Issue #82
DRAFT - #82 - Remote Work And The Lack Of Trust, Innovation And Imagination
September 08, 2023

#82 - The Remote Work Debate Rages On -- Sans Innovation, Imagination, Or Faith

#82 - Wanted: Innovation, Imagination, And Faith. The Remote Work Debate Rages On.

“It seems to me that my lack of faith is not, as I once thought, a triumph of the rational mind, but rather a failure of the imagination - an inability to tolerate mystery.” ― Zoë Heller

I listened to a podcast this week in which two -- very bright, very thoughtful, very influential -- older men made the argument that it was high time for employees to get back to the office. You know the one: "This has been cute, but it's now time to build relationships in person, time to get productive again, time to innovate as can only be done in close quarters." The standard back-to-work argument.

The kicker? Both these men work -- productively, and successfully -- from home. Both of them have worked from home for decades now. 🙃

Ahh, sweet, tasty remote work. 🍰

For a student of organizations and the way they change, this debate is honestly a bit of a goldmine. Not because of funny ironies like this podcast story ⬆️. Or like Zoom -- Zoom! -- calling its people back to office. Tee Hee. 😛

No, it's not for the gotchas, which to be fair, exist on both sides of the argument. But because more so than any other topic, remote work casts such fantastic light on the tensions that abound at work: those between employers and employees, between younger and older generations, and between more included and more excluded groups, too.

Remote work is, simply put, the hardest-to-ignore battle in what is essentially a war being waged right now -- for power at work.

We don't like to talk about power. Especially at work, where the concept is conveniently taboo. We like to pretend that for some reason our history of jockeying for status and power in groups -- thousands of years of it -- suddenly disappears (poof! 💨) when we gather in groups at work in 2023.

I say all this, but I should also state: Usman and I are not remote work maximalists. We empathize with any company locked into a lease, paying rent for an unused office space. We've seen the hollowed-out downtowns. And we experience the big, messy challenges of remote work every day: communication, connection, engagement, loneliness. We are not saying then: "Remote work is the way."

Our beef, though, is with the back-to-office arguments and the way they ignore the reality of so much modern office work, on the one hand: exclusive, inflexible, and exhausting for far too many. And dismiss the reality of what people now want and need from work, on the other.

Take the arguments from Scott Galloway, the NYU professor-cum-media pundit. Scott often writes thoughtfully about remote work, including its benefits. But he loses us with arguments like these:

"Offices are where young professionals establish relationships with mentors, colleagues, and mates. In sum: Put on a shirt and get into the office.

"If you do not enter the physical workplace early, you’ll miss opportunities and stressors that will make you stronger and more capable."

“I don’t remember my twenties and thirties, other than work. It cost me my hair. It cost me my first marriage. And it was worth it,” he said. “If you expect to be in the top 10% economically, much less the top 1%, buck up. Two decades plus of nothing but work, that’s my experience.”

"Also, the physical workplace offers guardrails, structure, and connections for a generation that’s been robbed of relationships and growth. We are a social species. We live in a capitalist society. Find mentors, colleagues, and mates … get to the office. All of these things can happen on a screen, most will not."

It just feels like Galloway is giving us his formula for career success, that worked for him, in the context of the 80's and 90's.

And look, speaking personally, as Aki -- I also worked hard in my 20's and 30's; I did build key relationships in person; I led teams in person. I met my wife at work! I'm lucky: in person has been good to me.

But I'm also willing to consider that a) in-person has not been good to everyone (this is a massive understatement) b) my experience is my experience, only and c) news flash: the world is, um...changing. What people want from work is changing.

Meantime, jobs, careers, success -- are all non-linear pursuits. They are messy, open-ended, unpredictable -- creative! -- pursuits. They require hard work and luck. There was never one, formulaic "way to succeed"; and now, there are more paths than ever.

Who am I to decide then that your meaning and purpose -- perhaps the most individually derived of quests -- can only be found "at" work? If I sit next to you, and we work elbow-to-elbow together.

While we're here, can we also wax on relationships for a moment? As I say, I've built most of mine in person. I'd go as far as to say I'm a crappy online relationship-builder (so much so, my goal is to improve at building digital ones. 🙌)

But anecdotally, this seems generational: younger generations often have more and deeper online relationships. Just look at the number of long-term partnerships and marriages that have kicked off online.

Which begs the question: why is it so hard for us to think that people might be able to build deep, meaningful, reciprocal relationships without meeting one another? Whether as mentors, colleagues, partners, or friends. Relationships that benefit from the occasional in-person meeting, sure; but that are fundamentally digital-first.

The irony is that these back-to-work arguments are so often based on calls for "innovation." But innovation requires a certain openness, and a willingness to experiment with new ways of thinking and doing. It means taking leaps of faith, taking risks, embracing the unknown -- and imagination.

And that is what rankles us about the back-to-work arguments: their profound lack of self-awareness, generational awareness, patience -- and imagination. Just because something hasn't functioned a certain way up until now is not a reason to think it cannot, or should not, or will not.

Employees, who have more to gain and less to lose, are taking leaps of faith. Employers and bosses, who perceive they have more to lose, are not. So this week, we take a leap together, into three companies experimenting with different ways to work remotely:

🎯 Story #1 - It's fun to chuckle at Zoom calling its teams back to office. But this take on that news is a great prompt to go deeper, look at the rationale -- and ask whether the company's org thinking is as innovative as its product. 🤔

🎯 Story #2 - The J.M. Smucker Company -- "Smucker's", to many a kid who grew up on its jams and jellies 🙋🏻‍♂️ -- was founded in 1897. Like everyone else, it's struggling with remote work. Unlike many, it's piloting some really unique solves. Meet "core weeks", folks. What are they, and why do they seem to be working? 🍓

🎯 Story #3 - In July I caught up with good friends over dinner in San Francisco, one of whose husband worked for a startup called "SafetyWing". We asked what the company did, but it was how he worked for them that made us all put down our tacos. 🌮🌮 🌮 Check out what a firm on the cutting edge of fully remote work looks like, in our final Story.

In the end, the argument here isn't for remote work. It's for more time and space to see if we can't get remote work more right. Work has evolved before, and let's be honest: it's not in a great place right now. Wouldn't it be a more interesting exercise to ask what could be if remote succeeded? If we took a breath and imagined that with a bit of time, a bit of tech, and a lot of effort, we just might figure it out -- and end up in a better place? ✌️

Thanks for reading and exploring with us -- and have a fantastic week!

Aki + Usman


#RemoteWork #Power #Innovation

We're glad we stumbled onto this take from investment firm NZS Capital. First, it forced us to go past the headline of "Zoom brings its team back to work!", and actually consider the company's rationale; shared here, along w/ the firm's thoughtful analysis:

One of the reasons the founder of Zoom cited for the company’s new partial return-to-office mandate is that people are too friendly over Zoom meetings. And, this over-friendliness stifles debate, which stifles innovation.

The other reason cited was that it’s harder to build trust when fully remote, which makes more sense to me: in order to constructively argue with someone, you have to have built trust to begin with, otherwise criticism/questions are easily construed as a personal attack.

Intuitively we agree: if I see and meet you in person, that helps foster our relationship and trust, which in turn increases the likelihood we will openly disagree with one another. ✅

Then again -- regardless of working in person or remotely -- what is more likely to ensure we openly debate is if we see others (especially leaders!) openly debating with one another. When we see that, and see that it is "safe" to debate openly, we're more likely to emulate that.

Better yet: if we see that people who debate openly thrive, i.e. get promoted, get raises, get praised, then we're even more likely to debate openly. In the end, that's how we inspire trust -- in the values and culture that our org espouses.

NZS' challenge to Zoom's "trust can only be built in person" logic is a bit different though, but just as valid:

Even though this logic makes sense, the hypocrisy of Zoom calling employees back to the office feels like a real failure to innovate. Can’t trust be built between two people who never meet in person via new features and technologies like spatial computing?

NZS asks the same question we do in the intro to this newsletter: "Can't trust be built between two people who never meet in person?". But they come at it from the standpoint of technology and innovation: "You helped revolutionize how we work. Who better to apply the same innovation to help solve for trust?"


#RemoteWork #Power #Experimentation #Vocab #CoreWeeks

Many readers recognize the name "Smucker's": maker of peanut butters, and jellies, and syrups, and ice cream toppings. The image ⬆️ comes from a Wall Street Journal article on Smucker's attempt to make remote work work. (That's an employee at their desk, carved into the jelly 🙃)

Smucker's, which is over 200 years old, and based in Ohio, grappled with how to handle coming to the office, at the end of the pandemic:

Smucker's needed to come up with a policy that worked for the business and that could be explained in a way that made sense to staff, [HR Chief] Penrose said. “Every company was dealing with employees who for years had been performing well working remotely,” she said.

Ultimately, the team landed on an unusual approach, based on "core weeks":

The company expects its roughly 1,300 Orrville-based corporate workers to be on site as little as six days a month, or about 25% of the time. Employees are told to hit that threshold by coming in during 22 “core” weeks a year. Many employees can live anywhere in the U.S. so long as they pay their own way to get to Orrville for core weeks. This has led to a growing group of super-commuters who reside elsewhere but work in Orrville.

Well, that's different.

During these core weeks, the office does get a bit...jammed.But that's part of the benefit: the increased concentration of talent in the office at the same time. While also enabling employees to live anywhere else in the country, 75% of the year. Which results in what Smucker's calls "super commuters":

How employees show up for core weeks varies. Many continue to drive in from nearby cities like Cleveland, as they did before the pandemic. Some employees live in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and drive several hours to [HQ], staying overnight. The company’s CMO splits her time between Connecticut and Vermont and commutes to HQ for every core week.

The other lift has been to attracting and retaining talent:

Executives see the policy as an asset in hiring, allowing them to recruit employees who may be uninterested in a role in northeastern Ohio. On a job description for an assistant brand manager at Smucker posted this summer, for example, the position notes that the candidate will be expected “to be on-campus minimally".

Would core weeks work for everyone? Definitely not. Who's to even say Smucker's will keep the policy?

What we applaud is the imagination, the experimentation, and the clear-eyed understanding of work that drives it. From the CEO of the company -- a 230-year-old food manufacturer, mind you, not a software firm:

Whether it’s this model or some other model, I find it very hard to imagine a world where we go back to being in the office even four days a week, let alone five. I just don’t see it happening,” Smucker said. “There’ll be some form of this forever".



#RemoteWork #Power #Experimentation #CoreHours

The birdie above is from startup SafetyWing's website. The company is building a "global social safety net", starting with travel medical insurance and health insurance for individuals; and global health insurance for remote companies to provide their remote teams. (Pension plans for the same coming soon).

No surprise then that SafetyWing is itself a fully remote team of digital employees, spread across three continents, and 60 -- 60! -- different countries. 🤯

How the team works/functions in practice is where things get interesting:

Two times per week a given "core team" gets together online, at fixed times. It doesn’t matter where in the world you're based, you dial in at these two times. Then, outside of these team meetings twice a week, you're free to work when you're most productive.

Then to team-build and foster relationships, teams also get together in person for retreats in different parts of the world:

You’ll get to join our in-person team gatherings 2-4 times a year in places around the world. Examples of past locations are Tulum, Bali, San Francisco, Ljubljana, Oslo."

And of course, the company uses Slack and a battery of digital tools to communicate and collaborate day-to-day.

No doubt it's a self-selecting bunch, or flock 🐦, that opts into an organization like this. But per the team's site:

We consistently score higher than 9/10 on the question, “Would you recommend working at SafetyWing to a friend?” People don’t want to leave: our retention rate is 97% in the last 5 years.

Three companies, three different approaches. None of them -- Zoom's back-to-office mandate, Smucker's core weeks, or SafetyWing's 100% remote -- are for everyone, or every org.

But each of these companies are experimenting, they're adapting -- and they are learning: what does and does not work, in their context? Based on their culture, their business, their team, and their talent market.

So they're all on a curve, getting closer to a healthy part of it; responding to the needs and leaning into the upsides -- talent and business upsides -- of remote work. 🙌

Thanks for reading. 🙏

Work moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
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