June 22, 2021

Workplace of the future… in touch, but out of touch?

Written by Tom Lokar

A recent Gartner study reveals that nearly half of all employees will continue to work remotely after the pandemic—and nearly 40% will threaten to leave if forced back into the office. Work and home have never been so intertwined—and there are some who couldn’t be happier about it. I am not the first to write about this topic, nor will I be the last, but allow me to ask:

Are we better for blurring the lines?

There was a time when a company was allowed—heck, expected—to run by its own rules and policies, dress codes and meeting agendas, rewards and punishments, values and goals, far separated from individual interests, preferences, or opinions. Don’t like wearing a suit and tie? Don’t like the hours? Hate the commute? Don’t work here.

Harsh, maybe. Stiff, sure. Simple? Well, at least clear.

For me, it meant that if I wanted to hang out with my wife, know all five of my kids (aka my greatest work), and avoid spending one more minute in the car than I could tolerate, I had to find an employer within 20 minutes of my home.

I’m sure I missed out on a ton of opportunities and even hampered my career in the process, but that’s how I balanced work and life—I knew my non-negotiables and stuck to them.

Work stayed at work for the most part.

Home stayed at home, sans the pictures on my desk and company Christmas party.

And while I may not have climbed all the rungs on the corporate ladder, I also don’t have any regrets. And that says enough for me. 

Now I’m not espousing that we need to go back to “simpler times”—the lament of every generation that sees its fading norms and wonders where it all went wrong. What I am saying is that personal life and work have been encroaching on each other since the dawn of Casual Friday and the advent of PDAs (that’s a Personal Digital Assistant to you whippersnappers). Then came relaxed dress codes, then work laptops, then flexible scheduling, then teleworking, then, with the advancement of technology and communication (and a global pandemic), full-time working from home.

And, almost overnight, we went from eliminating the need to commute to eliminating the need to wear pants during a sales pitch.

And, almost overnight, work got very (very) personal. Suddenly entire teams were exposed to crying infants, middle school math problems, wayward cats, and the declaration of bio breaks. On the flip side, there seems to be no end to how, when, and where co-workers, clients, and customers can contact you. Slack, Zoom, text, phone, Facebook messenger—all carry a clear expectation that you will always be available to answer—and then somehow get real work done in-between.

And yet. Where have all the real connections gone amidst all this connectivity?

Despite all of the encroachment, overlap, and intertwining of work and personal life, we feel more disconnected than ever. In a recent Cigna study, 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely—and that was before the pandemic. More Zoom calls are hardly the answer, with video calls consistently cited as a source of anxiety, fatigue, and higher cognitive load as we try to translate the non-verbal cues of 15 people simultaneously.

Rather than modeling our workplaces after our current environment, societal mood, or employee temperature, maybe our workplaces should be defending our humanity, our basic need to be Seen and Heard and Known and occasionally high-fived or hugged. Maybe what we really need is a return to an actual physical workplace.

For those of us faced with negotiating a hybrid workforce, there lies a very real concern that the guardrails we placed around our shared company culture, values, and goals—all of which were created when we were mostly under the same roof— will break under the pressure of the demand for remote work.

I have been accused of being intense/intimidating.  And that’s true, I give off that persona at times.  It’s a strength and a weakness depending on the context.  But you will never know the real me until you are present w/ me, nor I you until I am present with you. I tried working solo for about 6 months doing my own consulting gig and damn it, I need people. I need people in-person over coffee, over a beer, in a plane, in a boardroom, in my “work” office!    And I am routinely tested MBTI:  INTJ! (Look it up) 

Despite how hard it’s been for everyone (I see you, moms, and dads!), a surprising number of employees don’t want to come back to the office. The parent in me would like to require a return to in-person, human connection—because I know what’s good for them, for us as a company, and perhaps as a collective society. Physical presence is a tonic for good mental health—something that virtual presence is frankly destroying.

My fear is that continued remote work will cause irreparable harm to our ability to connect with our coworkers or people…at all. You can see this in every social media outlet you care to rabbit-hole yourself into. “Solved that argument,” or “Excellent point, you have changed my perspective!”, said no one, ever. I am truly concerned, as many professionals in the mental health field are, that we are isolating too much, forming judgments, fractions, and subcultures to the detriment of a basic human need. Without a broader understanding, empathy dissipates. Without physical touchpoints, engagement drops.

Without returning to work, aligning, and energizing corporate culture, identity, talent, and values become a lot harder to do over screens.

Meaningful work, work where you feel a vocation to the mission will always trump drudgery.  But one-upping that is feeling those same things with others!

After all, the video killed the radio star. What will it do to the rest of us?

Partner & Co-Director of Talent Advisory | + posts

Founder and Principal of OnCoaching LLC, Thomas Lokar, has over 25 years in the field of Leadership and Organization Effectiveness. After graduating with his Ph.D. in I/O Psychology from Kansas State University, he started his career in management consulting with the HayGroup, ascending to Regional Practice Leader. He has had a distinguished career in Human Resources functions, with increasingly larger roles as an expert leading Talent, Learning and Staffing functions, and then on to large-scale HR Business Partner roles in global organizations, like Hewlett-Packard. Most recently he served as the EVP, CHRO at Mitel. Tom resides outside of Dallas, TX with his wife of 20+ years, Kathryn, and their 5 kids (and a few labs). He is an accomplished and avid endurance athlete, having had a very successful amateur Triathlon, Running, and Cycling career for over 30 years.

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