In-Person Work Gets Scrutiny

There is a deluge of articles coming from every corner of the Internet about when COVID “ends” what will resume and what will not. In this Forbes article, they say maybe never. While I never like to say never, Forbes has a point – in person is being over-romanticized in our current pandemic. Was it ever that great?

Corporate education, like higher education, was certainly heading in the direction of more online learning long before the Covid-19 disruption. But it was more of a plodding pace. The past two months, of course, there’s been no choice; everyone is online…The expense and time of bringing together groups of employees for in-person training is exorbitant in comparison to high-quality online versions. Air travel, hotels, windowless conference rooms and convention centers, the risk liability of group training events and, frankly, the poor quality and unmeasurable outcomes of in-person corporate training have always been complaints. 

Forbes, May, 2020

Cost-cutting will be a big deal as well….

It costs $22,000 a year to provide an office space to every worker. Companies who go remote will cut $20m of real estate expense every year.

Then, of course, there was the big news that Twitter announced that workers may not EVER have to come back to the office. This quote from Human Resources head Jennifer Christie was particularly interesting:

“…the company would “never probably be the same” in the structure of its work. “People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way,” Christie said. “Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective. I do think we won’t go back.”

Buzzfeed Interview, May 2020

The idea that we’ll never meet in person is ridiculous. In-person conveys an intensity that no other media currently can. While advances in Virtual Reality are compelling and will do more to spur on this trend, in-person engagements will always have a warmth to them that is fundamental to the human experience. However, I doubt that in-person work will soon return to the dominant de facto standard of the butts-in-chairs, open-office plans that it was pre-COVID. This is doubly true for training.

Sunk costs are the primary variable. Big players such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook have sunk tons of money into very expensive perks for an in-person experience. Free everything, just stay in the office. How quickly will they abandon these investments depends on the market place. Free ice-cream and cappuccinos vs. a two-hour commute each way and exorbitant property costs – which will win? Experts say that elevators and mass transit are the worst places to be right now. Anyone that’s worked in big major cities knows that people aren’t shuffling up 75 flights of stairs to get to their cubical – its all elevators, and they get very crowded. Add to this the idea that COVID-19 might flare up time and again, causing rolling shutdowns, makes finding a strategy in dealing with pandemics in the same league as disaster recovery efforts that have existed for decades. (see Update below for more on this).

My guess is that we’ll see a hybrid for now. Those craving team experiences will rush to rejoin in-person work, others will lay back if their employer allows. Companies will then start hearing their employees and candidates, and start looking outside their zip code for remote talent. As an Agilist, I used to see this as a problem. You know, the Manifesto. But that document, like any human creation, has its time. While we don’t need to change the original manifesto, we need to start asking questions around how we can update our understanding, and how we can change our practices to fulfill the intent of the manifesto and match the current reality. There are benefits to the environment, people’s stress levels, and companies that can access larger pools of talent.

In the end, Twitter (and Facebook now) might have the first-mover advantage in the new hottest Silicon Valley perk: not being in Silicon Valley.

Update, May 21st: Facebook just announced that they are also allowing working from home options (with lower salaries). I do hope that this raises all boats. A developer in Cheapville, KS, should earn a better-than-average salary for Kansas, but not the megamillions that they need to survive in San Fransisco.