest at home. Others are proposing “core hours,” which would require workers to be together at key times to be available to resolve problems together.
The idea that everything can be made virtual is a myth that does not work in real time.
The Great Disruption
One very evident finding from the experiment is that there is no magic solution to make the virtual workplace work. Companies need time and effort to see what works and what does not. The unplanned experiment is still in its early stages. The new arrangement has potential dangers that can prove disruptive for business as well as the home.
People are social beings, and it is not easy to replace contact. The tendency will be to increase virtual communication to higher levels. For example, Zoom usage registered 300 million users in April, up from 75 million in December. This usage level supports the constant temptation to be available 24/7 since the office is now blurred with the home.
The coronavirus crisis has disrupted all aspects of American life. The worst part of this disruption is the removal of opportunities for social interaction when it is needed most. A polarized and fragmented society is increasingly distancing Americans from one another. The physical distancing only makes matters worse. In this time of crisis, communication is essential.
The social nature of humanity craves contact with others. Any kind of business solution to the virus crisis must try to keep open the lines of communication and hasten the moment in which people can once again socialize and interact normally without virtual mediation.
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* Chip Cutter, “Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All,” The Wall Street Journal (July 2020).
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened slightly for clarity.