It's no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic changed how people work. Many folks got their first taste of Work-From-Home when they couldn't go into an office. Unfortunately now we're starting to see articles on places wondering if we should go back into offices or asking what we're missing by not being in the office. Some folks are even starting their siren-like calls for employees to go back into the office despite there still being a pandemic.
I'm in a unique position in that over my career I have had multiple working arrangements. I've been full-time in an office, full-time remote, and several combinations of remote and in-person work. I present these as anecdotes in the hopes that we can think a little deeper about how best to proceed with asking folks back into the office, and understand that our current solutions for working from home might work better if we made a few tweaks to them.
Note that I'm a programmer / system administrator so most of my work is in front of a computer. I understand not everyone is able to exercise this level of privilege. I also believe that we put way too much emphasis on folks having butts in seats when their job doesn't have any human contact at all. Also, full disclosure: it is my hope that I never need to go back into an office situation ever again. I prefer to work from home, and if given the choice I'll gladly take working from home over an office any day. But I hope my insights will help make this an attractive option for those who aren't completely sold on total work-from-home.
My first jobs were in the automotive industry. Both places were starting to get work-from-home (remote access) but they considered these solutions to be used as a last resort. The expectation was still that you would be in the office. This lead to me driving into the office one day during a snow storm and almost slipping off of the road. When I arrived I found that few people were in the office. Had I been given the opportunity I would have worked from home on that day.
(This is one of my rubrics for working from home: if the local schools are closed then you should be allowed to work from home. Your job is not worth you getting maimed or killed, and doubly so if the weather is treacherous. Stay home.)
The one thing that I liked about being in the office was that I got to know folks. We'd go to lunch and talk about all of the strange shit that was going on in our lives. We had time to talk during work, and could shoot-the-shit. That's one theme that will be running throughout this post: have the ability for folks to decompress and talk with one another.
My next major job change was for a company that had a fully remote support staff. I spent about a year and half working with folks that I mostly knew over voice chats on Skype and IM. Overall it was good, but there were times when I didn't know if I was making folks angry with me or if I was screwing up. I missed a lot of cues that could have helped me better understand how folks were reacting. This company also had a local office that I drove to once. The relationships that folks had there were way different than the relationships I had with my team. Had I not known a few of the folks there outside of work I would have felt even more isolated. It wasn't until an all-hands meeting that I met the rest of my team and got to chat with them. While I enjoyed this job I also found myself burning out and stressed out.
One of the things that might have helped out is more video chats with the rest of my team and the ability to "hang out" during work. I know that's not generally thought of as part of work, but it might have helped us to get to know each other better. We did have chats in IM about various topics, but even having a regular "hey, how are things going outside of work" chat might have helped us. That's something that I missed from being in the office.
My next fully-remote position started with me meeting my manager and the rest of my team. That was a marked improvement over my previous job. Unfortunately I was also in a situation where my manager left for reasons and the only other folks I had to talk to was the rest of the folks I was working with. My new management had no idea what I was doing, and it became apparent that it wasn't going to work out long-term.
The next job I had was three days at the office and two days working from home. If I had to go back into an office then this would be the compromise I would accept (though I'd prefer two days in the office, and three days working from home). This allowed our team to bond in the office while still giving me the ability to work on things in solitude.
My latest job started as contracting-from-home. It's a small company but it has enough conversation for me to not feel completely left out. This is currently my preferred working style.
What I learned over this career is that working from home can feel isolating if you're not allowed to have the ability to communicate with the rest of your staff. That doesn't just mean your direct team but also other folks in the rest of the company. This doesn't all have to be about work, either. I think part of the stress that folks have about work-related chats is that there's the requirement (imposed or otherwise) that everything on the business equipment needs to be only about business. That's fair, but it also means that your staff will find other ways to find the warm human contact that we all crave. In the old days it was the office phone (and the cell phone). For me it was IRC. In most cases it's having lunch or kibbitzing before a meeting in a conference room, or wandering over to someone else's cubicle. If you're going to go remote you need a place for folks to connect with others that isn't strictly about work.
Another thing I learned is that it does help to see faces. Having voice and IM-only conversations with folks on my team made them feel more distant. The technology has gotten better for face-to-face conversations so let's do more of that. And no, it doesn't have to be studio perfect. Be human. Humans are messy creatures and we should celebrate our messiness. If something happens that isn't "business" then celebrate it. If your cat jumps on the desk then celebrate that you have a cat. Give yourselves the ability to be human and not just an automaton that turns money into work.
The more we loosen our formality with the tools we have the better we'll be able to use them. Sure, there still need to be boundaries, and sure, not everyone is going to want to be on camera 8 hours a day. But if we give ourselves permission to be less formal and give ourselves the ability to connect more deeply with folks over IM and video then we'll be able to forge new ways of working. We need to stop making video chat into a perfect broadcast. It's possible to have an entire workforce that's remote and engaged with each other in ways that were impossible in the workplace. Let's explore those while we have the opportunity.