Illustration courtesy of Bea Crespo
How Employees, Managers, and Companies Can Adjust to Working from Home
The world of work—and the world in general—has changed drastically. Suddenly, millions of us who are typically office-bound at 9 a.m. find ourselves sequestered at home (kudos to all doing the right thing and social distancing). While those of us in this scenario may feel more grateful than ever for our particular jobs, it’s disorienting to lose the kind of connection we are used to having with colleagues, who may also be close friends. And yet some things remain the same: Emails need answering; projects need completing; meetings need input. In place of the cubicle comes the kitchen table or whatever sliver of space you can commandeer for yourself, your computer, and your thoughts. So how do we do this? How do we figure out this new work-from-home normal?
Harvard Business School’s Lumry Family Associate Professor Prithwiraj Choudhury specializes in the geography of work and innovation. Choudhury has long advocated (prepandemic) for a work-from-anywhere approach, which, according to his research, reaps great rewards for workers, employers, and the collective wallet. Throughout our conversation with Choudhury, he shared advice on how to carve out a productive physical and mental space at home and his thoughts on the silver linings and corporate learnings that may come from this unprecedented time. The biggest takeaway from our conversation with Choudhury: to trust. Trust employees and workers to do the right thing from the comfort and safety of their own homes.
A Q&A with Prithwiraj Choudhury
We are not in a normal time, and people are, understandably, unprepared. In a normal work-from-home or work-from-anywhere situation, you would not be under lockdown. You would not have kids constantly barging into the office; you would be allowed to go to the gym. It’s critical to keep in mind that our experience in this phase is not representative of what would happen typically in a WFH or WFA scenario. But there are tons of practices we can implement.
First off, find a routine and a regimen that works for everyone in your immediate realm, which means talking to your spouse, partner, or roommates if you have them. Be sensible; if two people are working in the same house and you have one office, you can’t have two conference calls concurrently. Successful working from home centers around getting into a routine, setting boundaries with family members, and setting boundaries with yourself.
In a work-from-home or work-from-anywhere situation, it’s almost too easy to keep going for sixteen hours at a stretch. Set personal alarms to go for a walk, bring the dog out, take a break, stop working, stream yoga, etc.
I think getting that personal regimen and routine fixed, having it synchronized with those you live with, and setting these boundaries with others as well as with yourself are the three most urgent actions.
The success of working from home or working from anywhere, in normal times, is predicated on having different ways to communicate and socialize. In a physical company, most communication is face-to-face. You can tap a colleague on the shoulder or pop your head into their cubicle. In a virtual world, that’s simply not the case. If you try to replicate physical communication in the virtual world, it leads to mass frustration. One example is workers spread across time zones. If you want every single employee to join every single Skype or Zoom call, exasperation will mount.
To work around this, remote companies, like GitLab—which has approximately 1,300 employees and no physical offices—adopted a model that centers around asynchronous communication. Instead of trying to get on a conference call for every project or issue, they have a common digital handbook. This handbook could be a Google document, it could be a Slack channel, but it’s not email. The process looks like this: If you and I are working on a project in different time zones or on radically different at-home schedules, I do my work and explain in detail where I’m at on Slack or a shared doc. You wake up, catch up on where I’m at, and get going. It eliminates the need for excessive live talk that can clog and slow the working day. But this communication method is very different from what people have been practicing for decades. I think managers could encourage a little more of this style of communication, instead of trying to have a call or a meeting for everything. The problem with email is you almost feel as if you have to answer every ping whether or not you have something meaningful to add. When it comes to a Slack channel or a Google doc, that’s simply not the case.
There needs to be a new way of thinking about culture. If you think about companies like GitLab, Zapier, and Automattic, they are all remote, but they still have a culture, right? And that culture has evolved through virtual socialization and virtual water coolers. Generally, these purely virtual companies hold temporary colocation events once or twice a year, where the employees all gather for a hike or summit (obviously, this isn’t an option right now). If I were a traditional physical company, I would really study what’s happening with this alt remote model and look for the silver linings like, “Hey, these guys are saving a ton on real estate.” People are moving to smaller towns and saving on the cost of living. Work from home and work from anywhere can be great for employees. Why don’t we embrace this and trust that a new culture will evolve in the virtual world.
I’m very optimistic that this could be a turning point, and the reason is twofold.
Some workers will hate this experience, especially those who have never used communication tools like Slack, Zoom, etc. And some people are understandably experiencing acute personal struggles. At the same time, there will be plenty of workers who will enjoy working from home. Before the outbreak of this pandemic there was a strong demand for more flexibility around working from home, especially for people with dual careers, for parents, and for those who are military spouses or are involved with the diplomatic corps. Often the only way for diplomatic and military partners to work is to work remotely because their significant other is constantly moving. There’s also the immigration issue that’s been hugely topical in the last few years, and it’s becoming very tough to get a US visa. Why not consider work from anywhere as a real option?
Managers and companies will also look at the empty floors and wonder why they need all this real estate—why pay such exorbitant rent in New York and California? Could they cut one level, or could they cut two floors and save? Dell is an example of a company that has gone to 50 percent remote work. The biggest immediate incentive for companies to embrace work from anywhere and work from home is real estate.
Well, I use Zoom and Slack a lot, and I’ve almost stopped using email. I ask that all my coresearchers join my Slack channel. And it works so well because unlike with email, you don’t have to respond to every single thing people write. You can actually search the stuff your colleagues have already posted, whereas on email it can be so difficult to search. And Zoom is, I think, really, really industrial-grade—I’m falling in love with it more and more. Especially for professors, we do so many online classes, and with Zoom, there’s a feature where you can get a report on the attentiveness of each person on the call, what fraction of time they looked at the camera. It’s very refreshing to know, especially for online teachers, which students are not paying attention, and that’s something you cannot replicate the same way in a physical classroom. But again, setting boundaries with family members and with yourself is the key.
Boston-based Prithwiraj Choudhury is the Lumry family associate professor in the technology and operations management unit of Harvard Business School. Choudhury specializes in the geography of work and innovation, with particular emphasis on the effects of location and geographic mobility on productivity and career outcomes. He earned his doctorate from Harvard Business School and worked at McKinsey, Microsoft, and IBM before making the leap into academia as an assistant professor at Wharton and now at Harvard.