Back to the Office - Delayed Effects from the Lock-downs
The number of big office landlords defaulting on their loans is on the rise, fresh evidence that more developers believe that remote and hybrid work habits have permanently impaired the office market. - Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2023
When the covid inspired lock-downs were initiated in early 2020, the promise was they would only last a few weeks. They were necessary to "flatten the curve" to the virus' spread. In retrospect, we now know our ruling class were busy implementing politicized wishful thinking disguised as expertise. The lock-downs entered a prolonged phase of continuous extensions.
Knowledge workers quickly adapted to circumstances by shifting to a work environment they had already been moving toward for several decades. It has been known by many names: working from home, telecommuting, distributed workforce, remote teams. The shift in the direction toward remote workplaces had been a slow process. Prior to the lock-downs, it was common for many knowledge workers, such as software developers and system administrators, to have made arrangements with employers to work one or more days from home. Similarly, I had been working about 75% from home and my wife (also working in technology) had been working remote full-time for close to 8 years. Our ability to remain 100% effective and productive at our jobs was unaffected by the lock-downs. We were very fortunate and we were far from being alone. From a system dynamics perspective, the delay between lock down and adaptation to remote work was extremely small.
The next tier of knowledge workers made a similarly quick transition to remote work. The delay to adaptation was perhaps several weeks to months. These were the positions that had long been assumed to require a physical office space separate from the home. Management and administration functions were now pressed into finding a way to complete work responsibilities while working remote. For the most part, they did figure this out with the help of the model set by remote technical teams.
The unsettling fallout from this was just how apparent it became that many positions in the office were no longer needed with a distributed workforce. For example, the administrative overhead of booking a conference room - a horrifically convoluted process at some corporations I worked for - disappeared. Fire up Zoom, everyone connects, and you're busy with your meeting. There were a thousand little things like this that quickly became easier. The cumulative effect was difficult for some to acknowledge. For these people, a return to the official office space couldn't happen fast enough.
I've written elsewhere about the effect this had on the personal lives of most knowledge workers. I continue to read and hear from doomsayers and fear mongers about how the "failure" of employees to return to the office has had a negative effect on the social lives of employees and the businesses local to office building that depended on office worker traffic to survive. For the most part, these messages fail to acknowledge that employees haven't lost their social connections. Rather, they have taken the time spent on commuting (a dead zone where they are neither socializing at the office or elsewhere) to deepening their ties to family and neighbors. Social ties to one's community are far and away more important than ties to office workers. It's this distinction, and the re-established connection to community that has fed into the resistance for returning to the office.
The latest ripple to shake the return-to-office advocates is the wave of expiring leases for all the office space left vacant by knowledge workers who continue to work from home. The delay to this effect is only now starting to take hold, several years after the lock downs began. As the Wall Street Journal articled quoted at the beginning of this post indicates, businesses are starting to recognize they no longer need to maintain substantial commercial office space.
As more and more businesses let go of leases, this begins to strengthen the position of remote workforce advocates. It's been a significant challenge luring knowledge workers back into commercial office space even when the incentive of a lengthy lease was helping drive the effort. Without a lease to incentivize management's effort, the friction now tips in favor of the remote knowledge worker. Business owners will first have to be convinced to sign a lease for commercial office space before drawing workers in to fill cubicles and and huddle around the mythical water cooler.
Compounding this effect, recent months have been filled with almost daily news bites of layoffs in the thousands of knowledge workers. Coupled with the resistance for returning to the office, there are fewer employees to force back into the office and fill the vacant space for which leases are coming due.
I recognize the value of face-to-face collaboration and professional socializing. But this doesn't need to happen 40+ hours a week. A hybrid office work schedule is likely to be the most successful. A 4 day work week trial was recently completed in the UK involving 2,900 employees across a wide variety of industries to determine if a paid day off a week would result in the same level of productivity while working less. Ninety percent of the participating companies said they would continue with the 4 day work week after seeing significant drops in employee turnover and absenteeism while largely maintaining productivity during the six-month study. Employees reported less stress and improved mental and physical health.
Similar studies are being run in the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Spain. What these studies are finding is that in a 4 day work week, employees are not working more intensely in order to complete the same amount of work, rather they are working more effectively and efficiently. Perhaps surprising no one, running meetings differently accounted for much of the recouped time during the 4 day work week.
The perceived need to maintain 24/7 office space leases also needs to be rethought. Co-location in commercial office space can be hybrid as well. Shared work spaces, where one company has the space for three days, for example, and a second, perhaps smaller company has the space for two days. Perhaps a company pays for the employees to co-locate for several days once a quarter. The cost with such a scenario is likely to be much less than what would be spend on a comparable commercial office space lease and all the associated expenses of maintaining such a space. There a hundreds of possible permutations of a hybrid space strategy.
Thinking of the larger system, there is an unstated hypocrisy prevalent in the media and among legacy business managers. We hear daily about the impending doom of the planet due to climate change. Research has been showing that one benefit of the lock downs was a slowing or decrease in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. No doubt this was due to many factors, including reduced daily commuting of knowledge workers to commercial office space. Finding ways to enable remote work and measure for sustained productivity seems to be a proven way to reduce the adverse effects of commuting on climate change.
All this strengthens my assessment that what will be needed in the near- and long-term are entirely new skills for managers and business leaders for how they manage talent. They simply cannot manage their workforce as before. Along with this this will be changes to how Agile is implemented in business areas outside of technology.
Photo by Micah Williams on Unsplash