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The New Office: Home?

13 minute read |An icon depicting a retail tag with a heart for 'favourite'CBCCulture Change

Stu Mills and I had a discussion about the growing trend by technology companies to shift to a primarily work from home model. Initially forced by the pandemic, some companies have seen a new possibility for the future. The transcript and some background information follows…

The show has been building to this conversation for a while as this topic as come up again and again. This tweet from Shopify’s CEO, Tobi Lutke pushed the topic back into discussion on the show.

That lead to Shopify’s Chief Talent Officer, Brittany Forsyth, coming onto the show to elaborate on what “digital by default” would look like. Listen to that conversation.

Earlier on this episode of the show, The Honourable Maryam Monsef, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development in Canada, was on speaking about the work being done to connect rural communities throughout Canada. That conversation highlights some of the challenge involved in providing at least 50/10 Mbps (download/upload) internet to all Canadians.

This issue is also covered in this excellent CBC News article. Least you think this is only an issue because of Canada’s wide open spaces and small population, the USA is also struggling with rural connectivity.

To say this is a topic with a lot of opinions and experience around it, is a massive understatement.

In this opinion piece by Courtney Rubin for Maker, the author highlights the trends that may lead more and more tech companies to move a remote model. This excellent post by Tim Casasola brings to light one of the biggest challenges with remote work: quality, concise writing.

The Atlantic, Vox, and the Gadget Lab podcast all chime in with their perspective as well.

A lot of this coverage was pushed by Facebook announcing that they will work to allow half the company to work from home remotely.

One of the big issues with the Facebook announcement was that Mr. Zuckerberg also said that the company would revisit compensation based on where employees were located. No one was amused (or surprised?) at this move. It’s long been a challenge for remote companies. Cost of living can vary greatly from city to city. However, the counter argument is that you’re getting paid based on the value you provide to the company and that won’t change regardless of where they employee is located.

David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of Ruby on Rails, Founder & CTO at Basecamp sums it up nicely…

Basecamp and GitLab are both actively pro-remote work and have published excellent resources to help you get your organization working remotely;

But’s not all 🌈 and 🦄s. Tech hubs in various cities are built around the idea of office centricity. Employees make rental and home buying decisions based on office locations. Business spring up to support large office parks.

Organizations themselves implicitly form their culture in the offices. Work flows, habits, and behavioural norms are all driven by location. This is a challenging problem to unravel for companies that have established locations.

Steven Levy, writing for Wired, presents a different take on it. Lindsi Katheryn echoes that view and builds on the negative argument in their piece for The Startup.

Where do you stand on the issue?

Transcript of My Discussion With Stu Mills

[00:00:00] Stu: "So office centricity is over." That was the tweet from Shopify founder and CEO, Tobi Lutke last week when he announced the eCommerce company will keep its offices closed until the end of 2021.

Ottawa Morning interviewed Shopify's chief talent officer, Brittany Forsyth on Friday, and she explained that after next year, only 15 to 25% of Shopify's workforce will return to the office and the layout of its flagship office on Elgin Street will be very different.

[00:00:29] Brittany: There's a sense of loss. The offices were amazing, but also optimism towards the future and knowing that we have the ability to thrive on change.

We are an amazingly resourceful group of folks. And, so, I think there's that optimism that we're going to build something better and stronger. We're still going to have amazing teams.

We're still going to have the right social interactions. Their just going to be thought of in a new way, and we get to experiment with what works and what doesn't.

And if anything, the pandemic has been the best experiment to try new things.

[00:01:00] Stu: Shopify's decision comes after Twitter announced it will let employees who can work from home, do so indefinitely even after the pandemic ends.

Well, Mark Nunnikhoven is the vice-president of Cloud Research at Trend Micro. That's an Ottawa cybersecurity company. He's also our tech columnist, and he's with us, with us this morning.

Good morning, Mark.

[00:01:19] Mark: Good morning, Stu.

[00:01:20] Stu: So what do you make of the move by Shopify to keep offices closed until 2021?

[00:01:26] Mark: I think it's a, it's a really bold move, but at one, it's one that makes sense. So there's a few things that I really, was happy to hear from both, the CEO and from Ms. Forsyth on the show on Friday, which was that they're making this move with intention.

So a lot of us right now are working from home because of necessity, right? We can't get into the office so we're scrambling to make things make work.

And this is opening the eyes of some companies to realize that there may be a different way to approach, work. So getting rid of that office centricity to move to a more distributed model.

[00:01:58] Stu: Hmm. Shopify already had people working remotely before the pandemic, but, but I wonder how big a challenge it will be for that company to move, you know, say 85% of its workers to remote work?

[00:02:10] Mark: It's definitely going to be a huge challenge. This is not a technical problem. This ends up being a cultural problem, that can be solved with technology.

And the thing that, is key in the way that Shopify's approaching it is just that term "digital by default."

There's a lot of stuff that happens in the office sort of ad hoc, sort of below, our sort of conscious thought in, in, in an implicit manner, where we're just having casual conversations or, you know, in the coffee line with somebody, you run into them in the hall.

When you have a distributed team or even part of your team, offsite and part of them onsite, you need to make sure that there's conscious thought into, you know, saying like, "Oh, I ran into Stu earlier, and we had this great chat, discussion about this project."

[00:02:49] Stu: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

[00:02:49] Mark: "I'm going to write that down and then share that, or I'm going to record it and share it with the people who weren't physically here."

[00:02:54] Stu: Hmm.

[00:02:55] Mark: So there needs to be a lot more intention in the way that you communicate.

[00:02:59] Stu: You talk about the, the cultural challenge, and I think that dimension of Shopify's corporate personality is such a vibrant one.

They've got the, the, the kind of the famous reputation as being a place where you play and work. The, you know, the free lunches and X-box and beers on tap, shared spaces where these kinds of serendipitous conversations that you just described can happen.

How big a challenge will it be for the company to keep that culture alive and to keep attracting employees if people are working from home?

[00:03:28] Mark: So, so the good news here is that they have a very strong culture already in place.

So it's a matter of just sustaining that. For other companies, it's going to be how do you build that culture, how do you create those social aspects, but I think this is where you get down to that, 15-20% office use is primarily going to be around those types of interactions.

So, as they work through this, I think they're going to quickly discover like other tech companies, who have tried this route before have discovered that the office is going to shift from we want you all sitting in offices or in cubes to this is going to be collaborative space.

This is going to be socializing space because that's what's really needed to keep the connections between the people because we all know it's a lot easier to email somebody or to have, a conversation online once you've met them and talked to them in person.

You've got that sort of reference of, you know, how I communicate with Stu, so it's easier for us to talk like this.

[00:04:19] Stu: Hmm. We, saw Twitter too saying that they're going to let their workers r- stay at home indefinitely if their jobs allow it to be done even after the pandemic is over, as we say.

What are some of the drawbacks that tech firms might have discovered or might be facing with this turn to remote work?

[00:04:37] Mark: So one of the biggest challenges is, are you as a worker comfortable working in your home?

Are you set up for it? Do you have a space? Do you have the connectivity? The minister was on the show a little bit earlier talking about the rural challenges.

[00:04:49] Stu: Hmm.

[00:04:49] Mark: And do you have sufficient bandwidths to, to actually conduct your business? Or in my case, my son was coming in just as we were about to go to air.

You know, are there lines and boundaries between, what is interruptible work versus not interruptible work? And then personality-wise, are you okay not being around your colleagues all the time?

A lot of people aren't, and that's okay as well. There needs to be a balance, and there needs to be a system in place that enables all types of work for your employees.

[00:05:15] Stu: Are we starting to make a checklist of what kinds of jobs are impossible to do remotely? I mean, obviously, there's at the front line, the service work that you need to be there to, to take the money or to shake the hand or whatever that might be.

But are there tech jobs that we're seeing now that can't just be done over a digital connection?

[00:05:34] Mark: There are some but a lot fewer than what, people initially assumed. So there's, a lot sort of visceral pushback for, some companies when, you talk about working from home.

So the public service is a good example, traditionally a very in-person, in-the-office, this is how work is done. So there's a, there's a pushback of letting people go remote, because there's a question of productivity, there's the question of, you know, are we going to collaborate as nearly, as effectively.

But at the end of the day when you kind of scrape away all the initial concerns, unless you're physically touching something or interacting with somebody, as a requirement, there's a lot of stuff that can be done.

And when it comes to the tech world, that's almost all work can be done remotely; you just need to put thought and some intention into it.

[00:06:15] Stu: We talked a bit about how Shopify's in that lucky position of already having a corporate culture in place and, and maybe wonder about that company that hires a new employee.

Usually there's that period where the new employee goes through training and supervision, gets a sense of what people typically wear at that office and what they say and how formal things are, all those kind of subtle pieces of information you pick up about your job that aren't in the job description.

How will that work if everyone's working from home over a Zoom connection?

[00:06:46] Mark: That is a fantastic question, Stu, because that is a really difficult point.

Onboarding new team members is hard in the best of circumstances, because there's a lot of, you know, as you said, you know, sort of unspoken norms, sort of insider jokes and ways of behaving, and that culture manifests itself just by being there.

So you need to be extremely careful in how you onboard people but also very, explicit in bringing them on, so making sure that, you know, on day one, they already have all the equipment that they need.

So if the company is providing, you know, a computer or laptop that, that's already shipped to them so they're up and running, it's preconfigured.

That maybe so you've sent some, some, welcome gifts along with that, but what the, tech industry seems to settling on is sort of buddying people up so that, you're on a video call for, with, your sort of mentor, your partner, for most of that as they guide you through this, which again relies on a strong personal connection.

But it's definitely sort of the weakest part of all of this because you're taking someone from completely outside your team and your culture and trying to bring them into it without all of those normal clues and there's really no technological, substitute for that face to face.

[00:07:51] Stu: Hmm. I'm sure you saw that piece in the New York Times from earlier this month, about Hubstaff, software that let's employers monitor workers remotely, takes a look at what websites they're on, how long they're there, and how many hours in a day they're sitting in front of their computer.

Hubstaff, said that they've seen a lot of interest in their product since this whole pandemic started. What do you make of, of that part of this?

[00:08:16] Mark: Yeah, employee surveillance software is a very active space right now. And, I from a personal perspective, I don't like that approach at all. I think if you are at the point with a, as a company where you don't trust your employees to be, producing, then you've either got a management problem or you've hired the wrong people.

You know, people in your company should be professional. You should expect them to meet their goals on time or communicate when they can't.

Resulting to, surveillance software, even the little feature like in Zoom where, if you're hosting the meeting, it tells you if people aren't focused on the meeting, those kind of things are, are, technological manifestations of a lack of trust, and if there's a lack of trust in a workplace, it's not a very effective workplace.

[00:08:58] Stu: Mark, good to talk to you about all of this. I'm sure there'll be more to learn as we go along. But night, nice to catch up with you.

[00:09:03] Mark: A pleasure. Thank, Stu.

[00:09:05] Stu: That's Mark Nunnikhoven. He's our tech columnist. He's also the vice-president of Cloud Research at Trend Micro. That's an Ottawa cybersecurity company.