The Real Challenge of WFH (hint: it’s not watercooler creativity or onboarding young folks) Part 1 of 2

Full disclosure: Rare Beauty Brands has completely embraced the WFx (Work From Anywhere) shift that COVID-19 thrust upon many of us. Before the pandemic most of our team commuted daily to our offices just outside of Boston. Almost 2-years on, we still maintain a smaller version of that office, but it is there for mail and small shipments, for periodic ‘on-site’ meetings and for those who want to escape their house a few days a week. Our 30 or so team members are now spread across about 10 different states. When we hire for new positions, we are able to offer this WFx flexibility, broadening our applicant pool significantly and delivering better employee satisfaction.

So what are the challenges of WFx that business leaders must address? (note: I am limiting this post to the challenges of office work. There is a real issue about the growing divide between office workers ensconced comfortably in their homes while factory workers and service providers are still on the front lines. That is beyond the scope of this post)

Lower Productivity?

Originally I was concerned that productivity would decline as people scattered and worked from home, but if anything, the opposite has happened. Our business is stronger than ever, and from what I’ve heard and read, I don’t think our experience is unique.

Lost Creativity?

Then I was concerned, like many others, that the business would suffer over the long-haul because we would miss out on those serendipitous moments of creativity around the proverbial watercooler or from in-person meetings. Honestly though, I think this is overblown. I seriously wonder if that in-person creativity is more apocryphal than real and if the inefficiencies of the gossip that takes place around that same watercooler more than off-set it.

Onboarding the Next Generation?

The more recent concern my fellow Gen-Xers (and our Baby Boomer and older-Millennial colleagues) have expressed is the challenge of onboarding and training younger team members. We remember the halcyon days of grabbing a beer after work or watching senior executives in action and learning how the company really operated and what was really expected of us. Many of us made great friends and even met our spouses on the job.

But honestly, I think this is overblown too. Onboarding and training will be different, but I don’t see any reason why the vast majority of it can’t take place over Slack and Zoom and the occasional on-site meeting. And younger team members will still socialize with their peers; it just might not be based around their job. Things will be different, but despite our nostalgic memories of the way it used to be, that doesn’t mean it will be worse.

No, it’s this…

To me the bigger challenge is much more subtle and nuanced, and likely to be felt in many small ways over a long period of time. It is interlaced with the above challenges around productivity, creativity and culture-development and comes down to one word: trust. And business leaders need to be very thoughtful about building and reinforcing trust in what is inevitably becoming a more arm’s length relationship between employee and company. 

How? That will be the focus of my next post…