Does anyone (besides me) remember the TRS-80? (Yes, I'm dating myself here.) The TRS-80, affectionately known as the "Trash 80," was one of the first “notebook computers” released in 1983, popularized by Radio Shack, and issued to me by my then employer, the Dallas Times Herald. The last time I saw a TRS-80, it was in a museum; Radio Shack stores have nearly disappeared; and the Dallas Times Herald long-ago was shuttered.
One feature of that long-ago time of my life remains though: my career and its many varied workspaces. Like other knowledge (or white-collar, if you prefer) workers, we were blazing a trail several decades ago, back when there really wasn't a language for describing company workspaces and work modalities beyond the basics of office, retail, manufacturing plant.
My workspace timeline looks something like this:
1980s: Hybrid worker. Using the afore-mentioned TRS-80 to file nighttime game reports before the first edition deadline. During some of this time, I could have also been described as a "gig" worker; a topic for another blog perhaps.
1990s: “Traditional” office worker. A long stint, largely bound to an office desk except when out meeting with clients. The technology just wasn’t there to support delivering work from anywhere else.
2001-2019: The great (personal) transition — from the office to hybrid to virtual. As both technology and my career evolved, I found myself increasingly becoming a hybrid worker. I could now engage with colleagues and clients from London to Honolulu in real time from anywhere… sometimes even in person.
Many of my colleagues joined me in this transition; most, I believe, enjoyed the stimulation this mode of working provided, while bemoaning the fact that it increasingly became difficult to “leave work” for the day (or the week). For better or worse, the concept of “work/life balance” was replaced by “work/life integration.
2020-2021: The great (worldwide) transition for knowledge workers. Those of us who’d long stopped working in an office were viewed by some as the Jedi Masters to those seeking to learn the ways of this new working force. Inevitably, true virtual work — being able to work anywhere, not just from a home office, became increasingly acceptable.
Today: The pendulum is trying to swing back but workers are standing in the way. Some employers are issuing RTO (return to office) edicts. Others are trying the carrot approach. Neither way seems to be working all that well.
Now I won’t claim to have the answer to this workspace tug-o-war, but with my experiences over the years, I do have a perspective on the pros and cons of various working modes, which I’ve considered in the context of determining what works best for me and for those with whom I work and interact.
Flexibility benefits everyone. Working parents. Working single parents. Eldercare givers. Those with long commutes. People with disabilities. (As a partially hearing-impaired person, large virtual meetings are easier for me as I have more control over the audio; but as a person who likes social interaction, in-person meetings are generally more satisfying.) Flexibility also works individuals who enjoy taking their dog for a walk in the middle of the day; or who want to go watch their niece’s twice-weekly basketball games. It also works for those who work with others across multiple time zones who with some careful and disciplined planning, can meet their work obligations and still have a life.
(Consistently) Lousy cell phone reception or a poor internet connection annoys everyone. Individuals who are working remotely have a responsibility to ensure the technology necessary to do their job, including interacting real-time with others, works effectively most of the time (with the occasional equipment lapse being understandable). If the individual is required to work remotely by their employer, then the employer and employee need to work it out. (Hello ISP and cell phone company? The wireless still doesn’t work well in my house and cell reception is lousy, particularly in my home office.)
We're all humans. And humans need face-to-face contact to thrive. While much of the focus on remote work has been on how beneficial it is to so many (see "Flexibility" above), increasingly, attention is being paid to the negative effects it has had on people’s emotional wellbeing It's important to remember that much of what constitutes communications aren't the words spoken (or exchanged via email and text).
Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and more, all contribute to conveying our message. Virtual interactions require greater focus, back-to-back meetings are exhausting. No amount of virtual meetings can make up for the absence of face-to-face interaction; and too many back-to-back virtual meetings are draining.
There’s a time and a space for various types of work. This may be purely subjective, but I engage in brainstorming best in person. There’s an energy that’s generated (or an energy that I receive) that spurs my creative thought process, while virtual brainstorming requires intense focus that can dampen the creative thought process.
But deep work requires that distractions and interruptions be kept to a minimum. For many, this is absolutely essential for producing their best work. With remote working, you can turn off all computer notifications and silence your cell phone. It’s harder to wrap yourself in a Do Not Disturb forcefield in the office.
We typically engage better with those individuals with whom we’ve established a bond; and bonds are more easily made in person (because, like noted above, we're humans, not robots.). Think about the people you work with. When working together virtually, are you more tolerant of those individuals whom you’ve met in person? More open to their ideas? More likely to step in and help them when needed?
There’s a reason organizations host events to bring employees together. And why consultants and salespeople strive to meet their clients and prospects in person whenever possible. Long commutes can really suck (but reading a book on the train doesn’t). Fresh air is essential. Variety is indeed the spice of life. Being able to work in a hybrid/remote/virtual way has worked exceptionally well for me, and paid dividends for my employers and clients. But that’s because it’s never been an either (the office space) or (remote space) proposition (setting aside the pandemic shutdown).
I know people who want to work in an office most days and I know people who really benefit from working remotely full-time. But even the former benefit from occasional flexibility while the later usually enjoy occasional face-to-face interactions.
Perhaps rather than edicts by employers and refusals by employees, a new way forward can be found: Not a compromise or “middle ground,” but an approach whereby individual wellbeing and organizational results are both elevated.