Not A Simple Boundary
As we cross from the last to the next, how are we changed?
The Quote of the Moment
A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience, or a stage of life that it intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up.
| John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us
In When Everything Is A Crisis, Nothing Is, Paul Taylor distills the key thinking from Elsbeth Johnson and Fiona Murray regarding crisis:
It often takes the reality of a genuine crisis to shake an organisation out of complacency. It can boost courage and give us the impetus to take actions that would be unthinkable in times of calm.
Writing for MITSloan, Elsbeth Johnson and Fiona Murray identify five interdependent conditions that characterize a crisis and boost innovation.
A crisis provides a sudden and real sense of urgency.
This urgency enables organizations to drop all other priorities and focus on a single challenge, reallocating resources as needed.
With this singular focus and reallocated resources, it’s now everybody’s job to come together to solve the problem, bringing a new diversity of viewpoints and perspectives.
This urgency and singular focus legitimizes what would otherwise constitute “waste,” allowing for more experimentation and learning.
Because the crisis is only temporary, the organization can commit to a highly intense effort over a short period of time.
But what if crises are not of the sort that can be attacked and surmounted in a ‘short period of time’? The US housing crisis is likely to require decades of focused effort to overcome. In the business context, how long will Boeing take to rework its foundations and return to an engineering-first culture? Likewise Volkswagen? A decade?
The climate crisis will take 1000 years to get ‘back’ to the temperatures of the 1960s. Can we stay in crisis mode that long?
Rani Molla tries to interview too many people and asks too many questions in The future of remote work, according to 6 experts, with uneven results. I dislike this style because there is very little follow-up or any challenges to what the experts say.1
How many people are going to work remotely in the future, and will that change in an economic downturn? Will remote work affect their chances of promotion? What does it mean for where people live and the offices they used to work in? Does this have any effect on the majority of people who don’t get to work remotely? If employees don’t have to work in person to be effective, couldn’t their jobs be outsourced?
I have cherry-picked a few questions and answers:
To what extent will remote work affect where people live?
One of the experts is Nicholas Bloom, and it's strange that he doesn't answer this question since he's been involved in so much research on the Donut Effect, the research finding that many people are moving from the urban center of superstar cities (NYC, LA, SF, etc.) to their suburban and exurban peripheries beyond normal commuting range.
Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin: Remote work is already affecting where people live. A record nearly one-third of homebuyers looked to relocate out of their home metro in the second quarter of 2022. That’s up from roughly 26 percent before the pandemic.
In expensive superstar cities, working-from-home workers will be more likely to move to the suburban fringe, where land is cheaper and the homes are newer.
This is the Donut Effect, although he doesn’t use the term or acknowledge Ramani and Bloom’s research.
Here’s an anecdote that is really terrible:
Will remote work cause companies to hire more contractors or more people outside the US?
Johnny Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management: An employee came to me, and she made a really, really compelling case: “Johnny, I don’t need to come into the office.” She literally gave me a three-page memo making the case for why she could work remotely. And I smiled and said, “Be careful what you pray for. In the process of saying, ‘I don’t need to interact with other people, I’m an individual contributor,’ you’ve literally made the case that your job can be outsourced. And now I don’t have to cover your pension plan, I don’t have to deal with a salary increase every year, I don’t have to do any of that.”
And guess what? I did exactly that. I outsourced that role.
What an asshole. Just proves that as soon as linear, traditional-minded businesses can treat workers as interchangeable parts, they will.
Note that the worker's work didn't change, all she did was bring the situation to Taylor's attention, and BAM! Fired immediately. No discussion about recrafting her role so it would be necessary to come to the office some. And the apparent blame for this is supposed to be left at the feet of the worker.
And note that Rani Molla makes no moral judgment on this.
Bloom: So dozens of firms have said if they can’t get workers to their jobs in the US, they will move their jobs abroad. Working from home has shown how easy it is to have fully remote employees and teams, and in an era of tight domestic labor markets with restricted immigration, moving jobs overseas is one common solution (the other being automation).
And automation is also being done as fast as possible by linear businesses.
Bloom: this is probably good for most US citizens. US labor markets are incredibly tight, generating painful inflation and shortages of goods and services. Try taking a flight, booking a restaurant meal, or hiring a contractor.
However, those three examples are jobs that can't be outsourced, the workers have to be there in the flesh.
Bloom: It is extremely hard, as there is too much demand for labor right now. So having some foreign workers fill that gap in is good news. Of course, if the US hits a hard recession and unemployment rises drastically, that benefit will be less clear.
And what happens to the US economy if every job that can be outsourced, gets outsourced? Molla never asks. Just another phase of offshoring, as we saw in the late 20th Century? Which crushed US manufacturing and crushed the middle class to such an extent that it has not yet recovered.
What will happen to remote work in a recession?
Gupta: I actually suspect remote work will increase. While firms have bargaining power against employees, they mostly want to cut costs like real estate leases, pushing people remote.
Firms are also less interested in onboarding new employees into corporate culture and long-term innovation — two important use cases for the office. It’s more about keeping things going, which can be handled by existing workers at home.
Fairweather: If a salesperson in Cleveland lost her job, she may have had to move to San Francisco to find another sales job. But with remote work, you can do a sales job from anywhere.
Actually, we are not in a recession, per see. We are in a period of high inflation, which is often, but not always, followed by a recession.
More cogently, David Autor's research (see Work of the Past, Work of the Future) shows that middle-skilled workers are not moving from one large city to another for work, anymore. That faded away in the 20th Century, as mid-skilled jobs (like sales) fell sharply in major US cities as manufacturing moved out, to China and elsewhere.
So, a deeply uneven piece, that doesn’t dig into the economic backdrop that would substantiate — or argue against — what these panelists are saying.
However, the article does lay bare some of the base impulses of linear business thinking, and hardly touches on how many (not many in this group of experts, though) are using the Pandemic Reset to shift toward emergent business thinking, as I explored in this recent essay: From Linear To Emergent Culture.
My sense is that we need to start with an aspirational model of work: how it could be at some not-too-distant time in the future, based on countering the negatives in modern work culture. Instead of approaching these problems statistically or ethnographically, instead, we could start with an idealized work culture where the various cultural pillars support each other and collectively represent an evolution away from an out-of-balance culture, one where the needs of all are sacrificed for the wants of a few. Therefore, I will attempt to characterize a possible future work culture, one that balances the needs of all.
I will be expanding on these ideas in upcoming posts, building toward the Work Futures 2022 Report.
Peter Coy of the NY Times does this sort of panel-of-experts article so much better.