Work From Home: Privilege to Policy?

Agile team members working apart or remotely from the rest of the team have long been a thorn in the side of Agile purists. Those who staunchly stood by the Agile Manifesto principle touting the efficiency and effectiveness of in-person face to face conversation, would often rail against the few team members who personally preferred to work on their own or remotely.

I admit I was one of those staunch purists.

And then COVID-19 happened!

As the world continues to be turned upside down by our response to the pandemic, our beliefs, values and assumptions about the world of work are not immune to the upheaval. Over seventeen straight weeks of Zoom fatigue working remotely will do that to you. There is no normal or BAU anymore. Even the “new” normal is subject to change at any moment. Such is life during an apocalypse.

De facto practices that seemed arbitrary pre pandemic are now in the spotlight, up for debate. One such practice is a company’s Work From Home (WFH) practice. Knowledge workers in all the organizations I know of have always been able to work from home when needed. In my experience, this has always been a privilege offered at the discretion of management.  Often, the degree of discretion would vary between different parts of an organization. The reasons for variation ranged from the obvious to the whimsical. Obvious reasons include those related to physical access to confidential customer records or specialized tools and equipment. In those cases, workers would typically have less opportunity to work remotely than those who didn’t. Whimsical reasons often boiled down to an individual manager’s beliefs and assumptions. In those cases, the tolerance for work from home was influenced by how each manager viewed their workers. For example, let’s consider Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y.

Theory X managers who believe workers need to be constantly observed and controlled, would be less willing to support a WFH practice. On the other hand, Theory Y managers who believe workers are innately conscientious and responsible, would be more willing to support a WFH practice.

Contrary to what some employees would like to believe, WFH was rarely, if ever, an employee entitlement or right. That may now be changing given that WFH has become the new normal for most knowledge workers.

Here’s my hypothesis,

Organizations that offered WFH practices as a discretionary and arbitrary ‘privilege’ will now need to consider evolving WFH practices into a formal ‘policy’.

I had a chance to explore this hypothesis and its implications at TAC’s 2020 virtual Agile Open Space. I facilitated a session titled “WFH: From Privilege to Policy?”.

There were many great points raised and discussed. There were also a few interesting and surprising insights.

Here are excerpts from the session:

What are your questions or concerns regarding WFH?

  • “Leadershift[sic]”
  • “How can we increase the leadership’s trust?”
  • “Fair evaluation to both people remote and onsite”
  • “Creating safety”
  • “Will everyone want to continue WFH?”
  • “Some teams never want to come back as they are still very effective being distributed”
  • “What would be a good strategy to cope with partially located and partially remote teams post covid especially in teams level when planning, meetings etc. benefit if all remote or all together?”
  • “How we may now need to re-renovate our space to comply with space recommendations between people?”
  • “How to move from policies to culture?”

What was WFH like pre-pandemic?

WFH Pre Pandemic

Here are the key words I noticed about what went well pre pandemic:

  • Balance
  • Productivity
  • Flexibility
  • Agreement
  • Intentional
  • Outcomes

The two words that interested me were,

  • Intentional. Teams that plan for some degree of remote work as part of their design fare better. This seems to precede even having team agreements in place.
  • Outcomes. It was great to hear that a focus on outcomes rather than output was key to what worked well. It was less about being at the keyboard and webcam 8 hours straight and more about delivering acceptable value.

Here are the key words I noticed about what didn’t go well pre pandemic:

  • Fragmented
  • Connection
  • Reach
  • Collaboration
  • Trust
  • Misconceptions
  • Forgotten

The word Forgotten stood out for me from the rest. Could a WFH practice be such that people who do WFH are soon forgotten by everyone else back at the office?!

What is WFH like during the pandemic?

WFH During Pandemic

Here are the key words I noticed about what’s going well during the pandemic:

  • Value
  • Innovative
  • Empathy
  • Productivity
  • Outside

Three words pleasantly surprised me here,

  • Innovative. It’s interesting that when everyone is working remotely, the level of innovation, creativity and figuring things out goes way up.
  • Empathy. Now that everyone is in the same virtual boat, everyone is able to experience and feel the challenges of working remotely firsthand.
  • Outside. Mixing work and your life outside of work at the same time would’ve been verboten before the pandemic. Society’s norm was to physically separate work life from personal life. During the pandemic, that all changed. The blending of our work and personal lives has evolved. What started out as comical unexpected and embarrassing shots of pets, partners or kids crawling across the webcam field of view has now become deliberate shares of reality. No one thinks twice anymore about bringing in family members, hobbies and baked goods into full view during the workday. It’s as if the pandemic has enabled us to learn so much more about each other personally.

Here are the key words I noticed about what’s not going well during the pandemic:

  • Balance
  • Excuse
  • Video
  • Security
  • Loud

Surprises for me here were,

  • Balance. What was a benefit of WFH pre pandemic has now become somewhat of a disbenefit during the pandemic. Too much of a good thing can lead to a blurring of the line between work and play. The daily commute from bedroom to home office and back provides no separation between workday and personal time. We start losing track of what day it is. TGIF and pub night aren’t what they used to be.
  • Excuse. If the volume of email was a problem pre-pandemic, the problem has now gone into hyperdrive. Email is being used to compensate for reduced face time and casual interactions. We’re spending so much more time filling the gaps in interaction via email creation and consumption that WFH has become an excuse for not having time to virtually interact and collaborate. A vicious cycle driving more and more isolation and less and less togetherness.
  • Loud. The great thing about being physically co-located was the ability to sense when someone needed or could offer help. A loud sigh of frustration or asking a question out loud would often signal a call for help to a teammate within earshot. Looking up to see who was around and what they were doing provided plenty of opportunities to offer help or spark curiosity. Always-on video or chats can simulate some of this but not when they’re muted <sigh>!

What aspects of WFH would you keep post-pandemic?

WFH Post Pandemic

Here are the key words I noticed:

  • Empathy
  • Respect
  • Agreements
  • Outcomes
  • Coolers
  • Visit
  • Play

 

Two words were noteworthy for me here.

  • Coolers. We’ve added many feature-rich virtual and immersive tools to our tool belts to help with virtual collaboration and co-creation. On the other hand, just being able to extricate ourselves from the mess of tooling to have the occasional virtual water-cooler chat or play a Jackbox.TV game can do wonders for the humanness of our relationships.
  • Visit. It’s good to see that management and other stakeholder visits which were always a perennial challenge pre-pandemic continues to hold great value for WFH during and post pandemic. Stakeholder visits grounded in authentic curiosity and a desire to help can sustain feelings of importance, relevance, togetherness and pride.

Thanks to all those who attended or dropped in to contribute to the session. Your participation raised many important and interesting points that deserve further study.

As businesses across the world start to phase their re-opening, many companies are not only studying but also taking proactive measures to set expectations regarding remote work for their knowledge workers. Some, like Shopify, have vowed to not head back to physical offices until 2021. I know of at least one of the big five banks in Canada who may follow suit.

There are still many potential challenges lurking around the corner. One being salary implications based on employee location of remote work. If you plan on working permanently from home and you’re located far away from the office, can your employer really cut your pay for working from home?

It took a pandemic to surface all of the long-lingering questions and undercurrents associated with WFH. Hopefully, it presents a silver lining opportunity to now do something about it.

“COVID is challenging us all to work together in new ways. We choose to jump in the driver’s seat, instead of being passengers to the changes ahead” 

– Tobi Lutke, CEO, Shopify

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