The Way We Work Has Changed

By Claire Cain Miller September 11, 2020
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The Way We Work Has Changed

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with the New York Times to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

In the Before Time, Dan O'Leary, a director of business partnerships at a tech company, commuted two to three hours a day and flew on weekly business trips. He adhered to a strict schedule: His alarm was set for 5:30 a.m. to fit in a Peloton ride and shower before catching the train, and his workdays were jammed with meetings.

Since the coronavirus upended office life in March, his workdays have been very different, even idyllic. Sometimes he works from a picnic blanket in a park near his home in San Jose, Calif., or calls into meetings while on a walk.

He is working about the same number of hours, usually 50 a week, but said he is more creative and productive because he gets to choose his schedule. As a manager, he is letting his team do the same. "I don't need to see them at their desk at 6 p.m.," he said. "I can review their work at 10 o'clock at night, sitting in bed after my Netflix binge."

His Peloton miles have doubled to 700 a month because he cycles midday or during meetings (though he no longer keeps his video on during rides; his co-workers banned it). His marriage has benefited from being able to eat lunch with his wife. He stopped having nightmares about missing business flights, and he sleeps 40 more minutes a night.

"Work is totally now for me something you do, not somewhere you have to go," said Mr. O'Leary, 37, on a recent workday while vacationing at his in-laws' home in Southern California after finishing a seven-mile run. "This is not a trend. It's not going backward. The concept of commuting to work—why? Work is going to start feeling more like it wraps around your life, rather than the other way around."

Mr. O'Leary is among the most privileged workers. His job is secure, it's easily done from home, he can afford the space and technology to do it remotely and his company is supportive. He and his wife do not have children, so child care and school closures are not factors when working remotely.

He's not alone: Many white-collar workers say their lives are now like Mr. O'Leary's. They have adjusted their schedules to better fit their lives, and they're enjoying it, according to a new, nationally representative survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times.

This is exactly the revolution that many workers—and those who study them—have been envisioning for years: giving people control over where and when work gets done, instead of demanding face time at the office and rewarding those who spend the longest hours there.

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But this office-less utopia has been nearly impossible to achieve, as some past high-profile attempts—Best Buy, Yahoo—demonstrate. It requires throwing out almost everything about how white-collar work works and rebuilding it from the ground up.

That's never been doable, because most employers saw no reason to change when the old way had been making them money. Now, all at once, the pandemic has forced it on them.

"We basically just did a calendar zero for the entire economy and sort of started from scratch," said Aaron Levie, Mr. O'Leary's boss and the chief executive of Box.

Leslie Perlow, a professor at Harvard Business School who has spent her career going into companies and convincing them to abolish things like meetings or weekend work—in order to add back only what they truly need—said she never imagined she would see this experiment happen on such a large scale.

"People are seeing a different world," she said. "That's going to create the revolution to change the way we work. A lot of this is possible in a way we never knew."

America's office workers have been miserable and burned out for a long time. The expectation of long hours at the office has been particularly hard on parents—especially mothers. Women, young people and people with disabilities have for years been among those on the forefront of pushing for more freedom in where work gets done.

Perhaps not surprisingly, employers have offered many reasons they can't give people quite so much autonomy. People can't be trusted to get their work done on their own, they have said. Clients expect in-person, round-the-clock service. Running into co-workers in the hallway is sure to spur serendipitous ideas, right? And, people need to attend meetings, as well as meetings to prepare for those meetings and meetings to debrief after them.

But in the last few months, it has become clear to everyone what was really going on. Corporate America just didn't want to change. "All these things could be done yesterday: This is the reality," said Betsey Stevenson, a labor economist at the University of Michigan.

It's also clear that America's workers actually like the new way of doing things, even amid the challenges of the pandemic. In the survey by The Times and Morning Consult, which polled 1,123 people who have worked at home these past few months—representing the range of jobs, demographics and income levels of America's remote workers—86 percent said they were satisfied with remote work.

A pandemic is hardly an ideal circumstance, which makes that number all the more surprising: Between sickness, job loss (or the fear of it) and schools not in session, this period has been stressful for many workers.

Also, people who can work from home tend to be privileged in other ways; they're more likely to be white and have high incomes. The new office life leaves out the six in 10 American workers who cannot work from home (giving people in service jobs, such as health aides, more autonomy would involve paying them a livable wage and providing benefits like paid family leave, proponents say).

Not all white-collar employers are committed to this new way of work, either. Some bosses schedule back-to-back Zoom meetings and monitor desk time by whether a green Slack light is on, signifying employees are available. Others have already summoned people back to work. There is also the possibility that employers could panic about trying something new in a recession—and with high unemployment, workers have less power to make demands.

Even for the lucky ones, all-remote work into the winter could become dull and lonely, which is one reason that most office workers say in surveys that they prefer a hybrid arrangement: in the office some days and remote some days.

Still, many analysts say that lockdowns are an unexpected opportunity to remake work for the long term, and that there's no reason a work life like Mr. O'Leary's shouldn't be the norm in a post-Covid world.

In the survey, which was conducted earlier this summer, a significant share of people said they were incorporating more nonwork activities into their workdays: exercising, praying or meditating; taking naps or pursuing hobbies.

About 40 percent said they were taking more walks or breaks, or spending more time outdoors or caring for pets. Half said they were spending more time with their family or doing household tasks. (Realistically, most people weren't working eight or 10 hours straight in the office either, but running or meditating is probably healthier than scrolling through social media or gossiping.)

It seems to be reducing stress levels. Even in a time of extreme stress over all, people who have been working from home were more likely than not to say they were less stressed than before about both work and home life. Roughly 60 percent said working from home had made them more able to focus on their health; saved them a lot of time each day; and made them feel more connected with their families.

Three-quarters said their productivity was either the same or improved. It doesn't take a survey to tell us that interspersing work with rejuvenating activities like walking or resting often boosts energy and creativity.

Workers are already thinking about ways they can keep this going after it's safe to return to the office. Only one in five said they wanted to go back full-time. Nearly one in three said they would move to a new city or state if remote work continued indefinitely, which companies like Zillow and Twitter have already said they would allow. Some people have moved to less expensive places, or to be closer to family or nature.

The share of people seeking to move from big cities like New York and San Francisco has increased, and many are looking for homes in smaller, inland cities like Phoenix or Nashville, according to the real estate company Redfin. Searches for homes in rural areas are up 76 percent from last summer and suburban searches grew 63 percent. Agents said buyers' top priorities included outdoor space and home office space.

Parents with children at home—whose days are busier than ever—say they're more stressed than non-parents, but equally satisfied with working from home, according to the survey. Mandatory face time has always penalized parents, and even more during lockdown.

That helps explain why parents are considerably more likely than people without children to say that working without face-time requirements has improved their productivity, career path, work-life balance, mental health and home life.

Of course, working parents are unlikely to be racking up Peloton miles or taking on other new hobbies, and those without child care are in an impossible situation. But in interviews, some said a silver lining had been more time for meals or walks with their children, and bosses who have suddenly been forced to give them more flexibility.

For workers of color, working remotely brings additional considerations. It could exacerbate the challenges they may already face, like being excluded from opportunities.

Yet some said working remotely can also bring relief from daily microaggressions, like insensitive or ignorant comments made in the office, or the discomfort of being the only Black or brown person in a room.

"That becomes a weight on a daily basis for how you do your work, how you spend your time, the energy to deal with that," said La'Kita Williams, the founder of CoCreate Work, a consultancy that helps new businesses build inclusive cultures.

How Work Became an American Religion

Americans did not always treat work like a religion, said Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian who studies leisure at the University of Iowa.

In the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the definition of "progress" was to work just enough to have more ability to enjoy the rest of life—and Congress even considered mandating a 30-hour workweek.

But during the Great Depression, Dr. Hunnicutt said, President Roosevelt decided the goal should be to create the most work for the most people, and it stuck.

The modern obsession with so-called face time began in the mid-1990s, when employers began paying people disproportionately more for spending long hours at the office—even though that was also the period that technology made remote work possible.

Recently, Dr. Hunnicutt said, more Americans have begun to shift toward prioritizing time over money, as he describes in a new book, The Age of Experiences: Harnessing Happiness to Build a New Economy. It was published in February, right before lockdowns began, which fast-tracked this change in ways he said he never could have imagined.

"I'm in my 70s, and I really didn't think I'd ever see work coming apart as I see it now," he said. "Having this forced separation from our religion of sitting at our desk, we are reconsidering: How much do I want to give my life to this reality?"

Leave the Old Office Routines Behind

Researchers who have spent years trying to convince companies to operate this way warn that the new movement could backfire. To do it right, they say, managers should be very clear about what's expected ("send me this report by Tuesday at noon") and then leave it to employees to determine how it gets done.

"Manage the work, not the people," said Jody Thompson, a founder of a firm called CultureRx, which helps companies figure out how to measure results instead of desk time.

There should be fewer meetings (always with the option of phone instead of video), and days reserved for focused work, researchers say. People should find non-annoying ways to hang out with co-workers, like bring-your-dog or bring-a-drink video calls, or posting pictures of where everyone's working. And people should have rituals to mark the end of the workday, like walking around the block or opening a beer.

Liz Scott, 31, who runs a beauty sales firm, EC Scott, founded by her father, said she has noticed a generational difference in how accepting people are of remote work.

"I've always been, 'Get your work done when you need to do it,' but quite frankly, my father has been like, 'We need to be in the office to get the work done,'" she said.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was some resistance from management. But the change has gone so well the last few months, she said, that the company now plans to permanently give people a choice about returning to the office.

"For us, it's about literally redoing every job description, down to the individual, to include clear expectations so people know they can deliver," she said.

"You have more time for the things that really matter."

This article is reprinted from the New York Times with permission. ©2020. All rights reserved.

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