Category: WFH

Work From Home 2: Electric Boogaloo

monitor work from home employees

Microsoft recently released a set of reports regarding “remote work and collaboration”. The cool, easy-to-digest version can be found here and the underlying data can be found here. I highly recommend, especially if you’re in a leadership role, perusing the former link.

The problem is that Microsoft can’t really speak to the *quality* of collaboration, or indeed the direct impact of remote work on collaboration due to the subjective nature of the subject. What they can, and tried – to do was to metric out the patterns and behaviors that encourage collaboration.

My own takeaway is that there are far more negatives inherited from WfH *from a firm leadership perspective*. There are also significant negatives for the workers as well, but their situation is strongly influenced by leadership actions and attitude.

From a purely collaborative aspect, Microsoft found that while digital comms increased between tightly-knit teams, communications outside the team dropped dramatically.

This makes sense. If you can’t lean over and ask the person next to you a question, you need to IM/email/call them. What used to be instantaneous and personal has transformed.

Additionally, the “external” outreach decline also seems to make sense. When I think back (oh so long ago) to my office days, a very large percentage of my external contact came from organic connections. Wandering around the office. Hanging by the water cooler. Seeing someone I knew well talking to someone I didn’t know well, and being able to join the conversation. And of course, the post-meeting hangaround. The walk and talk. The “oh hey, can I ask you…”.

Nowadays, I feel guilty IMing or emailing people I think are swamped busy. Casual / minor items don’t make the cut. When you can visibly see if someone is engaged or not, seems stressed or not, or even just asking “hey, got a sec?” those are all performed much easier in person than in IM or email. Even for the most digerati of us.

Keep in mind the distinct difference between Productivity and Collaboration. Yes, they may influence each other, but each require different soil in which they thrive.

Many of our clients say productivity is as good or even better than before. According to Microsoft, that’s true, but only because people are working far more hours and absolutely exhausting themselves. Remember being worried about the line between work and home life? They’re both now in the same wok.

Ultimately, your Senior Leadership will be the ones to determine if the firm, as a whole, is maintaining whatever design/creativity/collaborative production as it did pre-covid. Are you as innovative? Do the sparks still happen? Is your work product that relies on collaboration and creativity still winning projects?

But regardless of that, Microsoft makes some strong claims about the worker force and productivity. Let me intertwine them with some of my own observations.

  1. WfH is here to stay. Mike says: maybe. I wouldn’t assume it as a forgone conclusion. In a low-unemployment economy, yes, WfH can be a talent attraction/retention component. When firms have the upper hand, they’ll default to whatever their middle management is demanding, which leads to:
  2. Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call. Hey, Microsoft said it, not me. But yes, yes they are. 61% of managers say they are “thriving” as opposed to 38% of staff.
  3. Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized. Some of our clients have the full range – Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Zoomers. Generational gaps have a huge impact in terms of varying culture, not to mention technology adoption and usage. 60% of Gen Z polled said they were either “merely surviving” or “flat-out struggling”.
  4. Talent is everywhere in a hybrid work world. If you truly believe in a full remote option, you can now source from anywhere in the nation, anywhere in the world. Time Zones now matter more than distance from the office.

My own gut feeling is that the Senior Leaders I’ve spoken to are split roughly down the middle. A large percentage feel like this is a Good Thing, better for the staff, and hence, better for the firm. The other half view it as a necessary evil, but with some potential (financial) benefit. The latter tend to be the types where a vocal set of project or studio leaders really, really want their staff back onsite and in the office. Whether for communication, collaborate, or even ease of management, who knows.

If you are one of those in charge of plotting the course for your company, I would make the following suggestions:

  1. Hoteling really doesn’t work. Desk sharing *really* doesn’t work. Hotels are great if someone is coming in for a meeting and wants to stay an hour or two before or after, but in general, why work at a hotel station if you can work from home? And desk sharing? Even with two people? Fugghedaboutit.
  2. Understand the massive inequality of meeting experience between people in the room and people joining remotely. It’s nowhere near the same, and significant effort should be taken to attempt to equalize the field.
  3. Don’t half-ass the home work environment. If you’re really going to do this, make sure that work done from home is as close to a replica as being in the office is. That means good equipment, multiple monitors, etc., etc. No personal devices. It needs to be factored in to WfH budgeting, and doing it sloppily will hurt a lot in the long run.

Happy to hear from those who think I’m wrong / an idiot / a luddite / a Browns fan. The fun part is, time will tell.

Filed under: Uncategorized, WFH

WfH in AED – fun while it lasted?

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TEN months ago, I did a web panel with four AED leaders from various-sized firms about their approach to Covid and the work-from-home ramifications. The video can still be found here.

The takeaways from that call – and from what we’ve heard in the months since – is that firms expect the WfH / Flex split to continue on, post-covid. The primary reasons given are:

  1. Talent Attraction/Retention. Quite often, especially in major markets, finding high-end, experienced staff can be a challenge. The ability to offer WfH can both attract potential recruits, and to keep existing staff happy.
  2. Productivity. Productivity – at least that which can be measured – didn’t seem to suffer much. I think the jury is still out in terms of individual’s productivity levels, but especially from a production standpoint, it was same-as if not better.
  3. Office Space. The only thing firms spend more on more than IT are staff and space. With WfH, there’s a current of “can we shrink our floorplan” and “if we do a every-other rotation, can we use hotel stations at half the existing number?”.

A very small number of our clients have defined plans in terms of who comes back, when, and in what manner. We have achieved a technical equilibrium, for the most part, for home users. It really is now about people and process.

THAT’S where everything falls apart. In the panel conversation, I’m pretty clear that I don’t think WfH works in a collaborative environment. For Architects and Designers (and yes, you too Engineers), that is essentially the work product. The requirement for effective collaboration to produce excellent work isn’t uncommon in professional services, but the A/E/D space relies on it *much* more heavily than say, insurance, legal, or other service types.

I’ve found over the years that AED firms aren’t much on “soft costs” – natural, given their constant adherence to project budgets. But that collaboration requirement goes beyond an undefinable metric. A firm’s ability to execute collaboration well can be a make-or-break component.

There’s a reason why studios are clustered physically in offices. There’s a reason why clients pay for first-class tickets to get everyone into a charrette. There’s a reason why the predominant seating layout is a U-shape with an A0 or A1 sized flat-top cabinet in the middle. Because we know, at some instinctive level, that close teams create better work. That the “magic spark” of great design can not only sprout from a single talented designer, but from a team all standing around a set of plans.

But with understanding that, and missing that, it may not be the biggest obstacle to a long-term WfH flex.

THE biggest deciding factor may be the unwillingness of leadership and project managers to take on the headache of managing remote teams.

Let’s be honest – it is just harder. I’ve been doing it for a long time and I’m still Very Bad at it (though last year, I was Terrible, so improvement!). Harder to communicate. Harder to review. Harder to engage. Harder to gauge productivity.

Architects and Engineers are extremely conservative in terms of approaching change in the industry – see “years to adopt CAD” and “years to adopt Revit”. This is the classic case of we know what works vs. what we’re still unsure of. Don’t underestimate that rip curl of thought in the company.

BUT Mike, you protest, what about tech? What about A/R V/R X/R drones and 3d printers and all the other twenty-first century tech? Why can’t we recreate the office virtually?

Two reasons. First – the tech isn’t there yet, and honestly, not even close. There’s few offerings now – The Wild is one of the few that look promising- but as much as a leader it can be, we’re still below achieving 50% of that in-person experience.

Second – and this is a hard truth – I apologize in advance – but leadership in A/E/D *loves* shiny things. Where that comes from – and I suspect it may be in part due to the Keeping Up with the Joneses effect – contrasts a bit with their normal conservatism. If I had a dollar for every dusty laser cutter, 3D printer, VR station, VR goggles, I’d have… a lot of dollars. Which is not to say the tech can’t be effectual. It’s just that the shiny-shiny aspect of a tool isn’t always matched by the necessary level of effort, support and training to *make* it effectual.

BOTTOM line – We will ease back into normal work conditions in much the same way we eased out of them. All it takes is a few key firms making the decision to bring everyone back, and the rest will follow suit. Hotel stations are a horrible idea that sounds great but never works in practice. Managers (and staff) don’t want the continual exhaustion of Teams meetings. And if the decrease in collaboration capability hasn’t shown itself yet, it certainly will in time.

Once leadership feels they won’t lose staff due to the Great Come-Back, they’ll accelerate. Then pressure (of various sorts) will be placed on those not coming into the office, even if “technically” allowed. Or people will be offered a choice to accept a remote/flex position, but at a significant pay cut.

And I’m not criticizing this in any way. It is what the industry is. But 10 months from today, the 50/50 worker will be the exception, not the norm.

Tell me why I’m wrong. I probably am. 🙂

Filed under: Uncategorized, WFH