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Teamwork in 2020: Is home office fit for purpose?

[für die deutsche Version click hier]

Twenty-Twenty was, by common sentiment, a terrible year. As the year closes, many of us live under restrictions. Some have lost jobs or at least some income this year and, most significantly, some have lost friends or family to the pandemic. Like many, these events have given me much pause to thought, and I’ll have a few things to say about risk and decisions in a coming post. As we bid farewell to the year, I’d like to reflect in this article on the main teamwork issue of the year: Home Office.

 From an productivity perspective, home office has worked well, at least for those with office jobs./1/ Today’s digital technology lets teams interact nearly as well as in the office. Connectivity is easy. We see each other, share screens and more. Surely, twenty-five years ago the pandemic’s economic effects would have been much more severe. My colleagues and I are at least as productive now as before the pandemic. In addition to pure work-related measures, some companies have tried to uphold the social aspects of teamwork as well with, for example, “team runs”, for example, where colleagues shake hands virtually before running for 30 minutes and meet digitally again at the end. But, despite all that, as anyone with small children can attest, home office has not been easy.

Home Office Twenty-Twenty


Many have discovered that home office does not necessarily enhance work-life balance. We read everywhere about how exhausted we are from zoom calls. Several of my colleagues have faced real struggles with juggling their work and family obligations, especially with the closures of schools and kindergartens. And, as I have see my colleagues’ kitchens and laundry spiders, it’s clear that some just don’t have the space to work well from home. It’s not just the loneliness or distractions of the home office, the screeching of bored children or the strain of peering into a screen for eight plus hours a day. There’s more to it. 

We’re finding that work is about achieving a common purpose—together. We all need an income, but how we earn that income is (hopefully) an active choice. Thus, an organization (an employer) exists to provide a platform for activities that give us satisfaction and exercise our talents—again, together in common purpose. In this view, an employer exists as a vehicle to enable that common purpose and link it to its beneficiary, i.e. the customer. Indeed, without the receiving customer, the purpose fades from that great thing we just developed. We all thrive emotionally when we see our efforts have helped someone else. 

Despite the success of home office arrangements, we miss the personal interaction with our customers and with our teammates. If we can’t meet our colleagues face-to-face, share the same space, witness the subtilties of emotional expression—indeed, breath the same air—something human is lost. It’s just not the same. I have noticed the tendency of to wave to each other in telephone conferences. An odd habit, isn’t it. No one waves at the end of a telephone call or at the start or close of a meeting in the office. It’s a gesture reserved for the out of doors, perhaps an added dose of friendliness to make up for the social loss we have otherwise experienced. 

So, despite it’s economic success, I doubt that home office will become the working model of the future, as many newspaper articles have speculated. We may have more flexible work conditons, but fundamentally we want to work together in the same space. For all its convenience, home office is not fully fit for the deeply human purposes we seek through our work, because our work really is more about the “we” than we have thus far appreciated.

In the hope that we can all return soon to in-person teamwork, we at TWB wish all of our readers a happy new year.


Note

  • /1/ Many productive and service industries have not been so lucky, as home office is not an option. Musicians and actors, waiters and cooks, pilots, flight attendants and ground personnel—just to mention a few—cannot work from home. Manufacturing industries likewise cannot build cars, appliances or widgets from home. It is nevertheless a sign of the times, that many industries have only been lightly scratched by the pandemic. Nevertheless, I want to express my solidarity with anyone whose work has been adversely affected this year. I hope that the public relief measures have mitigated the pain. But, I hope most of all that you can soon get back to the work you enjoy.

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