June 21, 2022
Remote work is often viewed as antithetical to agile ways of working. After all, one of the 12 Principles behind the Agile Manifesto mentions explicitly face-to-face communication as the most effective way of communicating information to and within a team.
But the pandemic forced most organizations to shift to remote work. Teams use tools like Slack, Zoom, MS Teams, and Miro to simulate a face-to-face experience when they work together.
I’m skeptical that tools are effective at simulating face-to-face. Perhaps that is because, in most organizations, people don’t use the face-to-face aspects of those tools (i.e., web cameras).
Now that the pandemic is mainly in the rearview mirror, where does that leave remote work and remote workers? Will remote work be the default for most organizations, or will most companies return to physical offices? Or perhaps some hybrid approach that leaves teams partly distributed?
I like working remotely, and it works for me. That said, as a business owner, I primarily work by myself. Most of my work is connecting with clients or the coaches and trainers on my team. I am not building something as part of a cross-functional team.
Most knowledge work today requires teamwork. And I may be in the minority, but I feel like if you want to have a high-performing agile team, you should sit together in the same room. Co-location for teams allows for fast, high-bandwidth communications.
Most employees who have survived the abrupt shift to remote work tend to prefer it. Some are even willing to quit if they are not allowed to work remotely, based on a 2021 study by flexjobs:
If they are not allowed to continue remote work in their current position, 60% of women will look for a new job, while 52% of men stated they would quit.
— Rachel Pelta, Survey: Men & Women Experience Remote Work Differently
The 2021 State of Remote work report from Owl Labs found that individuals tend to prefer the option to work remotely. Those individuals feel they are just as productive working remotely as in the office. Most also felt that remote work was better for their mental health and indicated they would be willing to work for less to be remote.
Of those that worked from home during the pandemic, 70% of employees say virtual meetings are less stressful…3 in 4 (74%) said after the pandemic working from home is better for their mental health
–Owl Labs, 2021 State of Remote Work Report
If you ask, most people claim to be just as productive working remote, if not more so. They may be looking at productivity as how quickly they get their individual tasks done. That may or may not be the most productive for a team of people creating a product or delivering a service.
And most of those people who claim to be more productive remotely believe that their bosses would disagree that they are more productive.
…88% of staff reported their employers viewed returning to the office as essential, with 43% citing productivity as the main reason for the push to return.
— Sawdah Bhaimiya in Business Insider, Workers think bosses regard working from home as less productive
Let’s take a look at what managers and leaders think.
Managers and leaders have mixed views on whether remote work is allowed.
David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs said in March 2022 that he wants workers back to the office five days a week. Solomon said, “I do think for a business like ours which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us and it’s not a new normal.”
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, did a flip flop recently on this topic. In 2021 Dimon said, “People don’t like commuting, but so what?” In April 2022, he softened his stance on remote work. Dimon said, “It’s clear that working from home will become more permanent in American business.”
But the most prominent voice and perhaps the most significant influencer on this topic would be Elon Musk. Musk has been rocking the boat on this topic for a while.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is undoubtedly no stranger to controversy. Not that I spend a lot of time musing about his thoughts – I am still trying to figure out if he is a genius or just crazy.
Musk has come out against remote work at companies he owns and those he is threatening to own as well. Musk’s recent missive to Tesla employees about working from work got me thinking about this topic. Musk wants everyone at Tesla to be back in the office. Musk says Tesla employees can work remotely for as many hours a week as they want, so long as they work a minimum of 40 hours per week in the office.
“Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla.”
— Elon Musk, Email to Tesla Employees May 31 2022
Elon’s email to Tesla employees represents a shift. Since the pandemic hit in 2020, Tesla allowed anyone that could work remotely to do so. The email pointed out that it wasn’t just about being in any office. It stated that you should be with your colleagues where the work is being done:
Moreover, the office must be where your actual colleagues are located, not some remote pseudo office. If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned.
— Elon Musk, Email to Tesla Employees May 31 2022
Over at Twitter, where Musk seems poised to take ownership, Musk put employees in a twitter when he said that remote work would be dangled as a carrot for “exceptional” workers. What does that mean? Which employees are exceptional, and who is going to be the judge of that? Remember that Musk doesn’t even own Twitter yet and may not ever!
Looking at Musk’s request (demand?) with an agile mindset, I see three things:
Is Musk leading the wave with this push to get employees back in the office, or is he swimming upstream? The data seems mixed, though Musk does seem to be swimming against the current.
According to career site Ladders, remote work is here to stay. They believe that 25% of all professional jobs in North America will be remote by 2022 and the trend will be to increase. Before the pandemic, less than 4% of those jobs were remote. Ladders CEO Marc Cenedella calls the shift the largest societal change in America since the end of World War II.
The 2021 State of Remote work report from Owl Labs also reflects this sentiment. They reported that 70% of jobs were done remotely during the pandemic and most will remain remote.
A recent news article from NPR highlighted the difficult choices facing employees who are told they must return to the office. Jonathan Pruiett updates Google Maps for Cognizant and was recently told to report to work within three days or be considered to have abandoned their job. Pruiett points out the ridiculousness of this heavy-handed approach:
“Nothing will change other than having a couple snacks in our office and having an in-person meeting…We’re kind of starting to think that this job isn’t worth it.”
Jonathan Pruiett, NPR Article on Bosses Wanting a Return to Work
Many argue that the current set of tools and the lack of interruptions make remote work just as productive as face-to-face. This may be the case for individual productivity or deep thinking work. However, most people work together as part of a team. Regarding collaborating and delivering as a team, the data shows that the distance between team members still determines the level of communications and team productivity.
In Karim Harbott’s excellent book, The 6 Enablers of Business Agility, Harbott cites the Allen Curve. Developed nearly 50 years ago by Thomas Allen, the curve showed that as the distance between two people increased, the frequency of communication decreased. The Allen Curve takeaway is that if you want people to collaborate on a team, put them in the same room (or no further than one bus length away, as Alistair Cockburn puts it).
That was then, before Zoom and MS Teams. Does the Allen Curve still hold when we consider those modern productivity tools?
The Allen curve still holds up even with those modern connectivity tools. Rather than decline, proximity to others is becoming more critical. Studies by Ben Waber show that counterintuitively, face-to-face and digital communications follow the Allen curve, as shown in the diagram below, adapted from Waber’s article.
In one study, engineers who shared a physical office were 20% more likely to stay in touch digitally than those who worked elsewhere. When they needed to collaborate closely, co-located coworkers emailed four times as frequently as colleagues in different locations, which led to 32% faster project completion times.
In one study, engineers who shared a physical office were 20% more likely to stay in touch digitally than those who worked elsewhere…which led to 32% faster project completion times. Out of sight, out of sync.
— Ben Waber, Work Spaces that Move People HBR
My Chicago-based clients don’t seem to be in a hurry to get back to the office. Over the last two years, many announced plans to return everyone to the office, only to push the date out as it approached.
A friend of mine works as a mechanical engineer at Motorola. Due to her work’s hands-on nature, she has never worked from home despite the pandemic.
Other managers and leaders have returned to the office part-time, usually two days a week. Others are nearly entirely remote.
Outside Chicago, the picture is a little mixed. I have a financial services client on the east coast who was back in the office in mid-2021. They used masks and physical separation in the office. And now they allow people to work up to 2 days a week at home. They cite the ability to work from home as consistent with their values.
It seems that the outlook for in-person and remote work is somewhat murky.
I am curious about your experience with remote work. What is your employer doing, and how do you feel about that?