Links of the Week: October 8, 2021: Hybrid Games

Workers forced into office-centered hybrid arrangements are finding that they're returning to … remote work.

a child's hand reaching for a remote control, next to two others, on a dark wood table under a lamp
You can be remote anywhere … even the office (Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash)

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Workers forced into office-centered hybrid arrangements are finding that they're returning to … remote work.

First, a couple of quick follow-ups to recent posts:

The latest trend in hybrid/remote work discussions is the shocking realization that many people are returning to offices only to work remotely, on-site, with video meetings, social distancing, mask-wearing, and organizational frustration. This blog post from new-fave Anne Helen Petersen is making the rounds in Slack and Teams channels:

For some, the office is just a quick walk or bike ride away. But for many, coming into the office requires a distinctly unromantic commute. It means cobbling together childcare plans, particularly with the nationwide bus driver shortages and school quarantine regulations after illness or a potential exposure. It means paying for parking, and packing or paying for their lunches, and handing over anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours of their day. They are enduring the worst parts of a “traditional” job, only to go into the office and essentially work remote, with worse conditions and fewer amenities (and, in many cases, less comfort) than they had at home. It’s the worst of both work worlds.
Gerry Martini, associate director of admissions for the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, told the Washington Post he’s commuting 40 minutes on the subway to get into an office building, where most of his interactions are still on Zoom. Once there, the things spurred in-person interactions — the cafeteria and coffee shop — are still closed. David Perry, an academic advisor at an R-1 institution, is going into the office to do the same …
I am not anti-office. I am anti arbitrary office. I am against sucking two hours out of someone’s day just to briefly make a bad manager feel good. I am against siphoning power from workers and piping it directly to leaders’ already overflowing stores of it. We have such a unique, authentically exciting moment to take stock of what “office” work could look like moving forward — what parts of it need a collective space, which parts do not, and what office spaces will look like and provide. And so many organizations are straight up squandering that opportunity.
Again, the office does not have to disappear. But it should function differently. Rishad Tobaccowala laid out that function earlier this year in his description of the “the unbundled workplace,” which includes 1) home; 2) third spaces, including co-working spaces subsidized by employers; 3) periodic events/experiences, which look different depending on the org and its size; 4) the “legacy office,” which he refers to as “the museum.”

(Also read Petersen on the myth of the commute.)

The horror of the "why are we bothering" realization—with no good leader-driven answers other than we the leaders think it so—is driving a bizarre early-pandemic nostalgia, writes the Atlantic, recalling an awful but simpler time.  

Harvard Business Review has its usual blizzard of articles on hybrid work, but the trend has highlighted the need for centering individuals—which is decidedly what organizations are not good at. Take this piece on redefining productivity:

The trick is finding what works for each individual. A key theme in our research is that there are enormous individual differences in whether and how remote work can be effective. People have different experiences depending on their tenure at a company, where they live, and their gender, race, or role. Even individuals with similar contexts have idiosyncratically different experiences. For instance, some Microsoft employees cite work-life balance and focus time as reasons to go into the office, while others cite those exact things as reasons to work from home. …
At Microsoft, the biggest reasons employees want to go back to the office are collaboration and social connections. But if someone goes into the office on a day the rest of their team works from home, they won’t get those in-person interactions. A key aspect of making hybrid work productive is finding a compromise between individual workstyles and team needs.

That's all fine, and the proposed solutions (team-level agreements, for instance) are all eminently reasonable, but orgs and people are stressed and making even worse decisions than before. Who has the time—and who's together enough (and I don't mean in the same place, I mean focused on each other for a moment) to reach these sorts of agreements?

Other related pieces from HBR are here (on the future of flexibility at work, recalling my fauxibility post from almost eight months ago), here, here, here, and here (the last is an interview with Petersen and her partner). This HBR article on those workers "who stay," is also making the rounds; it has gobs of elitist, leader-driven assumptions about the reasons why people stick it out in their organizations, but the article gets more worker-focused the further it goes. This point near the end (remember, addressed to leaders) is worth considering:

Ask for their help. This requires courage because admitting that you do not know all the answers is vulnerable work. It takes strength and confidence to appreciate that outcomes are better when more ideas are included, when fuller representation is present and diverse perspectives are heard.
Give them agency to help mitigate the day-to-day concerns they are faced with. Create space for them to step up, participate and inform the way forward. This sends the crucial message that they are trusted and valued.
Focus on the desired outcome. Actively seek the insights of diverse voices and points of view into what will help achieve it, especially insights and ideas different than your own. Remain open to being surprised and delighted.
Daring to be vulnerable and to not to know it all paves the path to creating deeper engagement and loyalty from all your stakeholders: teammates, peers, colleagues, and direct reports. You lead the way by opening the door.

As someone might have written earlier this year, just give them TMPR—Time, Money, People, and Resources. Leaders, it should be noted, are being paid very well for their vulnerability.

This HBR newsletter interview with author Jennifer Moss, who has a new book—The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It—covered a lot of the usual ground and made this point (the newsletter is for subscribers):

We’re now in the fourth wave [of the pandemic], and we’re seeing people feeling increasingly exhausted. The level of hopelessness has also increased, which is troubling. People feel like they have less agency and less control, which is leading them to feel more burned out.
We’re also seeing that loneliness is on the rise, which is both dangerous for our health and one of the root causes of burnout. But what’s interesting is that as people return to the office, hybrid work — if it’s executed well — could potentially give us a bit of a reprieve from the loneliness. Hybrid offers a degree of flexibility as well as opportunities for connection. You’re likely to reduce burnout by 41% by having just one friend at work. That happens in those moments where you kibitz around the watercooler, someone walks by your desk, or you have lunch with a colleague. If we completely lose that, I think it will be impactful on our mental health over time.

This can be true, and I'll revisit museum worker mental health in an upcoming post, but I think it's important to consider the many people for whom the so-called water cooler was never a paradise—the introverts, the overworked and eating-at-desk, and, of course, the many people from marginalized, tokenized, traumatized groups.

Hybrid schedules are going to render the water cooler if not irrelevant then much less of a gathering place because there just won't be as many people around at the same time. This will simply emphasize the hit-or-miss nature of workplace belonging, especially in museums, which only know how to bring people together to the same place and then let department heads sort it all out.

What usually happens is that structural exploitation gets expressed on a granular, individual level. Ultra-consultancy McKinsey writes about personalizing org approaches to hybrid work, but the proposed mechanism is still AI- and tech-driven, which concerns me in that most institutions don't have the attention span and worker agency/autonomy in place to act upon this data. Tech-oriented strategy usually leads to tech-oriented solutions like yet another digital tool or platform, as per HBR, which ends up being another form of technosolutionsim (Rushkoff again) because there's money (and fewer people) in it.

I haven't found links that make my exact point—that hybrid work is becoming the latest war of all against all—but I think it's there in the negative spaces of most articles about workplaces. Read these New York Times pieces—when the water cooler might actually work and worker-company relationships in the return-to-work era—with this negative space in mind. Who is being left out? Who already was left out? Who will continue to be left out?

I'll throw in a few more links here:

And, finally, this great Tweet thread on conflict and drama in the workplace, which made me laugh out loud when I thought how hybrid work might end up transforming conflict and drama because the playing field will be so different—less proximity, but more tone-questionable emails and chats. Can museum workplaces handle it?

Thanks for reading, and if you're dealing with the return, I'd wish you good luck but I'll instead advise, connect with others and find what you have in common. It's more than you think.

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cover photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash [description: a child's hand reaching for a remote control next to two others, on a dark wood table under a lamp]

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Links of the Week: October 8, 2021: Hybrid Games by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.