I’ve been thinking a lot about the new work models that are changing the how and the where we do our jobs, namely WFH, WFA (Work From Anywhere) versus WFO (Work From Office). There are many pros and cons to each scenario and every organization in the world is struggling to figure our their new normal with many offering employees the ability to work fully remotely or within a hybrid schedule for the first time ever. While some predict this Great Experiment will swing back to the middle in a few years, I think that the horse has left the barn. Employees have shown their bosses that they can do a great job while sitting on their back deck at home or from a travel destination in another state or country. How could we return to working in office buildings five days a week? And why do we need to?
I’ve watched these new ways of working emerge knowing full well that if employees no longer have to be in the same city, working together from a common site or two, that my industry and my business will be dramatically impacted. I am grateful that EA has a long partnership with Cleveland’s and Akron’s powerhouse healthcare communities (your surgeon can’t work remotely), and many other clients including legacy manufacturing companies whose workforce needs to be on site – companies who see the value of in-person collaborations to be successful. But like lots of others, I believe the 40 hour work week with employees commuting to a shared office space is a thing of the past. That ship has sailed.
I was talking to a friend recently whose company is requiring all employees to return to the office one day a week with the ultimate goal of having everyone back three-four days a week by the end of 2022. When she arrived on her designated Tuesday, her co-workers were sitting at random desks all over the office building, which made no sense to her. Why bring in a team of people to collaborate and not even have them all on the same floor of the building? “I’d have to walk six offices over to find a co-worker to talk to, so why am I not just working from the comfort of my own home?”, she lamented.
This got me to thinking of the pros and cons of our new work world. I know there are thousands of white papers being written as researchers, futurists, consultants and business owners everywhere try to predict the fallout and the future of the ways we do business. Will it stay, be changed forever, or might the proverbial pendulum swing and land somewhere in between, and bring back some of our pre-pandemic work norms? EA gave up our darling little office in the Cedar/Fairmount neighborhood in the Fall of 2020, when we realized the pandemic would last years. Now all 20 employees WFH, have many virtual meetings like the rest of you, but also find fun spots to meet in person a couple of times a month to keep the connectivity going. We are all in one city and are a small group, so this works for us.
Here are my thoughts as a small business owner on the pros and cons in a work world where WFH/WFA is the future:
- Employee empowerment – many employees have experienced 100% remote work during the height of the pandemic, and now have first hand experience at how different work life CAN be. They will make educated decisions about their quality of life and find a job that supports this lifestyle. The Great Resignation to me is a giant wake up call to bosses who weren’t treating their employees well, not paying them a fair/living wage, and not giving them a real sense of purpose and belonging.
- A work/life balance – with no rush hour commutes and the flexibility to integrate household tasks into your work day, it’s so much easier to have a balanced life. Sit at your computer working on a project, then toss a load of laundry in the dryer; Zoom with co-workers, then go to your kid’s baseball game; answer emails, then take a nearby yoga class. Not having to cram all your chores into the weekend makes Sat/Sun fun, relaxing days to rebound and refresh for Monday!
- Gone is the 40 hour, 5 day work week– do we really care if our employees work 40 hours a week if they get their job done spectacularly in 25 or 30 hours a week? Who invented the 9-5 Mon-Fri work week anyways? Isn’t it more important that the work gets done, everyone jumps in to help when deadlines are tight, important meetings happen, and people contribute meaningful ideas to help your organization stay strong, flexible and profitable?
- Freedom to work remotely – from another city, state or country for a few months, or a year! Acknowledging this ‘pro’ applies to the subset of workers without family obligations that keep them in town (kids in school, elderly parents) and to those whose jobs can be done remotely. Workers have the freedom to live in a warmer place for 2-3 months during the winter, explore living abroad (pick the right time zone!) or pursue a hobby or passion where you need to be in a specific geographic location (I want to be in prime SCUBA territory). Go for it!
- Deeper connections to co-workers and clients – some of our EA staff meetings now happen at our dining room tables, some on the back patio. You get to meet the dog, significant other, their children, see the art work they’ve chosen for their home and admire their perennial flower garden, you get to know the full person, not just the person at the office. And video chats or walk/talk meetings with clients or collaborators reveal their kitchen office, or show you why they picked the neighborhood they live in. When a little one pops in to say hi we might hear about their school. It all adds up to knowing the people you work with on a deeper level, understanding what’s on their plate not just as a co-worker, but as a spouse, a parent, a caregiver, a dog owner. The pandemic was the great equalizer, where the whole world went thru the same crisis together. I can’t think of anything else in my lifetime that connected everyone on the globe so instantly. Everyone seems more open and vulnerable, being able to see multi-dimensional sides of people can only be a good thing.
- Reduced overhead costs – 100% remote work means many organizations, large and small, will save money on their overhead. With inflation, high gasoline costs, and more contagious variants of COVID continuing to develop, it gives peace of mind to know that we can save money on our monthly overhead and be lean and nimble as the world continues to change around us.
- Suburbs gain resources in payroll taxes – While it’s painful for urban cores to figure out how to recalibrate with many offices empty of workers who funnel money into parking, restaurants and more, the positive upside for the neighborhoods that surround these urban centers is starting to come to light. With many of us still working from home at least part time, traditional bedroom communities (Gates Mills, Bay Village, Peninsula, Shaker Heights) will soon be collecting payroll taxes from those who claim their home as their primary work location. Could this additional revenue result in new boutique coffee shops and restaurants popping up in the suburbs to serve this population? Could city services improve and offer more for senior citizens, provide more amenities like public parks, playgrounds and pools? Could potholes be fixed faster and more trees planted on tree lawns? Could real estate taxes go down as other revenue streams go up? I feel like a giant reset button was pushed in March 2020 and the population shifts will continue to change for the next 10 years. Not just from urban cores to the suburbs, but from major cities to smaller towns.
- 50% of the message will be missed – speech conveys less than half of the message, the rest is shared in body language. So, if you are trying to “read the room” on a Zoom meeting, good luck buddy! You will never know if the group is fully engaged or quietly reading their emails off-screen. If all your meetings are virtual, you may never feel the vibe that everyone thinks the idea you are proposing is bonkers, when you’d feel that mood swing at an in person meeting instantly. The hundreds of nuances you feel in a room with actual people can be totally missed in virtual meetings. Work to make at least 25% of your important meetings/conversations in person!
- Organic conversations won’t happen– when the virtual meeting is over, everyone hits “END” and the conversation ends. But IRL, as people get up from a meeting they often engage in a half dozen side bar conversations. Often those discussions offer the best ideas of the day. A virtual chat box won’t ever replace these organic conversations that happen when humans interact in person.
- Vendor/Client disconnect – when people WFH it’s more challenging to find a time/place to connect with clients to build relationships. Do you meet near their home? At a nearby coffee shop? Do a walk/talk in a local park? Since March 2020 we all got used to having complete control over our schedules and the ability to wear yoga/jogger pants and a t-shirt for most of the day. It takes effort to change our new routines to schedule an in-person meet up, even to meet in person with someone who you’ve been doing business with for years. Be open to finding new ways to connect.
- Video chats can be intimidating – many of us don’t feel comfortable sharing an idea when a dozen people are staring intently at an oversized video of our face on their computer screen. And we are staring at our own face as well, which is equally distracting (did I forget to brush my hair this morning?). Many feel awkward inserting an idea in a conversation online as it always feels like you are interrupting others. Introverts I see you!
- Virtual meetings consume energy – as an extrovert, in person meetings energize me, while staring at a computer screen for two hours saps all of the life out me. When I walk away from an in real life gathering my head is buzzing with ideas. When I walk away from a day of video chats, I have a migraine. Again, introverts I at least now understand how you have felt all these years!
- Creating company culture will be harder – if your organization has had staff with you for 10+ years, bravo, you have an amazing business model that retains employees…or if like EA you have a combo of old and are adding new staff members how will they integrate into your culture and learn who you are as a company? How will they find mentors, observe behaviors that are rewarded and frowned upon, create a path that leads to a promotion, know what the core values of your organization are? Things that all happen fairly naturally when employees share a workspace will need more intentional focus. And, even more complicated, what if you co-workers don’t even all live in the same city/state anymore, making it expensive and time consuming to meet in person once a month/quarter. The jury is still out on this one, but those responsible for maintaining company culture have a whole new job description.
- Struggling urban cores – This is the flipside of the pro that WFH could help suburban areas thrive. If less than half of the typical office workers return to a five day a week pattern, what happens to the infrastructure in areas dense with office buildings? What happens to the all the restaurants and bars and shops within walking distance of these urban centers if there are significantly fewer customers Monday thru Friday? Can they survive on weekend date night business? And I can easily see how those spur of the moment decisions to go out for happy hour, go to a show, walk to a ballgame, all disappear if you are not already downtown. Because cities like CLE/AKN are not tourist meccas, local businesses rely heavily on year round residents to thrive. Will most have to take their businesses out to the suburbs?
- Employee loyalty diminishes – if you don’t work in shared space (or the same town/state) as most of your co-workers, does an employee ever build the personal relationships that help them stick with the organization thru thick and thin? How easy is it for the next opportunity to come along and pluck away a superstar when they never really bonded with your organization/team? We are seeing this vividly with the candidates we have worked with since COVID began. While the average tenure of a senior leader at an organization we work with was typically 3-5 years if they didn’t land an internal promotion, now it is often a year or less when they WFA. If employees never have to relocate to Greater Cleveland for their new job, it’s incredibly easy to send a resignation email to a boss you’ve only met one in person,.
- Midsized cities will be more vulnerable – we hear daily from past and current clients from some of our region’s largest employees that they are changing their philosophy to allow employees (even senior leaders) to work from anywhere. These includes banks, service organizations, IT firms, insurance companies. What could this mean to cities like ours who have struggled with a ho-hum national image for decades? Who wakes up and says “I think I’ll move to Cleveland”? Pre-pandemic, a move to the city that the new job was located in was a requirement. New hires, spouses, partners, children all moved here and experienced the attributes and eventually fell in love with our mid-sized city. They supported our museums, attended concerts and shows, hired landscapers, nannies, sent their kids to private and parochial schools, had season passes to pro sports teams, the orchestra, theaters? What will the many non-profits who count on corporate employees to add new board members and attend fundraising events do to fill the talent and treasure gap? Will housing prices deflate as buyers become scarcer? It’s no secret that our region’s population has been declining for decades, so towns the size of CLE/AKN really count on newcomers to avoid stagnation. Truthfully, this is the one impact of WFH/WFA that concerns me the most.
While no one really knows what the future looks like, one thing is clear: we need strong, capable and creative leadership to guide us through this seismic shift. Finding the right balance and setting the right tone has never seemed harder to me, yet I remain optimistic. We will collectively figure this out, but I expect we will all feel some bumps along the way. In the meantime, let’s all savor the positives, and there have been many. Let’s explore the pros/cons of new ways of work, let’s remind each other to be intentional about in person contacts and connections, and let’s embrace a work/life balance, to find the calm, the joy, the adventure offered at both home and at the office.
Executive Arrangements is happy to be partnered with so many organizations who value the culture of their key employees being together in the same city. If you would like to hear how we can help you attract and retain the best possible talent to Cleveland/Akron in this hyper competitive job market, we’d be happy to share some ideas with you: 216.231.9311