Remote/hybrid work contradictions are a sign of how far museum workplaces have to go.
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One: A helpful reader, in response last week's LOTW, sent me this article from consultant Devon Kearny, writing on the site nonprofit biz site Blue Avocado about growth expectations in the nonprofit sector.
We have been talking about the Overhead Myth and the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle for many years, but there has been only modest progress on donor demands that result in underinvestment in nonprofit infrastructure, and malnourished organizations. But if the Overhead Myth keeps us all hungry, the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle is not all the donors’ fault. Equally important, and less considered, are our organizations’ unchecked appetites for growth, which combine with structural factors that make such growth haphazard.
To be sure, not all organizations are on a nonstop growth trajectory. But many treat year-over-year budgetary increases as normal, even as a sign of health. At times, it feels a bit like we have imbibed the “grow or die” myth from the private sector.
As I mentioned last week, I couldn't help but think of my post from 2020 on the museum field's obsession with scarcity and growth. This article, interestingly enough, says that for-profits often grow with more intention than nonprofits, though I wonder if that's a low bar, as we're seeing in the latest startup/tech crash. But the point remains, that nonprofits, including museums, need to grow more sustainably, especially when workloads are considered:
Can we responsibly not scale up our often urgently important work?
I think we can. Ours is a culture that celebrates continuous hustle, but in the nonprofit workplace, something essential is lost when we stuff our days too full.
The strain is most evident in the ability of staff to carry out their responsibilities, who often feel overwhelmed and underwater. But the stressors at play also inhibit reflection, learning, and creative thought.
Holding steady may be the key. After a period of growth, nonprofits need time for consolidation, devoting further increases in revenue to the infrastructure lag described above. An organization that is fully staffed for a certain scale is one that can invest both time and thought — the most precious commodities in a mission-based organization. The aim should be to reduce the workload across the organization while investing time into creative thinking that improves service delivery and develops more realistic theories of change. In doing so, we may not scale in terms of size, but we can find ways to expand our impact through new efficiencies and better ways to deliver the services we offer. It may well be that we can do more by simply trying to do less.
Two: There were a few good articles on hybrid and remote work recently. It's interesting: many museums have been scaling up hiring recently as visitation was recovering in the (non-at-all-)post-pandemic era, but will our shaky economic turn torpedo museum-sector hiring just as it's getting going? What will that mean for already-strained workplace location policies (never mind DEIA efforts to change the appearance of our organizations)? Let's start with this piece from Medium about a likely "brain drain" should organizations insist on workers coming to the office when it's clearly not necessary.
I'll just mention that there have been some equality questions raised from museum leaders—is it fair for front-of-house and other building-specific workers to have to come in while "knowledge" workers push to work from home as much as possible? It's not quite a two-wrongs-don't-make-a-right situation, but I'd like to suggest that the problem here is the obsession with narrow roles and responsibilities in our museum jobs; FOH workers would benefit from tasks and projects that can be done remotely, just as remote workers might benefit from interacting more with the public on-site. These would have to be done in compelling, not arbitrary ways, but I think a long-term reconceptualizing of our museum jobs—and the relationship of all of them to the public—would be the result. Just a thought.
Three: Quartz addressed Apple's controversial—for Apple employees, at least—hybrid work policy. Workers at the tech titan pushed back and got the policy postponed. Good for them.
Four: This Harvard Business Review article dives deeper into worker motivations for where they work. Note the contradictory reasons workers like to come in: focus and collaboration (aren't they often considered diametrically opposed?). Also note the contradiction that when workers do come in they want their own regular space. (It's important to note that the authors work for Jabra, the headset manufacturer.)
Well, work is already plenty contradictory; hybrid and remote work only made these more plain. The problem here is the lack of compelling work, even in mission-driven places like museums.
Five: Marketwatch had this story on the Great Resignation, calling it instead the Great Resistance. This is the corporate leadership line you may have received in your organization:
But spending all that time working from your sofa or kitchen table — or, if you’re lucky enough to have one, a home office — may be a more expensive tradeoff for employees and management than they anticipate. “What they don’t realize is that their networks will slowly shrink as they spend more time at home, and this can hamper their effectiveness long term,” Gray said.
Effectiveness for whom?
“Once they realize that some of the rich interactions they used to have in the office have faded, they start to wonder if they might be missing something important,” he added. “And as their broader networks shrink — the ones that expose them to creative new ways of thinking outside of their main work stream — their performance can suffer.”
Bleah. I don't think I'm revealing any skeletons when I say that slacking off is perfectly possible in an office. And toxic lack of interactions happen IRL as well. It's true that some staff, especially new and younger ones, have expressed (at least according to surveys) that they find starting a new job remotely can be disconcerting.
I would simply respond that this is more likely a result of strained workplace culture—with little interaction between teams and levels of management, lack of knowledge of what other people do, and crushing workloads that preclude acting on curiosity about the organization. Sure, many of us would like more substantial contact with our colleagues and teams—but we'd also like sustainable commutes and compelling reasons to be in the office. We'd probably also like a million fewer dead fellow Americans.
Six: Another dear subscriber sent me this link from the Crossref org's blog; here's one scholarly research/communication organization that's emphasizing virtual conferences and meetings whenever possible, to impact the climate and worker sanity.
Seven: Vox had this article on the (failed) return to the office. What's interesting (that word again) here is not just the contradictions noted above, but the sense of unfairness, that some workers are coming in fewer days than agreed/expected, with a noticeable lack of accountability:
For now, many employees are just noticing the hassle of the office, even if they’re going in way less than they did pre-pandemic. This is what’s known as the hybrid model, and even though people like the remote work aspect of it, for many it’s still unclear what the office part of it is for.
“If I go into the office and there are people but none of them are on my team, I don’t gain anything besides a commute,” Mathew, who works at a large payroll company in New Jersey, said. “Instead of sitting at my own desk, I’m sitting at a desk in Roseland.”
Mathew’s company is asking people to come in three days a week, but he says people are mostly showing up two.
Further complicating things is that, while the main reason hybrid workers cite for wanting to go into the office is to see colleagues, they also don’t want to be told when to go in, according to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who, along with other academics, has been conducting a large, ongoing study of remote workers called WFH Research.
Employees say that management has yet to really penalize people for failing to follow office guidance, likely out of fear of alienating a workforce in a climate where it’s so hard to hire and retain employees. Many others moved farther from the office during the pandemic, making the commute harder. The result is circular: People go into the office to see other people but then don’t actually see those people so they stop going into the office as much.
Eight: Related to remote/hybrid work questions is the four-day-workweek issue. Plenty of pilots are being conducted around the world, and the findings are, well, interesting, as per this article in HBR. A four day work week can make workers more stressed. It's complicated when it comes to work outside of these reduced normal hours:
Contemporary approaches to performance management also call into question the extent to which individuals truly have a choice when it comes to out-of-hours working. Research shows that people with more intensive workloads tend to ruminate about work outside of working hours and are unable to switch off until their work problems have been solved. On the other hand, our own research has shown that some people want to be able to check in on work and keep connected because it worries them more when they do not have oversight of what is going on, which prevents them from feeling in control. ...
The New Zealand four-day workweek pilot found that, to fit in their “real work,” employees took shorter breaks and spent less time lingering to socialize in order to resume their measurable tasks. According to Wired, while “some workers enjoyed the ‘exhilarating’ and ‘full-on pace,’” others felt “the urgency and pressure was causing ‘heightened stress levels,’ leaving them in need of the additional day off to recover from work intensity.” Participants in the research bemoaned that there was no more time for “banter” and that creativity and innovation were being stifled.
The New Zealand four-day workweek trial rings some alarm bells, in that reductions in working days did not necessarily create well-being benefits as workers struggled to meet the demands of their job roles. It is perhaps telling that much of the publicity around the success of Microsoft Japan’s four-day workweek trial rested on how productivity increased substantially during the study period. Employers may need to be careful about promoting outputs over well-being if they want to be seen as investing in their workforce’s work-life balance.
Once again, the problem isn't so much the scheduling as the attitude towards overwork. The Guardian had a column about how experiments in fitting five days of work into four days have been done for years—by mothers.
Ten: Wired has this article, an excerpt from a book on how marginalized workers can best make remote work work for them:
When I felt at my lowest as the Smarter Living editor at The New York Times, I loved my work, but I had a hard time doing it. Some of that was my own shyness and difficulty advocating for myself, but some of it was the very closed-off, cliquish nature of a few of the teams I worked with. So I rather enjoyed the flexibility of being able to do my work from home, listening to music if I chose to, and using a computer that was far more powerful and flexible than the laptop I had been issued at work (and one with a way bigger screen). What’s more, I had a more comfortable desk and chair and all the other personal touches I had already put into my workspace at home—something many of my colleagues had to scramble to do when the pandemic set in and they were suddenly forced to set up home office spaces where none existed before.
I enjoyed the peace and quiet, because here’s the thing about being a marginalized person, even if you’re going into the office: You feel that you need to be there to be seen—to be recognized as a member of the team or even as someone present, available, and willing to collaborate and help out on all the things you’re being excluded from—but you also hate it. You hate being there, being seen, and going just to be seen. Those feelings come with a level of paranoia about what’s going on behind your back when you’re there and when you’re not there, the meetings that could be happening right now but that you weren’t invited to, and the anxiety of wondering how you’re perceived when you’re present and also when you’re not.
Working remotely can alleviate this anxiety a bit. Not entirely, and it has its drawbacks, but there are ways to use remote work to your advantage as a marginalized worker. After all, when the currency of being present and being the loudest person in the room is diminished by the fact that everyone’s remote, you have a unique opportunity to shine. And the same is true if you’re on a hybrid-style team, where some people are in the office and others aren’t. Hybrid-style teams can give rise to some misunderstandings and communication breakdowns, but even so, there are moves you can make in silence to protect yourself.
There's plenty of hints here of the toxic, patriarchal, white supremacist nature of many workplaces, and hybrid or remote work can't alleviate all the trade-offs.
Not that it takes more than 20 years of remote working experience to understand exactly how difficult it is to work remotely as a person of color or as a marginalized person in the workplace, but [senior writer at Consumer Reports Melanie] Pinola definitely has all the above. “I think remote work’s emphasis on text-based communication (e.g., Slack and email) is great—no one is focusing on what I look or sound like, even though there are still clues, like my profile photo and my name,” Pinola explains. “I feel less self-conscious, though, and more free to speak up, stripped of the physical cues to my age and race (and, if I changed my name, my gender).”
It’s not all good news, though. After all, the social baggage that marginalized groups carry doesn’t go away just because your colleagues can’t see you all the time. Even if they only see you in Zoom meetings, it doesn’t change their social conditioning (at best) or their prejudices (at worst). “It also depends on how the company and the people within it handle communicating remotely,” Pinola continued. “In my experience, there are some managers who, after switching to remote or being unfamiliar with remote work, insist on having more video meetings, and everyone having their cameras on during those meetings, negating those benefits. Also, if a company is only partially remote, it can be alienating for people who aren’t in the office and aren’t getting that face time that management seems to love—conversations and decisions happen in the office without them. That’s not a diversity thing per se, but people with disabilities, who are juggling work with parenthood, or who have many other reasons to want to work remotely, can be at a disadvantage if the culture isn’t truly remote-friendly.”
People who have the option to work remotely and take it also have to deal with office cultures that don’t always support the decision to work remotely. I continue to hope that the Covid-19 pandemic and the lessons we learn from it will smooth over those cracks and difficulties a bit, but we’ll see. Even if the problems of remote work do improve somehow, the benefits will probably come to marginalized people last.
One advantage of remote work, the article notes, might be the ability to form networks with other workers from marginalized groups away from the nosy and suspicious notice of colleagues and bosses.
Acknowledging contradictions can be liberating but also frustrating? Why can't it all just make sense? Is that too much to ask? It might be, and it also might be the wrong question. Sorry, I've been reading about Zen culture …
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cover image by 愚木混株 cdd20 / Unsplash [description: a large arrow pointing to the left, composed of numerous smaller arrows pointing to the right]