Beware this work-from-home truism that isn’t true

You may have heard this one. “Working from home is bad for extroverts, great for introverts.” This was never true, and as time goes on its untruth becomes ever clearer.

All people need and desire connection with others, including introverts. All people need quiet time to process their encounters, including extroverts (although they might not enjoy it as much).

When the workforce emerges from this pandemic, organizations will face a new expectation that work arrangements be flexible. Whatever the pros and cons, we should not fear that our teams will split into in-office extroverts and stay-at-home introverts. That’s not how it works.

Different people at different times manage their energy differently. That’s all. It has little to do with desiring either stimulation or isolation as a default mode. Beyond figuring out how to work well together, the introvert-extrovert scale is a red herring that doesn’t have much bearing on anything essential.

For my early morning walk before work, I often choose the same wooded path. I sometimes meet a man and his dog who share my routine. The man is middle-aged and bald, and his dog is a poodle, I think, with fur of light maple. The dog’s name is Sadie. I know this only because this morning she chose to hate me, and the man had to restrain her on a short leash. We exchanged curt greetings and moved on.

None of us were pleased to meet on the path. That’s fine. There are plenty of other paths in the neighbourhood. We can each choose a way that suits our mood.

Employee engagement across all sectors is low, we’re told. What would be the result if we gave everyone the freedom to choose?

Positive new-normal won’t just happen, it has to be invented

Earlier this year, I wrote that COVID-19 has accomplished what decades of scientific warnings have not: A dramatic curtailment in carbon emissions. The curtailment is temporary, but what’s encouraging is how quickly the status quo can change. Yes, we are capable of adjusting our mindsets and behaviours.

Alas, I forgot to add that this change has been forced. The underlying culture has not evolved. When the weight of the pandemic is lifted, human behaviour will bounce back like a coiled spring.

Same goes for any positive effects on universities and the workplace. There’s a lot of excited talk about work-from-home as the new normal, for example, but despite all the undeniable benefits, it’s a mistake to assume this will come about naturally.

Deep change is cultural change. If we want to retain anything positive from this crisis, it will require both direction from above and the active involvement of staff. Until administrative and operational staff are involved in working on these underpinnings, hope and talk will be forgotten as the dominant culture reasserts itself.

I suggest asking a few challenge questions. I admit these are heavy with process, policy, and tools. Hardly the stuff of inspiration, and having these things won’t cause change. But lacking them will certainly hinder it.

  • Is a telework policy being drafted, or revised, based on the assumption that work-from-home is normal? Are we planning to deal with the most challenging aspects of remote work (hiring and onboarding, performance management, alignment on objectives)? Are private-sector examples being studied for lessons?
  • Can we give everyone the tools to be mobile? Are meeting rooms equipped to serve a blend of on-site and remote attendees? Are work-at-home systems secure? Are employees trained to protect personal information?
  • Do we know how to maximize the return on staff travel, tightening criteria for approval, based on an assumption that the default engagement from now on will be digital?
  • Are we thinking about how to retool the measurement of engagement and meaningful cultivation activities in the digital world?
  • Are we adopting new tools and processes to move paper-based approvals to secure electronic signatures?
  • If there’s really a new spirit of pan-campus cooperation now, is it translating into something that will last, such as a university-wide data governance framework?

This disruption feels long because it’s unfamiliar and because we’re still in it. It’s hard to see it as temporary and fleeting. In truth, without taking deliberate action on the underpinnings of positive change, the disruption won’t last nearly long enough to make a difference.

Work-from-home productivity requires more than uninterrupted focus

If each person on my team had a dollar for every time I stuck my head in their office for “one quick question,” they’d be set up for retirement. That would be pre-COVID, of course. Work-from-home means fewer interruptions (from the boss, if not from the kids), and that has some people feeling they and their teams are more productive now than they were in the office.

No doubt people are finding themselves better able to focus, better able to control how their discretionary time is used. Anyone who suffered in the high-traffic areas of open-plan offices is probably better off.

But how are we defining “productive”? Hovering over the inbox and leaving no email unanswered? Busy does not equal productive.

I feel we’ve done a good job in our shop along most dimensions of WFH. If I had to pick an area for improvement, it would be setting expectations and goals, and reviewing them regularly.

Cal Newport, writing recently in the New Yorker, says in the modern office, supervisors provide clear goals and leave employees alone to figure out how to accomplish them. This hands-off approach is appropriate for complex and creative office work, he says. Ambiguity and fluidity aren’t necessarily drawbacks, as long as they are balanced by continuous, informal course-correction. It’s this informal communication we’ve lost in the COVID era. (1)

These days, I’m much less likely to do the virtual equivalent of popping in. Not to overestimate the value of my unannounced visits, but these interruptions that contributed to distraction in the office were also the vehicle for a lot of clarification. The interruptions served a purpose, one we should replicate if employees are going to apply their newfound focus productively.

What was once informal (though disruptive) has not been effectively replaced by informal online interaction, which tends to require planning and a certain deliberateness. We have to be more deliberate not just about what we do, but how we do it, Newport writes. As organizations consider extending work-from-home into the future, beyond COVID, it is important that we diagnose these issues.

Newport suggests that our loosely-run organizations adopt some of the project planning tools of software developers, which provide transparency across the whole team as well as removing a lot of the ambiguity around which tasks have been assigned to whom.

“More structure, more clarity, less haphazardness,” he says.

Talk to your team and each individual about your, and their, expectations. Set goals and measures of success to ensure accountability. Regularly review goals and progress. Continuously reclarify at the team and individual level to maintain focus, and modify as needed to ensure progress is actually being made and that team members are engaged.

Remote work carries the promise of focus, but it will remain only a promise unless we ensure people are given a relatively small number of things to work on at a time and are able to go deep on them with a clear sense of direction.

  1. Why Remote Work Is So Hard—and How It Can Be Fixed,” by Cal Newport, The New Yorker, 26 May 2020