Discussions of hybrid and remote work have given way to the horror that we've found a substitute normal.
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Hybrid and remote isn't just about work arrangements, it's about dealing the with "dread" we're all feeling, according to Umair Haque:
… it’s not just the pandemic that’s contagious. Emotions are. If you see someone laughing giddily, you probably will, too. If you see someone in triumph, you will feel your heart swell also. And so forth. Emotions are contagious. I’ve learned over the years that one of the draining parts of my life is that when you write for, interact with, talk to, large numbers of people every single day — you feel their collective emotions. You feel what they are feeling.
Not as individuals. But as what Durkheim, the great inventor of modern sociology, would’ve called an “organic mass.” You feel what Jung might have termed their “collective unconscious.” You can sense the emotions flowing through them, as a whole, the ones common across them. You are dipping a toe into a great river of feeling. Sometimes, it sweeps you away. You have to be very, very careful living this kind of life, psychologically. And when you are careful, you can, by dipping your toe in this great river of feeling, come to sense it’s mood and temperature. Is it churning? Smooth? Warm? Cold? Is it frozen over? Is the water clear and calm? …
So. I dip my toe into this great river. Jung’s collective unconscious, Durkheim’s organic mass, the moods and emotions flowing through very, very large numbers of people. What do I sense they feel these days?
People are on edge. … I sense that people are on edge like never before.
Now I'm sure we all have colleagues, bosses, mayors, friends, and family who are telling us it'll all be fine, covid numbers are down, masks are coming off (as if that's a behavior and not an underlying situation), can't we all just get back to … whatever life was before, without pervasive worry? (I, for one, cannot.) Haque notes that we're decided to ignore science, in the sense that being safe means staying home. Of course, in an economic world—and in a country with no general safety net, and no willingness to say we'll spend whatever we need to in a way that we do with the military and police—we're not going to do that. So we have this mental game we have to play, and long mental games are tiring.
Two: HBR here wrote about what a return-ready office might look like. The article detailed the importance of finding out what workers want when they return and designing workplaces accordingly. (Though it's still leaders doing the deciding.)
Org culture guru Stowe Boyd commented on this article in his paywalled blog (moving from Substack and Medium to Mighty Networks, and well worth a subscription from anyone interested in organizational culture). Here's one tidbit:
I doubt that many workers want to avoid autonomous problem-solving, but the real quid pro quo is this: if workers want flexibility they will have to accept some soft surveillance with managers in exchange. …
Using asynchronous tools is a way to sidestep updating others 'in real time', so this … implies a deep tradeoff: you want flexibility in when and where you do your work, [managers and leaders] want you to be always on. Sounds like a burnout scenario.
Another paywalled newsletter from Boyd commented on this article in The Atlantic on the ostensible end of the five-day, in-office workweek. The piece, and Boyd's analysis, made a couple of important, interrelated, and stepping-stone points. I characterize it like this:
too many workers don't want to come into an office Monday through Friday, so …
there won't be enough workers in proximity (and remote workers are more distant than workers down the hall from each other, there's nothing wrong in admitting that) for offices to function as they used to, and therefore …
leadership attempts to replicate the old proximity-based office, whether through virtual or "come in for free coffee and staff events," are not only doomed to fail but a waste of time (the same with politicians' "it's time to get back to workplaces and save business-district food service and public transit"), but …
a new, five-days-of-work-over-seven-days mentality (which workers who needed to be onsite, like front-of-house in museums, have long experienced) will require boundary- and guardrail-setting, lest the creeping sense that workers are always at work solidify.
This mindset struggle will be the most important element of adjusting to the new reality (note I don't use the word normal) of hybrid/remote work, for all workplaces but museums in particular.
Four: HBR did a deep dive into what kind of hybrid/remote workplaces made sense for different kinds of organizations. I have to admit that I'm growing tired of the idea that consultants, academics, and tight-knit leadership groups really understand the current state of worker creativity and productivity—or, stated another way, they fail to understand how these studies and leadership cabals support a culture of overwork and toxicity. Leaders declaring their org a "creativity-oriented large enterprise" or "execution-oriented large enterprise" is just another instance of the select few defining the culture.
Six: Let's take a short break from HBR and head over to Wired, which identified our current workplace state as "The Great Smushing," where our lives, personalities, and even existences have been crushed, compressed, and flattened. And a select few have to figure out work culture under these conditions?
the technology experiences that employers provide will more or less define the employee experience — technology and workplace tools are, for all intents and purposes, the new workplace. As such, they’re becoming central in attracting and retaining new talent, fostering workplace culture, creating productivity, and more.
Yet, many employees are underwhelmed by their current technology and remote work experiences. Qualtrics research found only 30% of employees say their experience with their company’s technology exceeds their expectations. Microsoft found that after a year of working from home, 42% of employees say they lack essential office supplies at home, and 1 in 10 don’t have an adequate internet connection to do their job.
How employees communicate, collaborate, and connect are fundamental qualities of the employee experience, and it’s critical that employers get it right when it comes to how they facilitate these interactions with technology. Employees are 230% more engaged and 85% more likely to stay beyond three years in their jobs if they feel they have the technology that supports them at work, according to Qualtrics. There is a range of downstream benefits that come from implementing the right technology in the workplace, including fostering a culture of inclusion, enabling organizations to adapt, and retaining top talent.
Okay, telling figures indeed. I would answer that leaders had better be willing to prioritizeworker needs and not use budgets to hold workers hostage to the culture that theywant.
To accomplish this, consider leveraging an employee experience platform that seamlessly integrates with existing tools to digitally reimagine company culture — creating connections, surfacing knowledge and insights, capturing feedback, and providing recommendations (and nudges to take action) — all in employees’ natural flow of work. Employee experience platforms, while not the only answer, play a vital role in communicating culture across the organization, increasing access to learning and supporting workers’ well-being.
I'll write more soon about the increasing advice to leaders about machine-learning-driven employee engagement platforms. I get the idea, but I fear that the systems will be pre-programmed with the goal of worker docility and leader-defined productivity in mind.
In addition to enabling flexible work arrangements, consider which decisions you can leave to your team members’ discretion. While some decisions may benefit from your guidance, others likely do not. For example, could you allow team members to choose some of the projects they work on, or with whom they work? Where you can provide your team members autonomy or choice, do so.
Let your team members know it’s OK to say “no” and question deadlines. Invite them to challenge your assumptions and tell you how much work something that “seems simple” will actually take to accomplish.
You will need to give explicit permission for them to do so and repeat this message over time. It can be easy for team leaders to lose sight of the power dynamic that can make it intimidating for some people to speak up, let alone push back. When people do speak up or push back, be sure to listen, acknowledge what you’ve heard, and engage in a two-way conversation (or negotiation) about what can and can’t be done, deadlines, and how you can help remove the relevant obstacles for your team.
Failing to grant this permission and create this psychological safety for your team will only cause them to keep quiet, allowing morale to decline and burnout to increase, which will ultimately lead to more team members leaving. In granting this permission, you can also openly recognize your common humanity with your team members — that we all have limitations and burnout serves no one — making it easier for others to let you know if they are feeling too stretched or overwhelmed.
Nine: HBR here made some interesting connections between outright shady corporate activities and "pay[ing] lip service" to DEIA and sustainability, but missed how leaders either aren't serious or their efforts are sabotaged by department heads and other influential staff members. In museums, this means anyone acting on behalf of donors and trustees will try to veto any worker-centered change. This also means going back on respecting colleagues' or reports' boundaries.
Ten: Finally, I wanted to address the idea of "returning to normal." The dread about which I quoted from Umair Haque in the prologue to this post can come from the increasing chasm between the reality that many feel and the epic gaslighting they are experiencing. So here's the Atlantic on why the virus, and life, aren't going to let us return to that pre-pandemic normal, even if it never gets as bad as it was in 2020. We're going to have to adopt a new work reality that respects illness and life, and the certainty of uncertainty. The days of "everyone works on this project all the time until it's done, no questions asked (unless you're really important)" are over.
And let's face it—the new reality is already here.
As we struggle with the uncertainty of hybrid museum work, it's important to liberate ourselves from the attachment that there will be an exact moment when we return to normal (or a facsimile of it). The most important aspect of hybrid work isn't the exact arrangement we make with our museums and managers but that our arrangements reflect our traumatized and anxious lives. (And if you feel your life hasn't been traumatic and anxiety-inducing, then good for you; don't wield it like a weapon over others.)
People are telling us that most people taking off masks signifies the practical end of the pandemic, but you have a right to your feelings about work, commuting, safety, and so on. Liberation is freeing ourselves from that gaslighting (or, in Buddhist terms, delusion).
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cover image by Edilson Borges / Unsplash [description: a figure with a wood-branch-like headdress against a window at the end of a grimy, abandoned hallway]