When the novelty of work-from-home wears off

Our sector is undergoing a massive work-from-home experiment. The experiment is universal, but for our sector the change is especially dramatic. Whenever some of us get a chance to think (between one videoconference and the next), our minds turn to what this might mean for the future of the office.

No question, work-from-home is technically possible. A few weeks in, it is clear that cloud-based software and videoconferencing are passing the test. If there’s a drawback with remote work, it isn’t the tools.

However: consider what the current experiment means for its human subjects.

Everyone has moved offsite in a matter of days. People are now socially isolated, without normal supports. They may be forced to be productive in limited space shared with children, parents, roommates, and spouses who may also be working from home. Distance is impeding asking questions, sharing information, and getting to know others. On top of that there’s worry about an unrelenting crisis with personal, local, and global effects, with no end in sight.

If this work-from-home experiment were a real experiment, it would be ruled unethical.

The pandemic will subside, and with it, the need to isolate and the general anxiety that wakes us at 3 a.m. (However, if people weren’t already somewhat anxious before the crisis, they weren’t paying attention.)

Other effects remain to be discovered.

Remote work might be normal in the private sector, but I question whether it translates perfectly to mission-driven organizations. A mission-driven organization requires inspirational leadership and engagement around shared purpose, not just hitting numerical targets. To say that the higher education and non-profit sectors need to get with the times and embrace private-sector models of work would be classic bizplaining.

We should also recognize that the likelihood of having adequate home-office space breaks along the line of income and reporting level. Implemented poorly, across-the-board work-from-home would impose disproportionate costs on lower-income workers. Implemented fairly, work-from-home might be costly for organizations.

Certainly, the best thing for our students would be to be back in classrooms and labs. The common campus experience levels the field somewhat for students from different economic backgrounds. More fundamentally, a university without physical proximity is not really a university. An experience based on engagement with the world balanced with an encounter with the self does not translate to digital. I am not convinced this is opening a new era for learning.

It may, however, be a new era for administrative offices. I’m intrigued about the possibilities of more flexible work arrangements that benefit people and organizations. Employees skip the commute while organizations free up some space – it sounds win-win.

We may be still be blind to the downsides, though. Let’s get through this first, and take careful notes.

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