What if the get-back-to-the-building museum leaders are the ones risking irrelevance?
As I've read more and more pieces along the lines of "how to keep your remote employees in the loop" and "managing the hybrid workplace" and "lean into uncertainty!" while also talking to colleagues, both remote and back at the office, I've started to come to a realization—not only is there a gap between what the leader- (and wannabe-leader-) focused business press is writing about remote work and what is actually going on in the field, but, in fact, all the writing about remote work might have it completely backward.
The culture of museum work has already moved hybrid, if not entirely remote. This doesn't mean that no one is back in museum workplaces; it just means that the center of gravity is no longer the museum building; it's diffuse now, an expanding universe of remote workers, distant other institutions and vendors who don't get visited via business travel, audiences seen and unseen, staff and interns whose interactions are over screens and whose lives are rooted more strongly to the difficulties of pandemic existence.
We all want our institutions to succeed—well, assuming they want us to succeed—but not at the cost of ourselves. Workers in general are simply not focused on the physical workplace as workplace any longer (paywalled article, but the headline says it all: "Americans Are Willing to Take Pay Cuts to Never Go Into the Office Again"). This isn't so much work-from-anywhere as work-is-where-I-need-it-to-be-at-this-moment.
The massive uncertainty over the health and status of one's entire environment just makes the idea that "I have to be in this one place today" irrelevant. Maybe it's the kid's school suddenly closed, the elderly parent's doctor appointment suddenly remote—or climate collapse has made it too hot to take them to the doctor that day—or the co-worker suddenly ill so there's no in-person meeting, or the local virus number spiking so there's no goodbye lunch to that colleague, or just "it's all too much, I need a day off." And that's for people with the privilege to have some autonomy over their days. For people in marginalized groups or precarious finances or stressed situations without slack (or all three), the friction may lead to job loss or outsourcing, or to leaving the field entirely.
What I mean by all this is that the conversation, the zeitgeist, is shifting from "how are we going to get everybody back here"—and, yes, that's what leaders want even if they're going to any lengths to make remote work possible, yet messaging that the culture of museums is everyone in the same place—but they haven't done enough to the nature of museum work to make the return desirable and necessary. (Am I going to risk an hour-long commute that could expose me and thus my family to delta just for the chance of a hallway conversation or water-cooler gossip session? What if not enough people are at work that day to run into them in the hallway or the water cooler?) Department heads still have too much authority and autonomy to counter museum-wide policies with their own mini-cultures—sometimes for the better for their workers, sometimes worse, but always chipping away at the idea of "we're all in this together."
I've only been to my workplace once since the lockdown, but there were just a couple of people there, it was dark, there were boxes and spare monitors everywhere. It felt like the office had been cobbled together in the ruins of a crashed spaceship or a museum-field rapture or over an old temple; functional, but still not what it once was. I know many of you have been to work far more often, and I'm sure things may feel different as we approach some mythical "most of us are back" moment, but it's not the same as the before times. It's not that that's okay but that that's what it is (article may be paywalled, but the title is "Workplace of Future Is More Clubhouse Than Cubicle"). After all, there were a million things wrong with that normal.
The new reality of in-workplace work may be the one that has to catch up. Traditional offices may very well start to feel like workplaces in the last week of December—people in the office can get a lot done, but the action is elsewhere, or out there (the productivity certainly was, at least). The challenge for all kinds of workplaces will be to align with that remote energy and get past that "the culture is here" sense that still beats in the background of hybrid work plans like cosmic microwave radiation.
Anyway, here are a lot of links. As I told the regular subscribers to this newsletter, this is the last LOTW until Labor Day. After next Tuesday's sequel to automation in the museum workplace, the site will be on hiatus until September 7. I hope your workplace hybrid conversations are centering humanity.
- Here's Axios on how in-person work can help younger employees (link was provided by the Dispatches newsletter from AAM's Center for the Future of Museums, a must-read subscription).
- The Atlantic provides many against-the-grain articles about vaccination (not anti-vax, just moving beyond conventional wisdom) and the course of the pandemic; while articles about how the vaccinated are not immune are now more common, the reality check (WaPo might be paywalling this) people need is only now coming into view.
- This tweet thread gets into the mindset of the vaccinated about the unvaccinated and the changing narrative about "who is to blame" when the latter fall ill.
- Breakthrough covid might be part of the calculus of life; museums, as attractions, workplaces, and parts of their areas, must ask themselves what this means.
- How can museum workplaces build on the gains and learnings of a year of remote work (also the democratizing effect, though, of course, some workers did not have the power or position to work remotely—the answer being not to end remote work but to distribute agency and autonomy equally) and not just look for the positives of in-person work (also here)?
- Workers are ready to say, "Let me work from home or I will find another job."
- Vaccine misinformation is being oversold as a problem above and beyond our societal issues with trust and monetized narratives; leaders must consider the way that their inner circle communicates decisions out to their workers, as well as for workers to consider that way that information gets to them in the org.
- Before we wonder about the future of work-life balancing, let's consider how work was already intruding on life.
- We have a chance to reconsider the idea of the entire "normal workday"—do we do 9-to-5 just so that we can be around when leaders need us? Harvard Business Review wonders the same, emphasizing that leaders have to model the behavior, and not just because they're on biz trips or vacations to Europe.
- It goes without saying that this only works if the organization's leaders value the opinions, knowledge, and experience of outsiders to the institutional power structure (this article has a lot of questions that managers should be asking—if you're not getting these, then your managers aren't thinking everything through—or have been told not to).
- I've linked to this before, but the site Quartz published their thoughts from after a month of hybrid work—one spoiler, to them, a vaccine mandate was a no-brainer and a "nontroversy." Other spoilers—hot-desking is not popular (people want a desk, a place that is theirs, to return to), hybrid really does mean remote, group activities are popular if they're authentic and compelling, get that coffee machine working again, and that there's no generational pattern to whether people want to be in the office, remote, or whatever combination fits their circumstances. (HBR adds some useful thoughts about returning to the office, though it still feels like remembering to brush your teeth the day the meteor is due to hit …)
- The issue of vaccine mandates will change daily, but NYT from last month asked, rather than "'Can we keep workers safe in our buildings?' but 'Will workers feel comfortable enough coming back, even if good controls are in place?'"
- Businesses that want certainty and simplicity regarding vaccine mandates may be out of luck, as there are as many workers who would consider quitting if there were an employer vaccine mandate as there are workers who would consider quitting if there weren't a mandate.
- This article in Medium describes how 15 tech companies are handling the return to the office: a mix of 3-2 plans, equal splits, mostly WFH, all remote, work anywhere, or still not sure. No clarity here!
- Though we point the fingers at meetings or emails as the ultimate productivity killers, the truth is both more nuanced and more structural, with causes like data entry and covering for colleagues (a blog post from automation-maker Zapier, so grain of salt suggested)
- HBR not-surprisingly has lots to say about hybrid workplaces: here, here, also this podcast transcript with Remote Work Revolution (your head of HR has probably read it) author Tsedal Neely here (still defaulting to the "creativity and socialness only happen in the office" model), and what's changed because of Delta, with many good overall points. And this important article reminds us that workplaces were not designed for inclusion—this is an opportunity to correct that.
- Uber-consultancy McKinsey has plenty to add, including this piece on building psychological safety in hybrid workplaces.
- I've seen this article from the Atlantic shared about the benefits of working from home. It's really quotable:
Some of the people loudly calling for a return to the office are not the same people who will actually be returning to the office regularly. The old guard’s members feel heightened anxiety over the white-collar empires they’ve built, including the square footage of real estate they’ve leased and the number of people they’ve hired. …
It gets better:
Remote work lays bare many brutal inefficiencies and problems that executives don’t want to deal with because they reflect poorly on leaders and those they’ve hired. Remote work empowers those who produce and disempowers those who have succeeded by being excellent diplomats and poor workers, along with those who have succeeded by always finding someone to blame for their failures. It removes the ability to seem productive (by sitting at your desk looking stressed or always being on the phone), and also, crucially, may reveal how many bosses and managers simply don’t contribute to the bottom line.
When we are all in the same physical space, we are oftentimes evaluated not on our execution of our role but on our diplomacy—by which I mean our ability to kiss up to the right people rather than actually being a decent person. I have known so many people within my industry (and in others) who have built careers on “playing nice” rather than on producing something. I have seen examples within companies I’ve worked with of people who have clearly stuck around because they’re well liked versus productive, and many, many people have responded to my newsletters on the topic of remote work with similar stories. ...
Now, this article could be going overboard about the lack of importance of being a diplomat and a nice person in a workplace—though diplomacy is important because so much toxicity is allowed and even celebrated—but, the points are valid. What actually is productivity in museum work—and shouldn't the workers who stayed productive during the pandemic be defining it, and not the leaders?
I've also been collecting articles that are really just about Covid. They could be out of date at any time, so consider them a time capsule.
- "Breakthrough" infections are real—can workplaces deal?
- Vaccine mandates support health workers (another link from AAM's Center for the Future of Museums).
- Will we have to reconfigure life to co-exist long term with the coronavirus?
- Did a scientific/medical screw-up make the pandemic's effects deadlier?
- Here's a piece about general covid resurgence, one about mask mandates and how honor systems don't work, and one on the masking mood, with more here, here, and here. The last piece is especially important, on whether the unmasking genie can be put back in the bottle after the CDC's May 13 announcement—unfortunately, probably not.
- Following up on that thought, here's Douglas Rushkoff on the CDC and messaging, and whether the epidemiologists were in over their heads on communicating with the public in an era of social media (Rushkoff writes often about how current leaders are usually fighting the previous messaging war). Maybe, though it's not clear if PR leaders are really any better at it. I'm not proposing that people make their own messaging (because so much of what people say now is just reflecting social media, which could come from anywhere), but there needs to be more interaction between leader goals, actual research, and lived experience.
As I mentioned to subscribers, this will be the last Links of the Week until after Labor Day. Have a good—and by that, I mostly mean safe—rest of unofficial summer, as plan out fall posts (and perhaps other kinds of content) for Museum Human. As always, thanks for reading!
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Links of the Week: August 12, 2021: Workplace Return or Rapture? by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.