The pandemic has rapidly accelerated something which was starting to take place across America and to some extent across the world: You really don’t need to ever leave home.
If you are a knowledge worker you can work from home. Why go to the office when you are more productive at home? You don’t need to go to the supermarket, you can do your grocery shopping from home. Your kids don’t need to go to a bricks and mortar school they can be schooled from home. You don’t need to shop at the mall because everything you need you can find online. Why travel when you can get almost the same experiences from a 3D video at home? You don’t need to go to the gym when you can buy a Peloton. Why go to a restaurant when the food from your favorite restaurant can be delivered to your home. You can now meet people online and may have what you consider a “good relationship” with someone but you may never meet them in person. People buy houses and rent apartments online before they ever step foot in them. Cars can be bought online and who needs a salesman? And the list could go on…
Is your shopping mall called Amazon and your restaurant called UberEATS or Doordash? If they are, you are headed down the road to being totally self-sufficient without ever leaving home. If you were a couch potato before, you can now not just be a potato but a whole garden.
Information technology is redefining what it means to be a social being and the necessity for social skills. I’m not a sociologist, a psychiatrist, a therapist or any other “ist” so my thoughts are those of a “civilian” observer. I believe people are social beings by nature. Most people like to interact with other people. While we have our extroverts and introverts who interact in different ways, they are still interacting.
We interact at the grocery store in the aisles or in line to check out – not a major interaction, maybe just a smile, a comment or even a complaint. In the mall, we get to observe and comment upon the crazy kids who may be hanging out there or the outrageous clothes someone is wearing.
While this may not be a personal interaction with anyone, it’s an interaction with people. Going to a restaurant is interacting with other people at other tables. This doesn’t mean you have actual conversations with them, but you observe them and some may even leave you with an impression such as I couldn’t believe how much that guy was eating.
Work is where the most extensive interactions can take place, at least that used to be the case. Work used to be the place where you often spent more time with people than you might spend with your kids or your spouse or significant other. The time at work plus your commute could take up a big part of each day.
Telework is changing that for many workers, especially knowledge workers whose jobs are usually most adaptable to telework. If you take out the hours commuting, and for those of us who, as an example, have lived in Washington DC, that alone adds a considerable amount of time for things other than work. The employee also has more control over when the work is done and where it is done.
The benefits can be huge for the teleworking employee, but what are the bad things? Are office interactions important? You can Skype with fellow employees or do Facetime. You can have ZOOM or MS Team meetings. But are these electronic versions of people the same thing as seeing them in person?
Redefining the Role of the Workplace
We are at a place now where the role of the workplace is being redefined. As an administrator of a large government agency once said: “Work is what you do not where you do it.” What’s left out of that equation is who you do it with. What’s the right balance between working remotely and working in an office environment where you are interacting with people who are in the same physical space as you are?
The formula may vary from one workplace to another, but it must be an essential part of any approach to making a balance in an employee’s’ work life. There must be reasons to be in the office and there must be good use of that time.
It will take a different approach to managing. Employees may be very productive at home, but how can management add to that productivity when the employee is in the office? What can more successfully be done in the office with employees there in person than can be accomplished by the employee on their own? What value can be added by employees interacting in an office environment that can’t be achieved by ZOOM? These are some of the challenges of the new work environment of the future.
People will still want to go out to restaurants, but they now have an alternative. People will still go to the grocery store, but they now have an alternative. People will go to stores, but once again they now have an alternative. What will be interesting will be to see the balance between online shopping and food delivery once the fears of COVID-19 have fully subsided. People like to get out of the house or apartment, but they also like the convenience of having things delivered to them. It will be interesting to see if over the course of time the balance between telework and in office time retreats to more office time as the measurement of productivity becomes less shaded by the pandemic.