ProBeat: Beware and be weary of permanent work from home

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey emailed employees this week to say they could work from home permanently after the coronavirus pandemic lockdown passes. Twitter was one of the first major tech companies to order its employees to work from home in response to the pandemic. Last week, Facebook and Google told their respective employees they can work from home through the end of the year. But Twitter went further and said they don’t ever have to come back.

Some see Twitter’s remote work forever as a bellwether for workplace strategies that start in tech and proliferate everywhere. So, we’re all going to take meetings from bed, wear sweatpants, and skip commuting forever? Be careful what you wish for.

Some companies will undoubtedly follow in Twitter’s footsteps. The temptation to offload commercial real estate costs will be too great. But there will also be companies that go back to work just as before, with some health measures of course. And don’t expect that group to be only businesses that cannot function without face-to-face interactions. Broadly speaking, for most white-collar jobs, WFH will become more accepted — after everyone at your company has experienced the pros and cons of working from home, more of the workforce doing so a few times a week will no longer raise eyebrows.

In fact, I think it is premature to be projecting commercial real estate collapses, workers leaving cities in droves, and permanent offices closures across the globe. Yes, there is currently “a new normal,” but this is a temporary shift — there will be a new normal post-pandemic, and we cannot predict what that will be. Instead, we can observe that millions are relearning how to work, which is bound to bring change. Still, let us not paint change with a broad brush.

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Be wary

First, I think it’s important to acknowledge that WFH is a luxury. Most workers don’t have the privilege, let alone the means, to work from home. Most jobs cannot be performed over the internet.

Would I want to live in a world where everyone has the option to work from home? Sure. But the key word there is option. Let’s make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing too far. Imagine a world where the default is that most work can only be done from home. The office is the luxury. Employee in-person interactions don’t exist.

Let’s go even further. Do we want a world where if you don’t have internet, employment is not available to you?

We have not yet seen a company transition from offering WFH as an option to offering an office as an option. Doing that at Twitter scale (some 4,600 employees) is not going to be easy. The company does, however, have one huge advantage: It was already working on such a transition long before the coronavirus. Was your company?

I’ve been working from home for 12 years (here are my tips). To this day, I struggle with separating work life and personal life. It’s not easy to set those boundaries, and it’s not going to suddenly get easier when millions more have to do it.

The upside is that I have the advantage of experience. The pandemic has had zero impact on my work life. While many have celebrated and complained about all the adjustments they have had to make, some WFH people have not skipped a beat.

But many have. It was fun for the first week and maybe even enjoyable for two. Doing it all year round presents plenty of challenges, including everything from mental health to team morale.

Furthermore, many employees enjoy going into work. Many argue that in-person communication is irreplaceable. If you are in that camp and your company switches to permanent WFH, going into the office is never going to be the same again. You simply won’t know who is going to be there. And what happens when your company takes the office away completely?

Be weary

Finally, I think what many people are missing is which part of Twitter’s move is radical. The option for workers to permanently work from home is not radical. Many companies offer that. The fact that some employees will never visit the office is not radical. Again, many companies have that. The radical part is that Twitter is removing the expectation of employees to visit the office. Twitter chief HR officer Jennifer Christie said, “Opening offices will be our decision; when and if our employees come back will be theirs.”

As I’ve argued before, the future of work is remote. Companies like GitLab and WordPress have successfully built decentralized companies. But being distributed from the start is not the same thing as trying to move existing offices to employees’ homes.

Other companies will try to follow Twitter and may even succeed, but I suspect most that do will quickly backpedal. It’s not easy to build company culture. It’s even harder to rebuild one after one has already taken form.

In a year or two, we might even see reports of permanent WFH being rolled back. Look out for the first rumblings of such realizations on Twitter.

ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.

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