Discovering the Great Workaround
Updated: May 25
In any conversation about the pandemic times we are living through it doesn’t take long before we talk about work and the workaround of working from home.
One can feel fortunate just to have work while so many have been furloughed, or let go. In either situation waiting on ‘normal to return’ can feel deeply unusual. In our interviews we had expected to hear about tales of boredom or frustration, but there are glimmers of hope beneath all of the restrictions in movement or in sharing an enclosed space.
When Kahneman and Tversky started their research about cognitive biases, the lens of ‘loss aversion’ was one of the first patterns they recognized. That is, when people enter into the unknown, they think about all that they stand to lose. So it is natural for news reporters and even our neighbours to talk about ‘working from home’ in ways that emphasize their discomforts. In our DayShift interviews we heard about discomforts such as kids being home all day everyday, the fatigue of online meetings, and the lack of face-to-face interactions.
Even if ‘stay in place’ orders around the world put a stop to the drudgery of getting to and from the office, people and reporters often serve up plenty of nostalgia for things we lost since the onset of the global pandemic.
When we started out with DayShift we expected to hear about tales of anxiety and difficulty. However, the more that we spoke with people, something more radiant was taking place. Yes, working from home still felt different and strange, but people were doing better than we anticipated. And in some cases better than they expected themselves. There is plenty of talk about what was normal, what has become normal, and how normal is such a tricky notion to pin down.
In the popular press, it is common to read predictions about the future of the office, the future of working from home, and the future of workplaces. When pundits offer sweeping predictions about how and where people will work they veer toward polemic arguments. Some expect things will change forever. While others expect us to forget the things of 2020-21 even happened. In our writing for DayShift we are less inclined to predict things, but we want to report on the many ways that behaviour is shifting. We also want to provide scale about the shifts that we see are underway.
What about the larger things? Things like relating, belonging, marriage, family, and other human needs?
According to a study commissioned by Miro, 49% of participants surveyed said their relationship with their spouse was better now that they are working from home. 62% feel their relationship with their kids was better off as well. Both of those findings are powerful motivators.
It might explain why 34% of the same sample expect to continue working from home, even after the pandemic emergency is put behind us. To put that into perspective Economists, Erik Brynolfsen et al., estimate that roughly 7% of Americans had worked from home for more than 8 hrs a week prior to the lockdowns of 2020. The future is difficult to self-report, which is one reason why predictions are rarely accurate. Regardless of what the final figure turns out to be, the population who would prefer to be working from home should be expected to be about 5X what it was in January of 2020. For reference, a tipping point in any social system occurs when 16% of its members do something differently on a regular basis. New normals are taking shape around us.
Working from home isn’t an option for all types of work, but when it is, a new mass-market can be expected to declare an interest in it.
What was once a way to ‘put up, and ‘make do’ has become a ‘great workaround’ that will be studied for decades to come. The changes we are noticing are not all taking place in the individual workers however. Companies have been deliberate about experimenting in this transition as well. New programs for onboarding, job shadowing, and front-end planning have become normal ways of working and will all have an effect on the scale and design of a corporate office.
The Oxford English Dictionary has 26 entries for the word normal. Most uses of the word tell us something about a specific discipline, such as physics or engineering. Normal also has something to say about how people behave and how they are expected to behave in social arrangements.
Normal means many things. It comes filled with notions about things we share and things that make us an individual. Making sense of the normal can evade our consciousness. Much of the discussion about working from home arrives as a simple question. Will people go back to normal? Or will this whole working from home thing change work forever? From everything we are learning through our DayShift studies the answer is going to land somewhere in the middle.
The norms that people knew as of January 2020 are not normal anymore, not in the sense of the ways they held people back from working remotely. The universal assumption that face to face work is better is evolving and being challenged. For example, one participant reported that they noticed presenting through a virtual meeting is more effective than physical meetings. Another participant described harnessing the freedom of taking time to concentrate on a whole new model of software architecture. Without which, he never would have made a significant breakthrough.
The notion of returning to all of the prior beliefs, habits, and assumptions will never completely happen. To keep an eye on this transition, join us here for updates about this DayShift.