Quirky activities can improve employee retention and company culture, according to Inc. 5000 CEOs. It’s cheesy, but it works. So says Frank B. Mengert, founder and CEO of ebm, a North Haven, Connecticut-based benefits and HR tech company, about his company’s weekly video call, known as “Friday Vibes.” The one rule: You can talk about anything but work.
These unconventional meetings–ebm’s sometimes involve games like Two Truths and a Lie–have helped reduce turnover in the company since they started them in May 2020. At a time when employees are quitting in record numbers and rotating through workplaces without ever meeting co-workers in-person, such bonding activities canpotentiallyimprove team dynamics, says Timothy Golden, professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lally School of Management and a longtime researcher of remote work.
From Inc. 5000 CEOs, here are three ways to forge bonds between team members in your still-virtual workplace.
1. “Anything but work” check-ins
Consistency is crucial to Friday Vibes, Mengert says. Every Friday at 4 p.m., anywhere from half to all of ebm’s 47 employees hang out on one Zoom call and chat about non-work topics or play games, especially with new hires. Most Friday Vibes go over the allotted time, he adds. Serious topics like mental health come up sometimes, or the team might spend the whole hour discussing types of cars they’ve driven before.
A couple of months into the pandemic, the team at Burlingame, California-based gaming and strategyresearch firm IDG Consulting started to look a little haggard, says CEO and president Yoshio Osaki. The 11-person company went remote in 2018 but over time, IDG employees lost an element of interpersonal connection. “We were our own little islands,” he says.
When the pandemic hit and people started going through lockdowns and additional childcare stress, Osaki finally realized that since the company went remote he had been checking in on what people were doing, not how they were doing. And morale seemed to be taking a hit as a result.
That’s actually pretty common in a remote environment, Golden says. People tend to be more task-oriented than relationship-oriented,so managers have to find ways to rebuild interpersonal trust and rapport virtually. Osaki’s solution was to implement a 30-minute mandatory non-work chat every other week (it’s since expanded to 60 minutes).
The calls provided fun bonding time, but some turned less lighthearted. Osaki realized that some employees needed additional help and added an annual $1,000 self-care stipend to make it easier to pay for things like therapy. He learned an employee had back pain and bought them an ergonomic chair.
Another had gotten into building computers, so they bought him some tools, and he ended up building one for their data scientist. And beyond the insight on employees’ needs, Osaki says, “We saw an increase in productivity as well as creativity.” In sum, starting the chat has been an important factor in making 2021 a record year for IDG’s revenue.
2. Gratitude sharing
Telling your employees you appreciate them seems like obvious advice–but helping them do it in structured ways helps you keep from losing them, according to Keegan Caldwell, founder and managing partner of Boston-based Caldwell Intellectual Property Law. Every Friday at noon, employees share whom they’ve been grateful for over the last week.
“What we found was this was the most important meeting for us to have,” Caldwell says. He started it three years ago, inspired by his 12-step recovery process and his ability to make it through the associated challenges. Since then, he estimates, it’s improved retention by 10 percent.
For Boston-based Winthrop Wealth and CEO Max Winthrop, it’s about the “small wins.” On their morning call, the team has the option to share their tiny victories, like putting in extra effort to help a client’s family after their spouse died. The company started it after doing a workshop in the fall of 2020 with self-actualization and sharing activities–and Winthrop hasn’t lost an employee since. It also helps him keep perspective as a leader, he says: “The small contributions add up to the greater success.”
3. Games and experiences
Every month or so, employees at government IT contractor Kech play bingo and Pictionary, compete for who has the cutest pet photo, or speculate about how they would survive a zombie apocalypse. Chris Carpenter, the Williamsburg, Kentucky-based company’s CEO and co-founder, likes to mix it up. Her company, which operates call centers for government services, had high turnover before the pandemic. But she says she’s managed to keep a core group of employees by adding fun and human connection into their workdays.
Most events come with prizes, and Carpenter estimates she spends $2,000 on gift cards a year for the winners. She organizes them herself and regularly gets messages from employees asking when the next game will be.
When it comes to games, pick something that is collaborative rather than competitive to boost organizational cohesion, says Sean Newman, a visiting professor at Rollins College and senior vice president of operations at London-based financial services firm Aon. And try to use bonding activities or games to build up relationships between specific employees. “To the extent that your games can show the manager really cares and establish that relationship… it can be a real positive outcome for retention,” he says.
Games and more elaborate, planned events can help avoid the dreaded Zoom happy hour, says Jonathan Conelias, CEO of Boston-based ReElivate, which provides virtual experiences for clients including Amazon and Google. His advice: Try to plan something special and interesting that gives employees a shared experience to refer to, like an escape room.
Lauren Greenwood’s company, YouCopia, which is based in Chicago and provides organizational home goods for consumers, simply does “welcome lunches” on the first day for new hires with three weird questions for everyone else to answer. (The meals were virtual for part of the pandemic but now are in-person for smaller groups.)If you’re too busy to organize creative bonding activities–or it’s just not your thing–hire someone to handle it, she advises.
Finding the right work-life balance is by no means a new issue in our society. But the tension between the two has been heightened by the pandemic, with workers increasingly dwelling over the nature of their work, its meaning and purpose, and how these affect their quality of life.
Studies suggest people are leaving or planning to leave their employers in record numbers in 2021 – a “great resignation” that appears to have been precipitated by these reflections. But if we’re all reconsidering where and how work slots into our lives, what should we be aiming at?
It’s easy to believe that if only we didn’t need to work, or we could work far fewer hours, we’d be happier, living a life of hedonic experiences in all their healthy and unhealthy forms. But this fails to explain why some retirees pick up freelance jobs and some lottery winners go straight back to work.
Striking the perfect work-life balance, if there is such a thing, isn’t necessarily about tinkering with when, where and how we work – it’s a question of why we work. And that means understanding sources of happiness that might not be so obvious to us, but which have crept into view over the course of the pandemic.
Attempts to find a better work-life balance are well merited. Work is consistently and positively related to our wellbeing and constitutes a large part of our identity. Ask yourself who you are, and very soon you’ll resort to describing what you do for work.
Our jobs can provide us with a sense of competence, which contributes to wellbeing. Researchers have demonstrated not only that labour leads to validation but that, when these feelings are threatened, we’re particularly drawn to activities that require effort – often some form of work – because these demonstrate our ability to shape our environment, confirming our identities as competent individuals.
Work even seems to makes us happier in circumstances when we’d rather opt for leisure. This was demonstrated by a series of clever experiments in which participants had the option to be idle (waiting in a room for 15 minutes for an experiment to start) or to be busy (walking for 15 minutes to another venue to participate in an experiment). Very few participants chose to be busy, unless they were forced to make the walk, or given a reason to (being told there was chocolate at the other venue).
Yet the researchers found that those who’d spent 15 minutes walking ended up significantly happier than those who’d spent 15 minutes waiting – no matter whether they’d had a choice or a chocolate or neither. In other words, busyness contributes to happiness even when you think you’d prefer to be idle. Animals seem to get this instinctively: in experiments, most would rather work for food than get it for free.
The idea that work, or putting effort into tasks, contributes to our general wellbeing is closely related to the psychological concept of eudaimonic happiness. This is the sort of happiness that we derive from optimal functioning and realizing our potential. Research has shown that work and effort is central to eudaimonic happiness, explaining that satisfaction and pride you feel on completing a gruelling task.
On the other side of the work-life balance stands hedonistic happiness, which is defined as the presence of positive feelings such as cheerfulness and the relative scarcity of negative feelings such as sadness or anger. We know that hedonic happiness offers empirical mental and physical health benefits, and that leisure is a great way to pursue hedonic happiness.
But even in the realm of leisure, our unconscious orientation towards busyness lurks in the background. A recent study has suggested that there really is such a thing as too much free time – and that our subjective wellbeing actually begins to drop if we have more than five hours of it in a day. Whiling away effortless days on the beach doesn’t seem to be the key to long-term happiness.
This might explain why some people prefer to expend significant effort during their leisure time. Researchers have likened this to compiling an experiential CV, sampling unique but potentially unpleasant or even painful experiences – at the extremes, this might be spending a night in an ice hotel, or joining an endurance desert race.
People who take part in these forms of “leisure” typically talk about fulfilling personal goals, making progress and accumulating accomplishments – all features of eudaimonic happiness, not the hedonism we associate with leisure.
The real balance
This orientation sits well with a new concept in the field of wellbeing studies: that a rich and diverse experiential happiness is the third component of a “good life”, in addition to hedonic and eudaimonic happiness.
Across nine countries and tens of thousands of participants, researchers recently found that most people (over 50% in each country) would still prefer a happy life typified by hedonic happiness. But around a quarter prefer a meaningful life embodied by eudaimonic happiness, and a small but nevertheless significant amount of people (about 10-15% in each country) choose to pursue a rich and diverse experiential life.
Given these different approaches to life, perhaps the key to long-lasting wellbeing is to consider which lifestyle suits you best: hedonic, eudaimonic or experiential. Rather than pitching work against life, the real balance to strike post-pandemic is between these three sources of happiness.
For decades, anthropologists have been telling us that it’s often the informal, unplanned interactions and rituals that matter most in any work environment. So how much are we missing by giving them up?
n the summer of 2020, Daniel Beunza, a voluble Spanish social scientist who taught at Cass business school in London, organized a stream of video calls with a dozen senior bankers in the US and Europe. Beunza wanted to know how they had run a trading desk while working from home. Did finance require flesh-and-blood humans?
Beunza had studied bank trading floors for two decades, and had noticed a paradox. Digital technologies had entered finance in the late 20th century, pushing markets into cyberspace and enabling most financial work to be done outside the office – in theory. “For $1,400 a month you can have the [Bloomberg] machine at home.
You can have the best information, all the data at your disposal,” Beunza was told in 2000 by the head of one Wall Street trading desk, whom he called “Bob”. But the digital revolution had not caused banks’ offices and trading rooms to disappear. “The tendency is the reverse,” Bob said. “Banks are building bigger and bigger trading rooms.”
Why? Beunza had spent years watching financiers like Bob to find the answer. Now, during lockdown, many executives and HR departments found themselves dealing with the same issue: what is gained and what is lost when everyone is working from home? But while most finance companies focused on immediate questions such as whether employees working remotely would have still access to information, feel part of a team and be able to communicate with colleagues, Beunza thought more attention should be paid to different kinds of questions:
How do people act as groups? How do they use rituals and symbols to forge a common worldview? To address practical concerns about the costs and benefits of remote working, we first need to understand these deeper issues. Office workers make decisions not just by using models and manuals or rational, sequential logic – but by pulling in information, as groups, from multiple sources. That is why the rituals, symbols and space matter.
“What we do in offices is not usually what people think we do,” Beunza told me. “It is about how we navigate the world.” And these navigation practices are poorly understood by participants like financiers – especially in a digital age.The engineers who created the internet have always recognised that people and their rituals matter. Since it was founded in 1986, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has provided a place for people to meet and collectively design the architecture of the web.
Its members wanted to make design decisions using “rough consensus”, since they believed the internet should be an egalitarian community where anybody could participate, without hierarchies or coercion. “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code” was, and still is, one of its key mantras.
To cultivate “rough consensus”, IETF members devised a distinctive ritual: humming. When they needed to make a crucial decision, the group asked everyone to hum to indicate “yay” or “nay” – and proceeded on the basis of which was loudest. The engineers considered this less divisive than voting.
Some of the biggest decisions about how the internet works have been made using this ritual. In March 2018, in a bland room of the Hilton Metropole on London’s Edgware Road, representatives from Google, Intel, Amazon, Qualcomm and others were gathered for an IETF meeting. They were debating a controversial issue: whether or not to adopt the “draft-rhrd-tls-tls13-visibility-01” protocol. To anybody outside the room, it might sound like gobbledegook, but this protocol was important.
Measures were being introduced to make it harder for hackers to attack crucial infrastructure such as utility networks, healthcare systems and retail groups. This was a mounting concern at the time – a year or so earlier, hackers seemingly from Russia had shut down the Ukrainian power system. The proposed “visibility” protocol would signal to internet users whether or not anti-hacking tools had been installed.
For an hour the engineers debated the protocol. Some opposed telling users the tools had been installed; others insisted on it. “There are privacy issues,” one said. “It’s about nation states,” another argued. “We cannot do this without consensus.” So a man named Sean Turner – who looked like a garden gnome, with a long, snowy-white beard, bald head, glasses and checked lumberjack shirt – invoked the IETF ritual.
“We are going to hum,” he said. “Please hum now if you support adoption.” A moan rose up, akin to a Tibetan chant, bouncing off the walls of the Metropole. “Thanks. Please hum now if you oppose.” There was a much louder collective hum. “So at this point there is no consensus to adopt this,” Turner declared. The protocol was put on ice.
Most people do not even know that the IETF exists, much less that computer engineers design the web by humming. That is not because the IETF hides its work. On the contrary, its meetings are open to anyone and posted online. But phrases like “draft-rhrd-tls-tls1.3” mean most people instinctively look away, just as they did with derivatives before the 2008 financial crisis. And, as with finance, this lack of external scrutiny – and understanding – is alarming, particularly given the accelerating effects of innovations such as AI.
Many of the engineers who build the technologies on which we rely are well-meaning. But they – like financiers – are prone to tunnel vision, and often fail to see that others may not share their mentality. “In a community of technological producers, the very process of designing, crafting, manufacturing and maintaining technology acts as a template and makes technology itself the lens through which the world is seen and defined,” observes Jan English-Lueck, an anthropologist who has studied Silicon Valley.
When the IETF members use humming, they are reflecting and reinforcing a distinctive worldview – their desperate hope that the internet should remain egalitarian and inclusive. That is their creation myth. But they are also signalling that human contact and context matter deeply, even in a world of computing. Humming enables them to collectively demonstrate the power of that idea. It also helps them navigate the currents of shifting opinion in their tribe and make decisions by reading a range of signals.
Humming does not sit easily with the way we imagine technology, but it highlights a crucial truth about how humans navigate the world of work, in offices, online or anywhere else: even if we think we are rational, logical creatures, we make decisions in social groups by absorbing a wide range of signals. And perhaps the best way to understand this is to employ an idea popularised by anthropologists working at companies such as Xerox during the late 20th century, and since used by Beunza and others on Wall Street: “Sense-making”.
One of the first thinkers to develop the concept of sense-making was a man named John Seely Brown. JSB, as he was usually known, was not trained as an anthropologist. He studied maths and physics in the early 60s, and finished a PhD in computer science in 1970, just as the idea of the internet was emerging, and then taught advanced computing science at the University of California, with a particular interest in AI. Around this time, after meeting some sociologists and anthropologists, he became fascinated by the question of how social patterns influence the development of digital tools, too.
He applied for a research post at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (Parc), a research arm that the Connecticut-based company set up in Silicon Valley in 1969. Xerox was famous for developing the photocopier, but it also produced many other digital innovations. The authors of Fumbling the Future, a book about the history of the company, credits it with inventing “the first computer ever designed and built for the dedicated use of a single person … the first graphics-oriented monitor, the first handheld ‘mouse’ simple enough for a child, the first word-processing programme for non-expert users, the first local area communications network … and the first laser printer.”
During his application process to Parc, JSB met Jack Goldman, its chief scientist. The two men discussed Xerox’s research and development work, and its pioneering experiments with AI. Then JSB pointed to Goldman’s desk. “Jack, why two phones?” he asked. The desk contained both a “simple” phone and a newer, more sophisticated model.
“Oh my God, who the hell can use this phone?” Goldman said, referring to the new phone. “I have it on my desk because everyone has to have one, but when real work gets done I’ve got to use a regular one.”
That was exactly the kind of thing, Seely Brown said, that scientists at Xerox should also be researching: how humans were (or were not) using the dazzling innovations that Silicon Valley companies kept creating. Having started steeped in “hard” computing science, JSB realised that it paid to be a “softie” when looking at social science, or – to employ the buzzwords that were later popularised in Silicon Valley by the writer Scott Hartley – to be a techie and a “fuzzy”.
JSB joined Parc and put his new theories to work. Although the research centre had initially been dominated by scientists, by the time JSB arrived, a collection of anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists were also there. One of these anthropologists was a man named Julian Orr, who was studying the “tribe” of technical repair teams at Xerox.
By the late 20th century, copy machines were ubiquitous in offices. Work could collapse if one of these machines broke down. Xerox employed numerous people whose only job was to travel between offices, servicing and fixing machines. These technicians were routinely ignored, partly because the managers assumed that they knew what they did. But Orr and JSB suspected this was a big mistake, and that the technicians did not always think or behave as their bosses thought they should.
JSB first noticed it early in his time at Xerox, when he met a repairman known as “Mr Troubleshooter”, who said to him: “Well, Mr PhD, suppose this photocopier sitting here had an intermittent image quality fault, how would you go about troubleshooting it?”
JSB knew there was an “official” answer in the office handbook: technicians were supposed to “print out 1,000 copies, sort through the output, find a few bad ones, and compare them to the diagnostic”. It sounded logical – to an engineer.
“Here is what I do,” Mr Troubleshooter told JSB, with a “disgusted” look on his face. “I walk to the trash can, tip it upside down, and look at all the copies that have been thrown away. The trash can is a filter – people keep the good copies and throw the bad ones away. So just go to the trash can … and from scanning all the bad ones, interpret what connects them all.” In short, the engineers were ignoring protocols and using a solution that worked – but one that was “invisible … and outside [the] cognitive modelling lens” of the people running the company, JSB ruefully concluded.
How common was this kind of subversive approach? Orr set off to find out. He first enrolled in technical training school. Then he shadowed the repair teams out on service calls, at the parts depot, eating lunch and just hanging out when there was not much work to do. The fact that Orr had once worked as a technician himself helped in some respects: the repair crews welcomed him in. But it also created a trap: he sometimes had the same blind spots as the people he was studying. “I had a tendency to regard certain phenomena as unremarkable which are not really so to outsiders,” he later wrote in a report. He had to perform mental gymnastics to make “familiar” seem “strange”.
So, like many other anthropologists before him, he tried to get that sense of distance by looking at the group rituals, symbols and spatial patterns that the technicians used in their everyday life. Or quickly realized that many of the most important interactions took place in diners. “I drive to meet the members of the customer support team for breakfast at a chain restaurant in a small city on the east side,” Orr observed in one of his field notes. “Alice has a problem: her machine reports a self-test error, but she suspects there is some other problem … [so] we are going to lunch at a restaurant where many of [Alice’s] colleagues eat, to try to persuade Fred, the most experienced [technician], to go to look at the machine with her …
Fred tells her there is another component that she needs to change, according to his interpretation of the logs.” The repair teams were doing collective problem solving over coffee in those diners, using a rich body of shared narrative about the Xerox machines, and almost every other part of their lives. Their “gossip” was weaving a wide tapestry of group knowledge, and tapping into the collective views of the group – like the IETF humming.
This knowledge mattered. The company protocols assumed that “the work of technicians was the rote repair of identical broken machines,” as Lucy Suchman, another anthropologist at Parc, noted. But that was a fallacy: even if the machines seemed identical when they emerged from the Xerox factory, by the time repairmen encountered the machines they had histories shaped by humans. What engineers shared at the diner was this history and context. “Diagnosis is a narrative process,” Orr said.
The Xerox scientists eventually listened to the anthropologists – to some degree. After Orr issued his report on the technicians, the company introduced systems to make it easier for repair people to talk to one another in the field and share knowledge – even outside diners. A two-way radio system allowed tech reps in different regions to call on each other’s expertise. Xerox later supplemented these radios with a rudimentary messaging platform on the internet known as Eureka, where technicians could share tips. JSB viewed this as “an early model for social media platforms”.
Other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs became increasingly fascinated by what Parc was doing, and tried to emulate its ideas. Steve Jobs, a co-founder of Apple, toured Parc in 1979, saw the group’s efforts to build a personal computer, and then developed something similar at Apple, hiring away a key Parc researcher. Other Parc ideas were echoed at Apple and other Silicon Valley companies. But Xerox’s managers were not nearly as adept as Jobs in terms of turning brilliant ideas into lucrative gadgets, and in subsequent decades Xerox’s fortunes ailed.
That was partly because the company culture was conservative and slow-moving, but also because Parc was based on the west coast, while the main headquarters and manufacturing centres were on the other side of the country. Good ideas often fell between the cracks, to the frustration of Parc staff.
Still, as the years passed, Parc’s ideas had a big impact on social science and Silicon Valley. Their work helped to spawn the development of the “user experience” (UX) movement, prodding companies such as Microsoft and Intel to create similar teams. Their ideas about “sense-making” spread into the consumer goods world, and from there to an unlikely sphere: Wall Street.
A social scientist named Patricia Ensworth was one of the first to use sense-making in finance. Starting in the 80s, she decided to use social science to help explain why IT issues tended to generate such angst in finance. Her research quickly showed that the issues were social and cultural as much as technical. In one early project she found that American software coders were completely baffled as to why their internally developed software programmes kept malfunctioning – until she explained that office customs in other locations were different.
In the early 90s, Ensworth joined Moody’s Investors Service, and eventually became director of quality assurance for its IT systems. It sounded like a technical job. However, her key role was pulling together different tribes – software coders, IT infrastructure technicians, analysts, salespeople and external customers. Then she formed a consultancy to advise on “project management, risk analysis, quality assurance and other business issues”, combining cultural awareness with engineering.
In 2005, Ensworth received an urgent message from a managing director at a major investment bank. “We need a consultant to help us get some projects back on track!” the manager said. Ensworth was used to such appeals: she had spent more than a decade using techniques pioneered by the likes of Orr and Seely Brown in order to study how finance and tech intersected with humans.
The investment bank project was typical. Like many of its rivals, this bank had been racing to move its operations online. But by 2005 it was facing a crisis. Before 2000 it had outsourced much of its trading IT platform to India, since it was cheaper than hiring IT experts in the US. But while the Indian coders and testers were skilled at handling traditional investment products, they struggled to cope with a new derivatives business that the bank was building, since the Indian coders had formal, bureaucratic engineering methods. So the bank started to use other suppliers in Ukraine and Canada who had a more flexible style and were used to collaborating with creative mathematicians. But this made the problems even worse: deadlines were missed, defects emerged and expensive disputes erupted.
“In the New York office, tensions were running high between the onsite employees of rival outsourcing vendors,” Ensworth later wrote. “The pivot point occurred when a fight broke out: a male Canadian tester insulted a female Indian tester with X-rated profanity and she threw hot coffee in his face. Since this legally constituted a workplace assault, the female tester was immediately fired and deported. Debates about the fairness of the punishment divided the office … [and] at the same time auditors uncovered some serious operational and security violations in the outsourced IT infrastructures and processes.”
Many employees blamed the issues on inter-ethnic clashes. But Ensworth suspected another, more subtle problem. Almost all the coders at the bank, whether they were in India, Manhattan, Kyiv or Toronto, had been trained to think in one-directional sequences, driven by sequential logic, without much lateral vision. The binary nature of the software they developed also meant that they tended to have an “I’m-right-you’re-wrong” mentality. Although the coders could produce algorithms to solve specific problems, they struggled to see the whole picture or collaborate to adapt as conditions changed. “The [coders] document their research in the form of use cases, flowcharts and system architecture designs,” Ensworth observed. “These documents work well enough for version 1.0, because the cyberspace model matches the user community’s lived experience. But over time, the model and the reality increasingly diverge.”
The coders often seemed unaware of the gap between their initial plan and subsequent reality. Ensworth persuaded the suppliers in India to provide training about American office rules and customs, and tried to teach the suppliers in Ukraine and Canada about the dangers of taking an excessively freewheeling approach to IT. She showed coders videos of the noisy and chaotic conditions on bank trading floors; that was a shock, since coders typically toiled in library-like silence and calm. She explained to managers at the bank that coders felt angry that they could not access important proprietary databases and tools. The goal was to teach all “sides” to copy the most basic precept of anthropology: seeing the world from another point of view.
Ensworth did not harbour any illusions about changing the bank’s overall culture. When the financial crisis erupted in 2008, the project was wound down and she moved on. However, she was thrilled to see that during the 18 months that she worked at the bank, some of the anthropology lessons stuck. “Delivery schedules and error rates were occasionally troublesome, but no longer a constant, pervasive worry,” she later wrote. Better still, the workers stopped throwing coffee around the office.
But what would happen to the business of sense-making at work if humans were suddenly prevented from working face to face? As he hovered like a fly on the wall of trading rooms on Wall Street and in the City of London in the early 2000s, Beunza often asked himself that question. Then, in the spring of 2020, he was unexpectedly presented with a natural experiment. As Covid-19 spread, financial institutions suddenly did what Bob had said they never would – they sent traders home with their Bloomberg terminals. So, over the course of the summer, Beunza contacted his old Wall Street contacts to ask a key question: what happened?
It was not easy to do the research. Anthropology is a discipline that prizes first-hand observations. Conducting research via video calls seemed to fly in the face of that. “A lot of my work depends on speaking to people face to face, understanding how they live their lives on their own terms and in their own spaces,” said Chloe Evans, an anthropologist at Spotify, to a conference convened in 2020 to discuss the challenge. “Being in the same space is vital for us to understand how people use products and services for the companies we work for.”
However, ethnographers realized there were benefits to the new world, too: they could reach people around the world on a more equal footing, and sometimes with more intimacy. “We see people in contexts not available to us in lab situations,” observed an ethnographer named Stuart Henshall, who was doing research among poor communities in India. Before the pandemic, most of the Indian people he interviewed were so ashamed of their domestic spaces that they preferred to meet in a research office, he explained. But after lockdown, his interviewees started talking to him via video calls from their homes and rickshaws, which enabled him to gain insight into a whole new aspect of their lives. “Participants are simply more comfortable at home in their environment. They feel more in control,” he observed. It was a new of type of ethnography.
When Beunza interviewed bankers remotely, he found echoes of this pattern: respondents were more eager to engage with him from home than in the office, and it felt more intimate. The financiers told him that they had found it relatively simple to do some parts of their job remotely, at least in the short term: working from home was easy if you were writing computer code or scanning legal documents. Teams that had already been working together for a long time also could interact well through video links.
The really big problem was incidental information exchange. “The bit that’s very hard to replicate is the information you didn’t know you needed,” observed Charles Bristow, a senior trader at JP Morgan. “[It’s] where you hear some noise from a desk a corridor away, or you hear a word that triggers a thought. If you’re working from home, you don’t know that you need that information.” Working from home also made it hard to teach younger bankers how to think and behave; physical experiences were crucial for conveying the habits of finance or being an apprentice.
Beunza was not surprised to hear that the financiers were eager to get traders back to the office as soon as they could; nor that most had quietly kept some teams working in the office throughout the crisis. Nor was he surprised that when banks such as JPMorgan started to bring some people back in – initially at 50% capacity – they spent a huge amount of time devising systems to “rotate” people; the trick seemed not to be bringing in entire teams, but people from different groups. This was the best way to get that all-important incidental information exchange when the office was half-full.
But one of the most revealing details from Beunza’s interviews concerned performance. When he asked the financiers at the biggest American and European banks how they had fared during the wild market turmoil of spring 2020, “the bankers said that their trading teams in the office did much, much better than those at home,” Beunza told me in the autumn of 2020. “The Wall Street banks kept more teams in the office, so they seem to have done a lot better than Europeans.” That may have been due to malfunctions on home-based tech platforms. But Beunza attributed it to something else: in-person teams had more incidental information exchange and sense-making, and at times of stress this seemed doubly important.
The bankers that Beunza observed were not the only ones to realize the value of being together in the same physical space. The same pattern was playing out at the IETF. When the pandemic hit, the IETF organizers decided to replace in-person conventions with virtual summits. A few months later they polled about 600 members to see how they felt about this switch. More than half said they considered online meetings less productive than in-person, and only 7% preferred meeting online. Again, they missed the peripheral vision and incidental information exchange that happened with in-person meetings. “[Online] doesn’t work. In person is NOT just about the meeting sessions – it is about meeting people outside the meetings, at social events,” complained one member. “The lack of serendipitous meetings and chats is a significant difference,” said another. Or as one of them put it: “We need to meet in person to get meaningful work done.”
They also missed their humming rituals. As the meetings moved online, two-thirds of the respondents said they wanted to explore new ways to create rough consensus. “We need to figure out how to ‘hum’ online,” said one member. So the IETF organizers experimented with holding online polls. But members complained that virtual polls were too crude and one-dimensional; they crave a more nuanced, three-dimensional way to judge the mood of their tribe. “The most important thing to me about a hum is some idea of how many people present hummed at all, or how loudly. Exact numbers don’t matter, proportionality does,” said one.
It’s no secret that employee-employer tensions about heading back to the workplace are growing. As more employers push to get employees back in-house, the workers themselves are taking a harder stand. An April 2021 survey by FlexJobs found that 60% of women and 52% of men would quit if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely at least part of the time. Sixty-nine percent of men and 80% of women said that remote work options are among their top considerations when looking for a new job.
The “official” reasons that they don’t want to head back to the workplace are well-documented. They’re more productive. It’s easier to blend work and life when your commute is a walk down the hallway. But, for some, the reasons are more personal and difficult to share. Who will walk the dog they adopted during the pandemic? They gained weight and need to buy new work clothes. The thought of being trapped in a cubicle all day makes them want to cry.
We spoke with several people who shared their very personal reasons why they don’t want to return to work. (Because of the sensitive nature of some of the comments, Fast Company has allowed some of the individuals to use a pseudonym to protect their identities.)
‘I need to nap during the day’
Since 2013, when a backpacking incident caused a spine injury that required two surgeries, Lynn (not her real name) has been dealing with chronic pain and sleep issues. As a result, she’s often tired during the day and realized she wasn’t at her best, especially after lunch, when fatigue would often set in.
“When I’m in meetings, and people throw questions to me, I can’t really answer instantly [or I] say the wrong things,” she says. She didn’t feel comfortable talking to her boss or colleagues about the issues she was facing and was dealing with anxiety, depression, and hair loss in recent years as a result of her sleep issues. But, during the pandemic, she’s been able to adjust her schedule so she can take a nap during her lunch hour and rest periodically when she needs to do so. (Research tells us that naps are good for our brains.)
Since she’s been working from home, her productivity has soared—and her supervisor has noticed and begun complimenting her on her work. She feels sharper and healthier. Her biggest concern right now, she says, is that she will have to give up the balance she has finally found.
‘I’d give up my raise for remote work’
Melvin Gonzalez, a certified public accountant (CPA) for Inc and Go, an online business formation website, is facing a dilemma. “I love my career, love my job, and have amazing benefits which include a lifelong pension—something very rare in today’s labor force,” he says. “However, as with everything in life, there is a price to pay: my commute,” he says. Gonzalez travels two hours each way, which adds up to more than 20 hours per week just getting to and from work.
Gonzalez said he never really considered how much time he was spending on commuting until he worked from home during the pandemic, He used the extra time—the equivalent of a part-time job—to go to the gym, spend time with his wife and children, and still get his work done.
Now that he’s facing heading back to the office, he’s not ready to give up that time. He and his colleagues have shared their concerns with their employer, but he doesn’t think remote work will continue to be an option. He says he’s even willing to give up a raise to keep his flexibility. “This has certainly become my main concern about going back to the office,” he says. “I believe my mood for work will not be the same.”
‘I’m in recovery’
Until the pandemic hit, Frank (not his real name) worked at a high-end restaurant in Philadelphia. What his co-workers didn’t know at the time was that he was struggling with alcoholism. The environment, where he had ready access to alcohol and co-workers who loved to go out for drinks after work, made it difficult for him to quit.
But, while many saw their substance abuse issues increase during the pandemic’s isolation, Frank was able to get his addiction under control, he says. Now that the restaurant is resuming full service again and inviting him to return to his old job, he has concerns about whether that will put his recovery in jeopardy. “Most people don’t recover because they’re not willing to change their lifestyle,” he says. If he refuses to return to his old job, money will be tight, but he’s pretty sure he can make a go of it. “I also don’t want to admit to all of my co-workers that I’m a recovering alcoholic,” he says.
‘I don’t want to give up my side hustle
“My reluctance is really the opportunity cost of commuting,” says Shondra (not her real name), a public relations professional in New York City. Before she was laid off in April 2020, she would wake at 6 a.m. to have enough time to get ready, walk her dog, commute, and start work by 10 a.m. After she was laid off, she started picking up freelance work, which turned out to be lucrative—and which she could easily do from home.
Shondra has a new employer, but the plan about whether or not employees will be required to be back at the office full-time is “very unclear,” she says. For now, she has plenty of time to complete her responsibilities for her employer and work on her freelance projects. That won’t be the case if she goes back to her long commute. Plus, the thought of being on mass transit with so many other people gives her pause from a safety perspective, she says.
She’s waiting to see what happens but is reluctant to give up the freelance work that got her through her layoff. “It’s given me the opportunity to build a nice nest egg, in case—God forbid—something like that happens again,” she says. “I don’t want to lose this opportunity by having to return to the office full-time.”
Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites
Since March 2020, the vertical for marketing, media, and design has seen the biggest growth, with a 974 percent increase in remote roles paying six-figure salaries or higher, according to research from Ladders, a career site based in New York City. The data looked at 50,000 North American employers to find which high-paying professional fields have seen the most growth in remote work.
Project and program management is the next fastest-growing, with an 801 percent increase, followed by accounting and finance with a 750 percent increase. Runners-up include human resources and legal (546 percent), technology (521 percent), and engineering and construction (410 percent).
The availability of high-paying remote work across all fields has grown more than 1,000 percent since March 2020. At that time, there were just over 7,000 jobs available, compared with 80,000 today.
“The world is staying remote post-Covid,” says Ladders’ founder and CEO Marc Cenedella. “Your competitors, your suppliers, and your customers are increasingly comfortable with hiring remote employees in all fields. ‘Work-from-home’ is now a must-have for employers to be competitive.”
Working remotely may require changes in your workplace to be more employee-friendly and productive, Cenedella says. Fewer meetings, better-written communication, occasional in-person meet-ups are just some of the new behaviors and practices he’s seeing from remote employers. “It’s best to be proactive, curious, and open to new ideas as we all figure out what the workplace looks like in 2022 and beyond,” he says.
People who do their jobs from home, freelance or travel for work are increasingly leaving cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco and taking their families — and jobs — to places including Denver and Boise, Idaho, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Here are the top 20 companies, hiring hundreds of remote workers each.
Headquarters: Chatswood, New South Wales, Australia
Industry: Technology (machine learning and artificial intelligence)
Remote jobs: voice coach, linguist, web search evaluator, transcriber
Headquarters: Waltham, Massachusetts
Industry: Software and business (language translation)
Remote jobs: creative designer, social media assessor, project manager, scheduling assistant
Headquarters: Beijing, China
Remote jobs: online English as a second language teacher
Headquarters: Scottsdale, Arizona
Industry: Customer service
Remote jobs: customer service representative, licensed insurance agent, health care resource specialist
In 2019, Steven Spielbergcalled for a ban on Oscar eligibility for streaming films, claiming that “movie theaters need to be around forever” and that audiences had to be given “the motion picture theatrical experience” for a movie to be a movie. Spielberg’s fury was about not only the threat that streaming posed to the in-person viewing experience but the ways in which the streaming giant Netflix reported theatrical grosses and budgets, despite these not being the ways in which one evaluates whether a movie is good or not.
Netflix held firm, saying that it stood for “everyone, everywhere [enjoying] releases at the same time,” and for “giving filmmakers more ways to share art.” Ultimately, Spielberg balked, and last month his company even signed a deal with Netflix, likely because he now sees the writing on the wall: Modern audiences enjoy watching movies at home.
In key ways, this fight resembles the current remote-work debate in industries such as technology and finance. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, this has often been cast as a battle between the old guard and its assumed necessities and a new guard that has found a better way to get things done.
But the narrative is not that tidy. Netflix’s co-founder and CEO, Reed Hastings, one of the great “disruptors” of our age, deemed remote work “a pure negative” last fall. The 60-year-old Hastings is at the forefront of an existential crisis in the world of work, demanding that people return to the office despite not having an office himself. His criticism of remote work is that “not being able to get together in person” is bad.
Every business leader should ask themselves a few questions before demanding that their employees return to the office:
Prior to March 2020, how many days a week were you personally in the office?
How many teams did you directly interface with? What teams did you spend the most time with?
Do you have an office? If you don’t, why not?
What is office culture?
What is your specific office’s culture?
Has your business actually suffered because of remote work?
If so, how? Be specific.
Some of the people loudly calling for a return to the office are not the same people who will actually be returning to the office regularly. The old guard’s members feel heightened anxiety over the white-collar empires they’ve built, including the square footage of real estate they’ve leased and the number of people they’ve hired. Earlier this year, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, rolled out an uneven return-to-office plan for its more than 130,000 employees—the majority of workers must soon come back to the office three days a week, while others are permitted to keep working exclusively from home. One senior executive at the company has even been allowed to work remotely from New Zealand.
Remote work lays bare many brutal inefficiencies and problems that executives don’t want to deal with because they reflect poorly on leaders and those they’ve hired. Remote work empowers those who produce and disempowers those who have succeeded by being excellent diplomats and poor workers, along with those who have succeeded by always finding someone to blame for their failures. It removes the ability to seem productive (by sitting at your desk looking stressed or always being on the phone), and also, crucially, may reveal how many bosses and managers simply don’t contribute to the bottom line.
I have run my own remote company that operates at the intersection of technology, media, and public relations since 2013. I retained an office for a year or so that I got rid of because it was really just a place to meet before going off to have drinks. For seven years before the pandemic, some of my peers showed concern that my business “wouldn’t succeed without an in-person team.”
Some people really do need to show up in person. I live in Las Vegas, a city of more than 600,000 people with more than 200,000 hospitality workers, and thus I’m keenly aware of which tasks require someone to physically be there to complete them. You can’t wash dishes over Zoom. You can’t change bed sheets over Slack. Blue-collar workers are the backbone of the city, as well as the Consumer Electronics Show that the tech elite uses to champion code-based products. Local hospitality workers suffered painfully during the pandemic as tourism in the city dried up, because their jobs depend on thriving physical spaces.
But for the tens of millions of us who spend most of our days sitting at a computer, the pandemic proved that remote work is just work. Every company that didn’t require someone to physically do something in a specific place was forced to become more efficient on cloud-based production tools, and the office started to feel like just another room with internet access.
While many executives and managers spent the early months of the pandemic telling their employees that “remote work wouldn’t work for us in the long term,” they are now forced to argue with the tangible proof of their still-standing business, making spurious statements like “We’ll miss the office culture and collaboration.”
Now, with the coronavirus’s Delta variant threatening to delay many companies’ return-to-office plans, the value of in-person work faces an even greater test. If you have unvaccinated kids or live with an immunocompromised person, is risking your family’s safety worth experiencing “serendipitous conversation” with your colleagues?
Should you ever go back to the office?
Last fall, 94 percent of employees surveyed in a Mercer study reported that remote work was either business as usual or better than working in the office, likely because it lacks the distractions, annoyances, and soft abuses that come with co-workers and middle managers. Workers are happier because they don’t have to commute and can be evaluated mostly on their actual work rather than on the optics-driven albatross of “office culture,” which is largely based on either the HR handbook or the pieces of the HR handbook your boss chooses to ignore.
The reason working from home is so nightmarish for many managers and executives is that a great deal of modern business has been built on the substrate of in-person work. As a society, we tend to consider management a title rather than a skill, something to promote people to, as well as a way in which you can abstract yourself from the work product.
When you remove the physical office space—the place where people are yelled at in private offices or singled out in meetings—it becomes a lot harder to spook people as a type of management. In fact, your position at a company becomes more difficult to justify if all you do is delegate and nag people.
When we are all in the same physical space, we are oftentimes evaluated not on our execution of our role but on our diplomacy—by which I mean our ability to kiss up to the right people rather than actually being a decent person. I have known so many people within my industry (and in others) who have built careers on “playing nice” rather than on producing something.
These petty fiefdoms are far harder to maintain when everyone is remote. Although you may be able to get away with multiple passive-aggressive comments to colleagues in private meetings or calls, it’s much harder to be a jerk over Slack, email, and text when someone can screenshot it and send it to HR (or to a journalist).
Similarly, if your entire work product is boxing up other people’s production and sending it to the CEO, that becomes significantly harder to prove as your own in a fully digital environment—the producer in question can simply send it along themselves. Remote work makes who does and doesn’t actually do work way more obvious.
Even if we’re discussing some sort of theoretical, utopian office in which everybody is contributing and everyone gets along, each day during which a business doesn’t fail because of going remote proves that the return-to-office movement is unnecessary. Those in power who claim that remote work is unworkable are delaying an inevitable remote future by using logic that mostly comes down to “I like seeing the people I pay for in one place.” I have yet to read one compelling argument for a company that has gone remote to fully return to the office, mostly because the reasoning is rooted in control and ego.
We have lionized the founders, CEOs, and disruptors who nevertheless have intra-office reputations as abrasive geniuses who treat their workers as eminently replaceable. Because most private companies don’t share revenue, we frequently tie headcount and real estate to success. Removing the physical office forces modern businesses to start justifying themselves through annoying things such as “profit and loss” and “paying customers.”
When you hire someone, you’re (supposedly) hiring them to do a job in exchange for money. But the anti-remote crowd seems to believe that the responsibility of a 9-to-5 employee isn’t simply the work but the appearance, optics, and ceremony of the work. Abusive work cultures grow from this process too.
Making people work late is much harder when you can’t trap them in one place with free food, a Ping-Pong table, a kegerator, or laundry services—benefits that you champion instead of monetary compensation. When you are a full-time employee, you might believe that you are owned by a company and should be grateful to its leaders for generously making you show up in their office every day.
Forty-six summers ago, it wasn’t enough to see Spielberg’s first masterpiece, Jaws, and be scared; the whole point was to experience it with a bunch of other people in a shared space and feel something intangible. But our world has changed. Two years after trying to keep streaming movies out of the Oscars, Spielberg’s company, Amblin Partners—the studio behind such made-for-the-big-screen blockbusters as Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future—signed a deal with Netflix that, if nothing else, will mean more people will soon watch more movies at home.
Across multiple genres and decades, Spielberg has known his audience. The 74-year-old cinematic guru had to understand that whatever reservations he’d had about how and where people watched movies didn’t matter as much as making movies that people would see. Perhaps he realized that the world was evolving faster than he was, or that his judgments of streaming were antiquated and, on some level, anti-creative.
And perhaps we’ll see the business world follow suit.
On June 26, OSHA updated guidance in compliance with the CDC to help employers protect workers who are still not vaccinated, with a special emphasis on industries with prolonged close-contacts such as meat processing, manufacturing, seafood, and grocery and high-volume retail. The guidance includes protocols for social distancing, mask wearing, and other health procedures meant to keep both parties safe.
Considering that just 52 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, chances are some of your employees have yet to get a jab. That means if you’re planning a return to the office, you’ll also need to create two separate workplace health policies.
These policies will be different from business to business, depending on the level of community spread in a given location and the level of contact employees have with the public. But acting is a must, says David Barron, labor and employment attorney at Cozen O’Connor. Failing to address a stratified workplace–or even just relying on the honor system–could lead to legal trouble, a loss of morale, turnover, and employees falling sick.
Founders like Dominique Kemps aren’t taking any chances. Her business, GlassExpertsFL, a commercial glass repair company, is located in Miami. Florida overall has been particularly hard hit by the Delta variant, a more contagious strain of the coronavirus. Daily, about 10 in 100,000 people are contracting the coronavirus by way of the Delta variant. As of July 2, only 46 percent of the population of Florida was fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Kemps has devised two separate physical workspaces: one for vaccinated employees and another for those who remain unvaccinated. Also for unvaccinated employees, meetings are held virtually, while vaccinated employees can wear a mask and attend if desired. Vaccinated employees can also eat lunch together, while Kemps has asked unvaccinated employees to eat in a designated area. “Frankly,” she says, “it hasn’t been easy.”
Here’s how to ease the transition:
1. Request vaccination information.
Before you make any decisions regarding which policies to enact, first ask and keep track of who is vaccinated and who isn’t, says Dr. Shantanu Nundy, chief medical officer at Accolade, a benefit provider for health care workers. An employer can request a copy of an employee’s vaccination card or other proof, which should help you determine how much of your workforce falls under one policy or another.
If you opt to review vaccination information, note that anything you collect must be considered confidential information that has to be kept private in files that are separate from personnel files. A failure to do so may result in anti-discrimination violations under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, two laws that protect workers from health status discrimination.
2. Overcommunicate any policy changes.
It’s also crucial to communicate any change in policy openly. Robert Johnson, founder of Sawinery, a Windsor, Connecticut-based creator of woodworking projects, divided workers into two shifts, the first for vaccinated individuals, and another for unvaccinated workers. He’s made it clear to his staff that he’s waiting until everyone is vaccinated before returning to the original schedule.
“The structure won’t compromise anyone’s safety and everyone can work without any worries in mind,” says Johnson.
3. Stay flexible.
If anything has been true about the pandemic, it’s that things can change rapidly. As such, Nundy recommends clarifying that policies are flexible and may be subject to change. Some unvaccinated folks may want to leave if they feel they’re being treated differently, such as not being allowed into the office. Some smart wording can easily allay these concerns, he says. Instead of telling unvaccinated employees that they’re not welcome in the office again, make it clear that the policies are temporary–if that’s the case, of course–and that you’re open to feedback, adds Nundy.
The occupational safety and health policy defines the goals for the occupational health and safety work in the workplace and for activities that promote the working capacity of the staff. The policy also describes occupational health and safety responsibilities and the way of organizing the cooperation measures. The preparation of the occupational safety and health policy is based on the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The policy is employer-specific and applies to all employers.
Workplace wellness programs can be categorized as primary, secondary, or tertiary prevention efforts, or an employer can implement programs that have elements of multiple types of prevention. Primary prevention programs usually target a fairly healthy employee population, and encourage them to more frequently engage in health behaviors that will encourage ongoing good health (such as stress management, exercise and healthy eating).
Secondary prevention programs are targeted at reducing behavior that is considered a risk factor for poor health (such as smoking cessation programs and screenings for high blood pressure). Tertiary health programs address existing health problems (for example, by encouraging employees to better adhere to specific medication or self-managed care guidelines).
Goetzel, R.Z., Ozminkowski, R.J. The health and cost benefits of work site health-promotion programs. Annual Review of Public Health. 2008;29:303-323
A six-minute meeting drove Portia Twidt to quit her job. She’d taken the position as a research compliance specialist in February, enticed by promises of remote work. Then came the prodding to go into the office. Meeting invites piled up.
The final straw came a few weeks ago: the request for an in-person gathering, scheduled for all of 360 seconds. Twidt got dressed, dropped her two kids at daycare, drove to the office, had the brief chat and decided she was done.
“I had just had it,” said Twidt, 33, who lives in Marietta, Georgia.
With the coronavirus pandemic receding for every vaccine that reaches an arm, the push by some employers to get people back into offices is clashing with workers who’ve embraced remote work as the new normal.
While companies from Google to Ford Motor Co. and Citigroup Inc. have promised greater flexibility, many chief executives have publicly extolled the importance of being in offices. Some have lamented the perils of remote work, saying it diminishes collaboration and company culture. JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon said at a recent conference that it doesn’t work “for those who want to hustle.”
But legions of employees aren’t so sure. If anything, the past year has proved that lots of work can be done from anywhere, sans lengthy commutes on crowded trains or highways. Some people have moved. Others have lingering worries about the virus and vaccine-hesitant colleagues.
And for Twidt, there’s also the notion that some bosses, particularly those of a generation less familiar to remote work, are eager to regain tight control of their minions.
“They feel like we’re not working if they can’t see us,” she said. “It’s a boomer power-play.”
It’s still early to say how the post-pandemic work environment will look. Only about 28% of U.S. office workers are back at their buildings, according to an index of 10 metro areas compiled by security company Kastle Systems. Many employers are still being lenient with policies as the virus lingers, vaccinations continue to roll out and childcare situations remain erratic.
But as office returns accelerate, some employees may want different options. A May survey of 1,000 U.S. adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. The generational difference is clear: Among millennials and Gen Z, that figure was 49%, according to the poll by Morning Consult on behalf of Bloomberg News.
“High-five to them,” said Sara Sutton, the CEO of FlexJobs, a job-service platform focused on flexible employment. “Remote work and hybrid are here to stay.”
The lack of commutes and cost savings are the top benefits of remote work, according to a FlexJobs survey of 2,100 people released in April. More than a third of the respondents said they save at least $5,000 per year by working remotely.
Jimme Hendrix, a 30-year-old software developer in the Netherlands, quit his job in December as the web-application company he worked for was gearing up to bring employees back to the office in February.
“During Covid I really started to see how much I enjoyed working from home,” Hendrix said.
Now he does freelance work and helps his girlfriend grow her art business. He used to spend two hours each day commuting; now the couple is considering selling their car and instead relying on bikes.
One of the main benefits, he says, is more control over his own time: “I can just do whatever I want around the house, like a quick chore didn’t have to wait until like 8 p.m. anymore, or I can go for a quick walk.”
Of course, not everyone has the flexibility to choose. For the millions of frontline workers who stock the shelves of grocery stores, care for patients in hospitals and nursing homes, or drop off packages at people’s doors, there are scant alternative options to showing up in person.
But among those who can, many are weighing their alternatives, said Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, who’s researched why people quit jobs. Bosses taking a hard stance should beware, particularly given labor shortages in the economy, he said.
“If you’re a company that thinks everything’s going back to normal, you may be right but it’s pretty risky to hope that’s the case,” he said.
At least some atop the corporate ladder seem to be paying attention. In a Jan. 12 PwC survey of 133 executives, fewer than one in five said they want to go back to pre-pandemic routines. But only 13% were prepared to let go of the office for good.
Alison Green, founder of workplace-advice website Ask a Manager, said she’s been contacted by many people with qualms about going back, citing concerns about unvaccinated colleagues and Covid precautions. Some have said they’re looking for jobs at companies they feel take the virus seriously, or will let them work from anywhere.
Some things are indeed lost with remote work, Green said, like opportunities for collaboration or learning for junior employees. But, she added: “I think we need to have a more nuanced discussion than: hustlers only do well in the office.”
For Sarah-Marie Martin, who lived in Manhattan and worked as a partner at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. when the pandemic struck, the months at home gave her time to redraw the blueprint of her life.
“When you have this existential experience, you have time to step back and think,” Martin said. “In my previous life, I didn’t have time to get super deep and philosophical.”
The mother of five moved her family to the New Jersey shore. And once the push to get back to offices picked up, the idea of commuting hardly seemed alluring. This spring, Martin accepted a fully remote position as chief financial officer of Yumi, a Los Angeles-based maker of baby food.
Gene Garland, 24, unknowingly opened the floodgates to people’s frustrations about office returns. After his employer, an IT company, in April told people they needed to start coming in, two of his close colleagues handed in their resignation letters. Garland, who lives in Hampton, Virginia, tapped out a tweet:
Bro, they said no more teleworking and my co-workers started QUITTING
Hundreds of people responded, with many outlining plans, or at least hopes, to leave their own jobs. Garland says he himself has no plans to quit, but empathizes with those who do.
“Working inside of a building really does restrict time a lot more than you think,” he said. “A lot of people are afraid of the cycle where you work and work and work — and then you die.”
Twidt, the compliance specialist in Georgia, had already lined up a new job by the time she handed in her resignation letter: a role at a Washington-based company.
The recruiter that approached her, Twidt said, asked what it would take to get her on board. She replied that she would prefer something 100% remote. Some employees have enjoyed working from home so much that they’d rather quit their jobs than go back to the office full time, a new survey found.
Out of 1,000 US adults polled in May, 39% said they’d consider quitting if their bosses weren’t flexible about them working from home. The Morning Consult survey was first reported by Bloomberg. The survey showed that 49% of the respondents who said they’d consider quitting were millennials and Gen Z — i.e., adults born after 1980.
Many global companies are embracing a hybrid work model as staff start to return to offices post-pandemic. Finance giants, who were known for having a strict work culture, are now adopting more flexible work models. Some have decided to redesign the workplace for more collaboration, and keep solo tasks for remote working. Others plan to cut back on office space entirely.
But some firms, such as JPMorgan, are not won over by the idea of remote work and want to see the majority of their workforce in the office. Jamie Dimon, the company’s CEO, said on May 4 that remote work “does not work for young people” and “those who want to hustle.” Chris Biggs, a partner at the consultancy firm Theta Global Advisors, told Insider that employers need to be “tuned into people’s mental health” as staff return to the office.
“You could do a lot of damage to those who don’t want to go into the office,” he said, adding that employers shouldn’t force people to come into the office.
In employment law, constructive dismissal, also called constructive discharge or constructive termination, occurs when an employeeresigns as a result of the employer creating a hostile work environment. Since the resignation was not truly voluntary, it is, in effect, a termination. For example, when an employer places extraordinary and unreasonable work demands on an employee to obtain their resignation, this can constitute a constructive dismissal.
The exact legal consequences differ between different countries, but generally a constructive dismissal leads to the employee’s obligations ending and the employee acquiring the right to make claims against the employer. The employee may resign over a single serious incident or over a pattern of incidents. Generally, a party seeking relief must have resigned soon after one of the constructive acts.
Iceland has achieved the holy grail for working stiffs: same pay for shorter hours.Results from two trials of reduced hours showed no productivity loss or decline in service levels, while employees reported less stress and an improved work-life balance, researchers at U.K.-based think tank Autonomy and Iceland’s Association for Sustainable Democracy said in a report.
Achieving shorter hours with sustained productivity and service levels involved rethinking how tasks were completed, according to the report. That included shortening meetings or replacing them with emails, cutting out unnecessary tasks, and rearranging shifts.
The trials, conducted from 2015 to 2019, cut hours to about 35 a week from 40 with no reduction in pay. Involving about 2,500 workers, equivalent to more than 1% of the Nordic country’s working population, results showed their “wellbeing dramatically increased,” the researchers said. Since then, 86% of Iceland’s entire working population have either moved to shorter hours or can negotiate to do so.
In Nordic peer Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 35, has suggested a four-day work week is worth looking into, saying employees deserve some of the trickle-down benefits of improved productivity. Even so, her government is currently not working on such policy.
Workers went from a 40-hour weekly schedule to 35- or 36-hour weekly schedules without a reduction in pay. The trials were launched after agitation from labor unions and grassroots organizations that pointed to Iceland’s low rankings among its Nordic neighbors when it comes to work-life balance.
Workers across a variety of public- and private-sector jobs participated in the trials. They included people working in day cares, assisted living facilities, hospitals, museums, police stations and Reykjavik government offices.
Participants reported back on how they reduced their hours. A common approach was to make meetings shorter and more focused. One workplace decided that meetings could be scheduled only before 3 p.m. Others replaced them altogether with email or other electronic correspondence.
Some workers started their shifts earlier or later, depending on demand. For example, at a day care, staff took turns leaving early as children went home. Offices with regular business hours shortened those hours, while some services were moved online.
Some coffee breaks were shortened or eliminated. The promise of a shorter workweek led people to organize their time and delegate tasks more efficiently, the study found.
Working fewer hours resulted in people feeling more energized and less stressed. They spent more time exercising and seeing friends, which then had a positive effect on their work, they said.
Many countries regulate the work week by law, such as stipulating minimum daily rest periods, annual holidays, and a maximum number of working hours per week. Working time may vary from person to person, often depending on economic conditions, location, culture, lifestyle choice, and the profitability of the individual’s livelihood.
For example, someone who is supporting children and paying a large mortgage might need to work more hours to meet basic costs of living than someone of the same earning power with lower housing costs. In developed countries like the United Kingdom, some workers are part-time because they are unable to find full-time work, but many choose reduced work hours to care for children or other family; some choose it simply to increase leisure time.
Standard working hours (or normal working hours) refers to the legislation to limit the working hours per day, per week, per month or per year. The employer pays higher rates for overtime hours as required in the law. Standard working hours of countries worldwide are around 40 to 44 hours per week (but not everywhere: from 35 hours per week in France to up to 112 hours per week in North Korean labor camps) and the additional overtime payments are around 25% to 50% above the normal hourly payments. Maximum working hours refers to the maximum working hours of an employee. The employee cannot work more than the level specified in the maximum working hours law.
Cohen, Yehudi (1974). Man in Adaptation: the cultural present. Aldine Transaction. pp. 94–95. ISBN0-202-01109-7. In all, the adults of the Dobe camp worked about two and a half days a week. Because the average working day was about six hours long, the fact emerges that !Kung Bushmen of Dobe, despite their harsh environment, devote from twelve to nineteen hours a week to getting food. Even the hardest working individual in the camp, a man named =oma who went out hunting on sixteen of the 28 days, spent a maximum of 32 hours a week in the food quest.
70% of GDP growth in the global economy between now and 2030 will be driven by the machines, according to PwC. This is a near $7 trillion dollar contribution to U.S. GDP based around the combined production from artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and embedded devices. This is the rise of a new machine economy.
For those not familiar with the machine economy, it’s where the smart, connected, autonomous, and economically independent machines or devices carry out the necessary activities of production, distribution, and operations with little or no human intervention. The development of this economy is how Industry 4.0 becomes a reality.
Visionary leaders will implement new technologies and combine them with capital investments in ways that help them grow, expand, diversify, and actually improve lives. These machine economy leaders will operate in a new intelligent systems world in thousands of companies that will drive new economic models globally.
Sounds good so far, but all of that autonomous machinery isn’t going to build and operate itself.
Not enough people to do the work
While most people would agree that manufacturing is an important part of our economy, they aren’t recommending their children pursue that line of work. It’s expected that 4.6 million manufacturing jobs created between now and 2028 will go unfilled. Key drivers for this change include the fact that 10,000 baby boomers retire every day without people to replace them.
The workforce is quickly losing the second-largest age group, and millennials (the largest group) have so far not been attracted to manufacturing jobs at large. Instead they tend to be drawn toward technology, engineering, finance. The underlying issue may be one of perception, as the future of manufacturing will in fact include a much higher degree of technology, engineering, and finance in order to function.
Different skills are needed
Manufacturing jobs are changing. The number of purely manual, repetitive tasks are shrinking as technology advances to handle those jobs with robots and automation. Fifty percent of manufacturers have already adopted some form of automation, and now they need people with critical thinking, programming, and digital skills. Tomorrow’s jobs have titles such as Digital Twin Engineer, Robot Teaming Coordinator, Drone Data Coordinator, Smart Scheduler, Factory Manager, Safety Supervisor, and so on.
The shifts in productivity are happening so quickly, humans can’t keep up with them
An unskilled position can be filled relatively quickly as the prerequisite qualifications are limited. It typically takes months to fill a skilled position, and in most cases much longer for an individual to develop the requisite skills before they even think to apply. One alternative is to lower requirements in terms of education, skill, and experience in order to get someone new in the position, but then companies have to absorb the entire expense of training them.
Meanwhile there is increased pressure to utilize existing people’s and teams’ times and skills as much as possible, which can lead to burnout. This is a tenuous cycle that needs to be fortified by making sure our workforce has the skills training they need, when and where they need it.
In order to thrive in the machine economy, we need to invest significantly in people as well as in infrastructure. Focusing purely on infrastructure might lead to short-term and maybe mid-term profits, but ultimately it is not sustainable, and everyone loses. One can’t simply say, “We couldn’t fill the positions,” while there are people who need work.
Level-up our workforce
The human capacity to learn is basically limitless when individuals are motivated and have access to something to learn. There are several ways to tap into that capacity. First, we need to capture the knowledge and experience of the employees we have, so that those relevant skills can be passed on to the next wave of workers. We also need to ensure relevant training is available for people at every level of the company so that new people get up to speed and tenured employees don’t get left behind.
While some technologies need to be learned on the job, there is a level of foundational skill to understand in the machine economy, in addition to the technical and vocational skills required within a given field. An investment in, and possibly partnerships with, local schools could be a wise move for many companies. Lastly, while college is a great path for many people, it’s not the only form of higher education. Investments in vocational training and apprenticeship programs will be critical for our society to thrive in the machine economy.
Just as workers need to rethink and develop new skills, employers need to rethink and develop new ways of nurturing and attracting talent. To fully realize the promise of the machine economy, it is incumbent upon us to ensure people have access to the training and the tools they need in order to not only be successful but thrive. After all, what’s the point of all this technology if it doesn’t make life better for everyone?
With more than 25 years of experience driving digital innovation and growth at technology companies, Kevin Dallas is responsible for all aspects of the Wind River business globally. He joined Wind River from Microsoft, where he most recently served as the corporate vice president for cloud and AI business development. At Microsoft, he led a team creating partnerships that enable the digital transformation of customers and partners across a range of industries including: connected/autonomous vehicles, industrial IoT, discrete manufacturing, retail, financial services, media and entertainment, and healthcare.
Prior to joining Microsoft in 1996, he held roles at NVIDIA Corporation and National Semiconductor (now Texas Instruments Inc.) in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East in roles that included microprocessor design, systems engineering, product management, and end-to-end business leadership. He currently serves as a director on the board of Align Technology, Inc. He holds a B.S.c. degree in electrical and electronic engineering from Staffordshire University, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England.
Digital economy refers to an economy that is based on digital computing technologies, although we increasingly perceive this as conducting business through markets based on the internet and the World Wide Web. The digital economy is also referred to as the Internet Economy, New Economy, or Web Economy.
Increasingly, the digital economy is intertwined with the traditional economy, making a clear delineation harder. It results from billions of everyday online connections among people, businesses, devices, data, and processes. It is based on the interconnectedness of people, organizations, and machines that results from the Internet, mobile technology and the internet of things (IoT).
Digital economy is underpinned by the spread of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) across all business sectors to enhance its productivity.Digital transformation of the economy is undermining conventional notions about how businesses are structured, how consumers obtain services, informations and goods and how states need to adapt to these new regulatory challenges.
Intensification of the global competition for human resources
Digital platforms rely on ‘deep learning‘ to scale up their algorithm’s capacity. The human-powered content labeling industry is constantly growing as companies seek to harness data for AI training. These practices have raised concerns concerning the low-income revenue and health-related issues of these independent workers. For instance, digital companies such as Facebook or YouTube use ‘content monitor’-contractors who work as outside monitors hired by a professional services company subcontractor- to monitor social media to remove any inappropriate content.
Thus, the job consists of watching and listening to disturbing posts that can be violent or sexual. In January 2020, through its subcontractor services society, Facebook and YouTube have asked the ‘content moderators’ to sign a PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) disclosure after alleged cases of mental disorders witnessed on workers.
OECD (2014-09-16). “The digital economy, new business models and key features”. Addressing the Tax Challenges of the Digital Economy. OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project. Paris: OECD Publishing. pp. 69–97. doi:10.1787/9789264218789-7-en. ISBN9789264218772.