I vigorously support the new WFH shift.
My mental state and overall well-being have flourished as a result of being able to design the conditions under which work and family converge harmoniously in my life. I accept that that’s a privilege.
I’m also an ardent believer in work-life integration and believe WFH is a good canvas on which corporate skeptics can begin to dabble and invest in their human capital not just as an “asset class” to be manipulated for profits and outcomes but as people with real lives and interests outside of the workplace.
Personally, I enjoy being around people a little too much to thrive in an office environment.
The thing is I like the idea of basking in the “psychological warmth” of others, but I find the physical workplace to be a sensory overload.
Working from home is my best coping mechanism in a world where people and information tend to barge into our lives unannounced. Momentarily shutting off from the outside world is how I wean myself off the deluge of uncomfortable elevator conversations and get shit done.
But that’s just me and I am not a model citizen.
I don’t like the idea of fully remote work, Sam,
not for young women, not for young men,
no, not one, Sam I Am.
Get this, if you’re a young professional, my intention is not to rain on your city-hopping parade. Sure, there’s a tinge of heartburn that occasionally rises up to the back of my throat like bad GERD but I have mostly kept that down ever since my kids are back in school full time.
But if I can keep it one hundred with you, I’m a little concerned that there might be a dark side to fully remote work and the people who will be disproportionately impacted in the long run are the new breed of talent entering the workforce, especially Black and Brown people.
Now, I don’t have a crystal ball on this but I could see a slow reversal of the marginal gains we’ve made prioritizing the idea of representation and equity in the workplace.
Most things that are out of sight are also out of mind, and people of color have historically been victims of both.
NYU Professor, Scott Galloway put it this way “relationships are a function of proximity.” He believes the great dispersion of work (people being able to work from anywhere) will force people into insular tribes and prevent organic relationships between people from different backgrounds from congealing and thriving into diverse cultures and communities.
Believe it or not, it’s people being able to share each others’ worldview and experiences that eradicates equity barriers. Addressing the state of diversity in the workforce today is not a one side solves all approach. It will require diverse minds and diverse people poking around and finding solutions.
“The office is more than a place of work, it’s an equalizer. Meeting people from different backgrounds, running into someone by the water cooler, having a spontaneous lunch with someone you barely know — chance connections are aspects of the office many of us miss,” said Galloway.
Healthy relationships thrive in emotionally warm and psychologically safe environments. Being cloistered at home, talking to a screen of avatars that occasionally talk back is neither emotionally warm or psychologically safe, but that’s a topic for another time.
However, it is that warmth and safety we feel from physically being around others that help early talent squash the butterflies in their stomach and adjust quickly. Our physiological systems are highly responsive to positive social interactions, according to Leonard Mlodinow, author of Emotional and Subliminal.
There is a piece in the New York Times, Remote Work is Failing Young Employees, that talks about early employees feeling like strangers at their own company. The camaraderie young employees share when they join a traditional workplace is absent in the WFH model. According to the NYT piece, new employees face an uphill battle to adapt and navigate the new byte-sized environment from day one. They often feel cutoff from others and invisible to peers and managers, thus missing out on the early interactions that are critical to every new hire’s experience and success.
There’s a general practice in most brick and mortar workplaces to use a buddy system to help new hires navigate the new terrain and acclimate to the workplace culture much more quickly. According to SHRM, buddy systems fast track relationships and create an early network of trusted colleagues that new hires can consult whenever they run into roadblocks on the job or in the carrying out of their essential duties.
Without that early support system, some new hires have reported that confidence in themselves and work begins to atrophy to the point where they avoid asking questions out of fear of being seen as incompetent and possibly jeopardizing their job because they feel unsafe soliciting help from people with whom zero trust has been established.
Outside of an effective on-boarding system, a lot of the gray areas of a new job can be filled by something I will call “on-the-job eavesdropping,” not the one of the nefarious and gossipy sort. Instead, it is a practice newcomers engage in by observing the performance and behaviors of their more adjusted co-workers and the feedback loop from internal stakeholders to confirm what’s acceptable or unacceptable.
Early employees usually have little to no workplace context compared to more experienced colleagues who may have already been immersed in the culture or have worked in similar settings in the past. Both use on-the-job interactions as a way of ramping up on new information or as a lever for easily retrieving knowledge and putting it into action.
That sort of accelerated learning is largely absent in the WFH model, which depending on your socio-economic upbringing could be your career’s Achilles’ heel. Especially, considering that some members of the same cohort of new entrants entering an organization have significantly more “career context” and the workplace is essentially pitting you against other members for the next job.
This disadvantage is especially real for Black and Brown early talent, many entering the workforce for the first time, and in a lot of cases, the workplace is their very first real encounter with people who are doing what they aspire to do and from whom they can potentially pick up useful skills and knowledge if even by osmosis.
Proximity to senior colleagues that early talent can emulate and learn from becomes key to gaining career momentum, whether that’s via mentorship, sponsorship, or purely the closeness of being in the same room. The more barriers between those relationships eventually erode growth opportunities and remove the levers to unlocking network effects for young professionals of color. By that I mean, the more people you have championing your success the more likely you are to succeed and hit your career milestones.
Work is not just something we do or some place we go to get away from annoying roommates, spouses, or kids. Work is our network, it’s our primary source of social connectedness since that’s where we spend most of our waking hours. The workplace is a vibrant ecology teeming with people, cultures, and personalities coming together to create experiences and to get shit done, and early talent are missing out on opportunities to create lifelong relationships.
We don’t work our way into the next job, we network our way into it through our interactions with peers, managers, and senior leaders. No one tells us that because those who thrive in the workplace tend to discount relationships as the force multiplier of their success and instead overemphasize their dedication and brilliance. And those who think they know propagate the same misinformation of attribution bias.
Corporate mentorships are as plentiful as houseflies and because it is so oversubscribed, it becomes an ineffectual campaign for career growth for Black and Brown people. Black and Brown professionals need sponsors because sponsors can get them into rooms that performance and talents by themselves can’t.
I understand that fully remote work might not be the best option for some people, but for those who can go to the office a couple days per week/month, get there early, and maybe even leave a little late, it will serve you well in the long run.
Presence creates good optics. Or, as Shakespeare put it, “all the world’s a stage.”
Don your best suit, this is your Act 1, Scene 1.