What’s Lost and Gained When We Put In 9-to-5 From Home?

On Thursday, Tobi Lütke, the founder and chief executive of Ottawa-based Shopify, announced on Twitter that most of his company’s 5,000 employees had permanently become stay-at-home workers.

That came the same day as a similar announcement from Facebook, and it followed remote working moves by Twitter and OpenText, a mainstay of Canada’s tech industry based in Waterloo, Ontario.

Shopify, the most valuable corporation on the Canadian stock exchange, provides products and services that allow small and medium-size retailers to move online, a popular recourse for those shuttered by the pandemic.

In the post-pandemic world, the company’s Canadian offices will become “recruitment hubs” and places where employees can meet in person when necessary. The future of a recently announced Shopify office in Vancouver is still being sorted out. So is the overall meaning of a permanent shift to remote work.

It seems beyond churlish for anyone who still has a job to be grumbling about where they perform their work duties. But for a lot of people, remote work is an unwelcome novelty.

I’ve worked from home (and on the road for assignments) since CompuServe was my email provider, but many only began a few months ago with the lockdown.

I called Henry Mintzberg, one of Canada’s leading business theorists and a professor of management studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, to talk about remote work. Given that he has long urged managers to connect regularly with employees on the shop or office floor, I was somewhat surprised by his assessment. Here’s some of our conversation, which has been edited for space and clarity.

Is it possible to already draw conclusions from the global move to at-home work during the pandemic?

Many people work quite independently of each other, sometimes even when facing each other.

There are many, many kinds of work where people don’t need to interact with each other. And so why not at home? Why invest in all those bricks and mortars?

Two months of using Zoom sometimes three or four times a day makes me realize that while it’s not quite the same as face-to-face, it’s awfully close, especially compared to email.

So as people get used to that, they clearly don’t have to go into the office, they don’t have to get in an airplane. That’s obviously going to have an impact.

What do we lose by not dealing with colleagues virtually?

My first book, “The Nature of Managerial Work,” was about the oral nature of the manager’s job: about inflection, hand movements and tone of voice and all that kind of thing.

We have all that actually on video. So, in fact, there’s not much loss.

I think what’s lost is almost psychic in a sense that when walk into a room, you can feel a sense of energy or whatever. And you don’t have that.

But as someone who was always suspicious of that, you’re losing very little. I’m stunned by how little you lose and how much you gain because you don’t have to spend hours in an airplane or driving to work.

But there has always been a concern that remote working can impede careers.

Right, the out of sight, out of mind kind of thing, although this isn’t quite out of sight. It’s hard to play the politics on a Zoom call and you’re not scheming behind the coffee machine. But maybe that’ll be a good thing.

And don’t forget, if everybody’s doing it, you still got to promote people. So if everybody’s at home, you’ve got to promote people at home. You can’t just promote people who come into the office.

Obviously, many jobs can’t be done at home. But is there work that doesn’t involve, say, working in a sawmill or a store, treating patients at hospitals or whatever that’s still best done in person?

For my groups, some of our most intense brainstorming has been when we’re face-to-face and struggling with issues and then coming up with creative solutions.

The really creative, difficult project work, I think, needs face-to-face interaction. People will still come in and work interactively at times because if they don’t you’re going to get less and less creativity.

My colleague Dan Bilefsky spoke recently to someone whose work is both creative and cannot be done profitably from home: a Mongolian contortionist with Cirque du Soleil. She’s been stuck on a cruise ship for weeks as the pandemic shutdown has put the once wildly successful Cirque into a deep crisis.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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