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What to Expect When Expectations No Longer Matter

Not to age myself, but I became a teleworker in 1993, back when it was just barely possible, technically speaking, to be one — and continued teleworking throughout the course of the subsequent two-plus decades. I didn’t start working in an office again, just a few days a week, until joining my current employer in 2014.
My impetus to work from home all those years ago was pregnancy and the desire to eliminate my tiresome commute, which involved dealing with the weather extremes of Chicago winters and summers and wedging my way into a crowded “L” train twice a day. Day in and day out. Personal motivation aside, I had the luxury of not needing to be in the office because I’d been working remotely, anyways. That’s to say, my managers, peers, and direct reports were always somewhere else, initially at headquarters offices in other cities but over time either there or working remotely from other offices or home themselves. This changed when I joined my current company, with my manager and many team members working from an office locally.
With each job, the expectation around my presence was always clear: Work regular hours from home and be available to come into the headquarters office as necessary for team meetings and collaborative project work. One job required that I be at the main office once or twice a year for a few days at a time, for example, while another necessitated that I fly in for a week every month, to accommodate production work that couldn’t be done from afar due to limitations of Internet bandwidth. When I took my current job, the expectation was that I would come into the office on a regular basis — three days a week — because that’s where my manager and the bulk of team members were and working side by side and meeting face to face simply made sense.
Having to commute regularly after so many years of working pretty much exclusively from home took some adjustment. But the value of the in-person team meetings and office camaraderie became immediately apparent. So now what? COVID-19 social-distancing requirements dispensed with the expectations around coming into the office, and lifting of restrictions won’t necessarily change that as the need to ensure employee wellbeing will trump the need to re-occupy an office.  
I got to thinking about all of this after reading a recent article on GeekWire by Marcelo Calbucci, CTO of Hiya, a Seattle tech startup. In this piece, Calbucci set about to fight the work-from-home (WFH) tide with a list of reasons why WFH “isn’t always unicorns and rainbows.” His first reason is this: “That’s not what your team signed up for.” And his detailed explanation is this:
“Part of choosing a company to work for is to identify with their work culture and their values. For a lot of people, it was the desire to work side by side with other folks. For others, it’s a cool office space in a buzzing neighborhood. A switch to remote work is a bait-and-switch to your employees. Yes, some folks will welcome this change. Some won’t.”
Others of his reasons build on this — like WFH reducing the social interactions that many people crave during the workday, having to change the very DNA of a company in the switch to WFH, and the ability to maintain a company’s culture when teams are working from home. “The risk is the brewing of sub-cultures and countercultures,” Calbucci wrote. “Executives or HR can’t take their eyes off the ball, which is something that happens often with fast-growing companies. It also happens in dysfunctional companies in general, which most are.”
As I’ve written previously, companies that have strived to foster collaboration among employees and within their workspaces hopefully won’t ditch these goals in the wake of COVID-19. I do hope that we’ll be able to find a not-too-horribly-awkward way to enable the day-to-day interplay and personal dynamics that’s so central to an office environment as we recoup from COVID-19 social-distancing mandates. Feeling that you’ve been duped, even if a global pandemic is at hand, is never a good thing.