Thursday, May 14, 2020

How Much Do We Need That Office, Anyway?

Yesterday Travis County announced that after the pandemic has passed, they hope to continue having a substantial portion of their employees (about 3000) working at home, because apparently productivity has gone UP.  The City of Austin and the Austin Chamber of Commerce are reportedly looking at similar plans. 

I'm seeing from friends that companies across the city are looking at the data, and that the combination of 'employees are not less productive working from home' and 'offices are kind of expensive' is starting to percolate through a lot of people's heads.  We're mostly still a month or two from going back to work in many cases, but by that time I think 'work' may look a lot different than it did in February.

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

We're all stressed and distracted and scared and half of everybody is doing double duty as teachers, yet the Travis County employees are still getting more done working remotely.  I am also getting more done on the projects that require deep attention.  We told our bosses, all along, when asking for telework options, that it wouldn't negatively affect job performance.  It's nice to have this data, because all the times a previous employer explained to me that the company wouldn't support telework because 'some people, not me of course, think you wouldn't get your work done' can now be dismissed entirely as bunk.  Instead, we can say "the benefits of telework are so significant that *even under these conditions* it was an improvement for a lot of people."

If you're working right now in a thrown-together emergency home office space carved out of a kitchen table or a family room, start thinking practically about what you need to make your home office work for you as a permanent part of your home.  It needs some way to be separated from your living space, so you can 'leave the office and come home' at some point during your day.  A laptop you can close, a curtain you can pull, just something to draw a barrier between you and your workplace.  If your office permanently transitions part time or full time to telework, be ready with a list of what you need to do your work:  faster internet, office supplies, filing boxes, upgraded laptop, second monitor, collaborative software, membership at a co-working space, second phone so you're not using your personal phone for company calls.  Requests made in transition will be more likely to be approved, especially if you can document how working around them for the pandemic has been difficult.

We can change how we treat collaborative work and team environments.  I don't want to work at home 100%, because I genuinely get a lot out of sharing space with my team, but teleworking one day a week so that I could use the team space for team things and my own space for more intricate or difficult projects would be a huge blessing.  After months of running our businesses entirely in email and Zoom, we have a chance to reset the 'this meeting should have been an email' trope.  As we start looking at what 'coming back to work' looks like, let's really take this chance to stop and consider "How can I prioritize differently to make the time when I'm in the same room as my co-workers valuable and useful?"

One of the things I've been doing since working from home is taking short (15-30 minutes) breaks to work on creative or house projects (like writing this post!).  When I was working in the office all day every day, I didn't always have access to my photos, or my writing, or my garden, to go reset my brain when my focus got fuzzy.  It was also generally frowned on to work on 'my stuff' on 'company time'.  It turns out that being able to step out, immerse in a different set of brain-skills, and then step back in works as well as the experts have been telling us all this time.

This is a good time to really look at work-life balance and see how you manage those boundaries.  One of the reasons, for example, that I've resisted getting my work email added to my phone at my job is that at the last job, work emails would come to me 24/7, and there were a lot of weekends where I saw something come in late Friday evening and spent the weekend thinking about it, or interrupted my weekend to address it.  Every day now, when I am done with work, I shut the work laptop and even though I'm frequently tempted to go in and check on something, I leave it until it's 'time to work' again.  The struggle to just go do a little more because the office is just 'right there' was really hard at the beginning, but I'm getting better at it.

Finally, a citywide shift to increased telework will almost certainly make life better for everyone, even the folks who have to go into the office.  Austin's traffic is legendary.  From before 7am to after 7pm, there's perhaps a 2 hour window between 1:30 and 3:30 in the afternoon where the traffic isn't that bad.  But if, say, as little as 25% of the people on the road were suddenly not on the road, it would transform our traffic patterns.  Think about Columbus Day or President's Day, when the government offices and banks are closed but most of the offices are still open.  If the traffic looked like that every day, we'd all get back 6-10 hours of time a week (depending on how long we normally sit in traffic), and experience a substantial improvement in air quality.

It's not that I'm trying to 'silver lining' the pandemic.  This is a massive global crisis that will severely damage our economy, our health, and our lives.  But it's also a space for us to step outside of a lot of the patterns we've had ripped out from under us, and ask ourselves "Is this particular pattern so valuable to me that it's worth working to reestablish?"

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