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CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE REMOTE KIND

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Work from home (WFH) has been a lifesaver for many organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are some negative effects that WFH imposes on organizations. Serendipity is the first casualty—those happy accidents that result in ground-breaking innovations and new products. PayPal, Facebook, Apple, and other Silicon Valley ventures can all be traced back to serendipity—chance meetings between the key players.

Perhaps no phenomenon is more studied, marveled at, and desired in the world of high tech and science than the mystery of serendipity. In seemingly every industry, CEOs pay millions in consulting, design, and architectural costs to multiply and optimize the number of chance encounters between their most creative employees — and hopefully profit from the blockbuster new products that might result. (Steve LeVine, Editor at Large, Medium)

Now, Adobe, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Slack, Salesforce, Shopify, and others have all moved to a work from home model, at least until the end of 2020, with some suggesting that they will make this change permanent. What the long-term effect on new products and innovations from these companies remains to be seen.

But lack of serendipity is not the only negative impact of WFH. There is the undeniable fact that WFH is a lifestyle change more than it is a work-style change that will require changes for individuals and their employers. WFH will affect real-estate markets, conditions of employment, employment practices and contracts, organizational structures, IT support contracts and SLAs, leadership and management styles, and decision-making methods and protocols. And organizations will have to attend to their WFH staff’s mental well-being far more comprehensively than for onsite workers, where culture, social interactions, laughter, casual meetings, office politics and gossip, and impromptu coffee-breaks feed their social needs. (It is no accident that isolation and exile is a form of punishment in most cultures.) There is much to be done if WFH becomes the major trend that many commentators are predicting.

Another impact to consider is that of online meetings and workshops: the shift from a face-to-face workshop to online interactions is a significant one, and it will require a change in approach and in content. Online communications are necessarily linear, cue-deficient, impersonal, and disengaged. In English, this means that people can wander off both mentally and physically. They can engage in other work as they are sitting at their laptops anyway. Attendees of online meetings can misunderstand as they cannot easily ask for clarification without cross-talking with the presenter, or they can get bored because a talking head has very little engagement energy. They can also feel excluded as they cannot give physical cues of their disagreement/agreement.

Similarly, online presenters and facilitators will have to shorten their sessions, try to engage participants from a distance, seek feedback more regularly, set more tasks, and stay motivated and energetic while delivering into a vacuum.

With WFH and online communications, there are fundamental changes to think about and accommodate if this is to become a sustainable trend.

Straight Talk is a weekly briefing from the desk of the Chief Research Officer. This report was contributed by knowledge partner: OMDIA