There seems to be a divide in coronavirus trend coverage around the topic about a shift to remote work.
There were two metacognitive points from a recent conversation with Larry Summers that resonated with me.
The first was that most trends are not necessarily being reversed by the crisis. Some trends are being accelerated (exodus of second and beyond firms from high-cost areas) and some have been halted (sharing economy a la Uber/Airbnb). That being said, the crisis itself is not enough of a justification for changing the overall arc of the macro trend–absent changing macro incentives and conditions, the trend is likely to revert to the pre-crisis behavior once the crisis passes.
The second was that most people adhere to a “more now than ever” behavior when considering the impact of a crisis on concerns that they’ve already had.
One trend that seems to be getting a lot of play is that now that COVID-19 has made many more workers remote than would be otherwise, managers are seeing the benefits of remote-first workplaces. I think this is erroneous for a few reasons:
Often, people point to the fact that executives at a number of leading firms have decided to extend remote working policies, and often in quite unexpected ways. I think this is not necessarily indicative of successful pivoting for these organizations.
The crucial issue is that in many of these orgs, the majority of people report to middle managers, not to the top level exec. While execs (and maybe even the top tier of middle managers) may believe wholeheartedly in this step, I suspect there is a modal group of middle managers who do not yet have the requisite skills to be successful remote managers. Additionally, in that group, there are likely a number managers that rely on intuition-based indicators of success (such as face time, presence, and other unconscious biases) that will be lost in how to translate those into a remote situation.
Additionally, we’re in a state of exploiting the culture that has been developed in-person for existing orgs. As team members turn over, continuity of team and org culture will be even more difficult to extend to new team members in a remote-first scenario.
While the crisis has led to a wide reevaluation of in-person-first teams, I suspect the dislocation of workers from physical workspaces is temporary, and once a vaccine is widely available, workplace cultures and expectations around presence will mostly revert.