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I hate to add to the amount of paper written relating to the horror that is the COVID pandemic, but there are some definite ramifications coming down the pike for businesses from this global firestorm. Ones that business owners cannot ignore.
Business owners have been struggling with the modern workforce for quite some time now. Typically, that has been related to the generation gap between owners and workers with the differences chasm between work expectations—be it time, effort, behavior, or any number of differences that have become apparent. But the pandemic has thrown this struggle into a different level of hell.
For many years now, the idea of working from home has been a reality. However, there was still a negative stigma attached to it. Some people felt that working from home meant that you had a lesser job like that of a side hustle or MLM. We even dressed up the terminology and started referring to it as “working remotely” as opposed to “working from home.” Now many businesses start out at someone’s home, but quickly move into office spaces so that they “can be taken more seriously” as a business. I was one of these people.
When I first broke out on my own and started Reformation Productions as a full-service marketing agency, I ran it out of my home. I dedicated the entire basement level of my home to it. I had office space and studios for graphic design, video, music, and photography. Everything that I needed to perform the necessary daily tasks of my career. When I was able to start hiring staff, you could tell they felt odd about coming to an interview and eventually working from someone’s home…even if it functioned just like a business center in Midtown. And then came the idea of bringing clients in to have meetings. That was uncomfortable as well.
Sure, we’d take meetings at restaurants and the local Starbucks, which was gaining incredible popularity at the time. But if you had a longer meeting or, heaven forbid, an actual work session with a client, it was quite difficult without going to their office or them coming to yours. I remember borrowing the conference room from a friend that ran another successful business…but doing these things can make your business appear less than successful. And like it or not, in the psychology of business, appearances matter. It’s why the starting lawyer will buy a BMW or Mercedes before they can actually afford it. If those factors weren’t important, we’d find it much more cost-efficient to forego the fancy office space, additional utility bills, cars, dress, etc.
So a lot of business owners themselves have vast experience with working from home. Those experiences start to develop opinions and preferences.
Now let’s look at it from the employee side. Doesn’t it sound great to be able to roll out of bed and not have to make yourself presentable for others, to skip the long commute to the office, and to not have a boss looking over your shoulder? Well, of course! All of that sounds great! But it’s always been considered somewhat of a pipe dream.
For most people, if they worked from home, it was temporary while they freelanced until the right job/position/company came along or because they couldn’t work in the office for some reason; it was closed for renovation, the company was new to the city and hadn’t built an office yet, or something.
In the 80s, hiring was like fishing in a barrel. There was a strong work ethic across the nation, people were proud to do a good job, and everyone was eager to make that money. That’s the environment most modern business owners grew up in. It shaped how we thought about working and about business. And when hiring the right people started to become more of a challenge, businesses started throwing more benefits at it to entice the best workers: more time off, cushier office, higher salary, and maybe even the ability to work from home one or two days a week.
Then, when the children of the 80s became parents, they began to compensate for the fact that their parent’s worked all the time. They felt that their parents were obsessed with their careers, and that individual or personal life was being neglected. And that began to shift the pendulum in the workplace. Couple that with the extra benefits that were being offered to superior workers and expectations started forming in their minds. As time marched on, the next generation of workers started feeling entitled to those benefits and eventually started caring more about themselves as individuals than sharing the pride of being a “company man”. I guess that was a natural progression and as it continued, businesses kept feeding into it—building offices with quiet, relaxation areas, “hip” office environments, and onsite daycares.
So if this article is about letting employees work remotely, why am I diving into the work psychology of the workforce over the years? Because it’s directly relative.
With computers and modern-day technology, it is very possible to have employees able to do several jobs from the comfort of their homes. The problem is that several business owners and managers believe that many of them simply won’t do it. There has long been a fear (and a reality for some) of employees taking advantage of business owners. Think in your own lives and careers, how many times have you, or someone you’ve known, slacked off on the job, quit working early, wasted an entire day not really getting anything done, or taken office supplies (even if it was just a pen, or paper, or notebook), or anything you knew you were going to use for purposes outside of why the business owner purchased them? Many owners and managers feel all of this is theft from the employer and taking advantage of the opportunity they have provided to employees to work for them. That is how it was explained to me many years ago by a manager I was working under. And when you think about it, if workers are paid hourly, that means the business is buying that hour. It’s going to cost them $15 for that hour of labor, just for example. If the laborer doesn’t provide the work that the business is paying for, then it’s quite like stealing that $15. This can hurt many a business and, for small businesses, it can mean closing doors.
Now, I know many subscribe to a philosophy that “the man is bad” and they “deserve it for how badly they’ve been treating workers for years” and any number of “capitalism is bad” excuses. In some cases it’s true, but in the U.S., you can always quit and simply don’t work there. That would do more to shape the employer’s behavior than workers developing bad work habits and punishing them by their actions if that is the worker’s intention. But the threat/fear/reality of employees stealing from their employers has only made owners/managers bitter and continued the traditional cycles of mistrust between employer and employee. In reality, in America, working relationships are a two-way street. If one wants to be treated with respect, one has to be respectful to the other. Hey, that’s biblical!—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And it’s very true…But not very natural in a lot of cases. Matter of fact, finding these individuals to hire has been quite the challenge even if we weren’t talking of remote working.
Pipe dreams and wishful thinking aside, we have to live in the reality of where our predecessors have brought us. But we can start to make strides to move the pendulum once again. But pendulum movements take time. In the interim, we’ve been stuck with knowing that many employees simply aren’t suited to work without supervision. The ones that are, shouldn’t be punished for those that aren’t, but at the same time, extending these warranted or earned benefits to everyone may not be wise either. Then we have the “fairness” movement and all the issues associated with that. This makes it a very difficult consideration for business owners—the idea of having employees remotely.
The Practical Side
Then, we have more practical considerations. Many of you that may follow me likely know that in addition to business consulting, I work in the creative industry. Thinking and creative collaboration are of paramount importance to our careers in marketing. And you simply cannot replace the synergy that happens when a creative team works together in the same physical space. The ability to brainstorm together and share ideas, to get the real-time opinions and input of your colleagues or supervisors on your works in progress—not to mention the natural camaraderie of sharing in a work environment or pulling together as a team for a common goal while watching each other’s struggles and triumphs. Is it convenient? No. Is it valuable? Yes.
Even more practical is the fact that several businesses use special machines, tools, and software that can’t be used from home because of the relative expenses or sensitive nature that may be associated with them. Also, some employees work from a shared server with large and sometimes sensitive files that can’t or shouldn’t be made available online for remote access. And maintaining a larger server in the cloud can be quite costly and slow (inefficient in time and money) in addition to the concerns of keeping things secure with the ever-growing skills of hackers and deviance in the world.
Now all of these considerations and deep thinking were present before the pandemic. Then, the stay-at-home orders happened and employers were forced to allow employees to work from home if they were going to continue operating. Those workers that simply couldn’t work from home, were often furloughed. And as this continues to drag on, people are getting used to it. I imagine it will be difficult for colleges to convince students to come back to campus since they now know they can get an education without paying to move to a university. And it’ll be difficult for employees to want to come back to the office as well. Even if it is actually going to be better for them or/and the school/business. People don’t like change, but once change happens it is twice as hard to revert to the way things were before.
So, to the question, should you let your employees work from home? Well, that depends on how each of the factors and considerations I’ve mentioned directly affect your specific business.
- Do you have trustworthy employees with strong, positive work ethics that have the drive and discipline to work remotely without much supervision?
- How would offering those benefits affect the rest of your required workforce that may not hold those qualities?
- Does your business operation require special machines, tools, or software that employees can’t afford at home or you can’t provide to them for one reason or another?
- Does your line of work thrive based on synergies between physical people located in the same place?
- Can you find enough workers willing to work in-office or remote as the preference may be?
- Will it be detrimental or even possible to host clients or customers with a more empty office environment or no office space at all?
As you look around now, you see businesses failing because not enough employees are available in the workforce to operate their businesses. You see “Now Hiring” signs outside most restaurants and retailers, while these same businesses are finding it difficult to keep inventory because there are not enough drivers working to bring them what they need to operate, and consumers are suffering for it.
We ordered in lunch for a working client meeting just this past week and the restaurant canceled our order because they couldn’t find anyone to deliver it. I went to the pharmacy to find that they are reducing their hours because they don’t have enough staff to operate during their normal times. I’ve seen restaurants that have many, many empty tables, and yet they won’t seat customers because they don’t have enough staff to serve them efficiently if they do. Then there is the NY Harbor backup that has businesses stopped, waiting for their supplies that are literally just off the shore because the harbor doesn’t have enough people to process the backlog from when the harbor was closed during the shutdown.
These are problems that the traditional media channels aren’t talking about for some reason (I’m sure it’s political somewhere). And it is affecting all of us—businesses and customers alike. So the question becomes, why are people not going back to work? We obviously had enough workers to function before the pandemic and now that unemployment relief has ended in most states, why are many simply choosing to not work? That’s a mystery to many. Maybe they just aren’t in the mindset to return to an office or place of business or they’ve learned that they can survive on less or everyone has become independently wealthy during the pandemic. Many businesses are trying to address the first possible issue by offering work-from-home opportunities. And sometimes it’s not good for our society as a whole.
As a side note, I went to the store this week to find a Gatorade shortage. The company can’t pack their product because they can’t get the bottles they need to do so. And that’s because the company that makes their bottles doesn’t have the parts that they need for the necessary machines. And they can’t get the replacement parts because that specific country has shut down its borders.
As businesses are not being able to operate as they did before, I think we are going to start seeing some changes. The driver shortage is going to lead to the advancement of automated delivery by drone and self-driving cars. Then individuals that have a career in driving logistics are going to be without work opportunities. Restaurants will adapt to find more ways to service customers without a physical waitstaff—you can already see it with the check-out table kiosks at many restaurants and computerized walk-up kiosks at fast food places that take your order. Just look at the self-checkout system now adopted by most grocery stores. That has put many a person unable to find an hourly job and made many a customer now have to work to perform tasks like ringing up their order and bagging their groceries themselves when it used to be part of what employees were paid for.
Did the costs of products go down to compensate for the customers’ additional expectations and work? Nope, not at all. Time marches on. And as a remote workforce starts to become more prominent, we will see it turn to a global workforce rather than local. Over the decades, many a family has moved cities to find employment. But soon, the jobs simply may not be here. Think about it, if all employees are working remotely, it no longer matters where in the world they are. And companies will start hiring outside their city, state, and country…which will hurt regional economics. And with less supervision, does that mean quality control and assurance will lessen as well? It’s a lot to consider. It’s not as easy an issue to address as many may think.
As for Me and My House
For me, while I ponder the idea of closing my office space from time to time, saving that money, finding great employees that can handle the responsibilities, and working from home, I find having a dedicated space for work and the synergies between the employees much more valuable than having the convenience of working from home, considering all the factors above and how they impact my business. Then again, I much more prefer in-person speaking engagements to the online, Zoom webinars I’ve been hired to provide since this pandemic started as well. Is the knowledge I provide the same? Sure, but without the synergies between the audience and myself, I find it less fulfilling. Remember that? Fulfillment? I still think that matters. For me, there is just no replacing doing a great job with great people. Let’s hope we can find them once again.
At the time of this article, Reformation Productions has been in “now hiring” mode and unable to find who we need…just like many other businesses.
Has your business made the shift to remote work? Let us know your experience in the comments.
This article was originally published in GREY Journal.