What exactly is wrong with working from home?
From what I’ve been able to gather, many organisations are starting to ask this question. It’s not a straight forward one, because the nature of the benefits and drawbacks aren’t symmetrical.
The benefits are very direct and obvious. Anyone can see them, and one hardly need make their case. The drawbacks however are more subtle, since they aren’t so easily observed in the moment, but instead emerge gradually over time as unexpected 2nd and 3rd order effects begin to trickle through.
Naturally I’m not going to run through all of them here, not least because I don’t work in a large team, so I don’t really know. But what I am going to talk about is one drawback I do know something about, and that is WFH’s effect on strategy.
To do this, we are first going to have to understand how strategy generally integrates into working life – which is a fascinating topic people don’t think enough about.
Here we go…
Generally speaking the activities of a business and the people within it can be broken into “tasks”. A wide ranging bunch of jobs which, when taken together, coalesce to form the business and deliver its value. We can visualise this like so:
Both individual roles and the departments they sit within are defined by such tasks – and this understanding of how people work is one of the main arguments in favour of WFH culture. Basically if you can “do your job” (i.e. do your tasks) from home, then why bother going in?
The answer of course is that a business is much more than the “sum of its tasks”. In reality there are a huge number of non-task activities which take place in the gaps surrounding the tasks.
A very basic and obvious example is culture. Culture is not a task, it’s more a sort of lubricant that flows around them, and so has to be generated outside of the task framework – e.g. in casual chats, at the water cooler, etc.
It is such “non-task” activities that are clearly ripped away in the WFH model, because by definition the model is task-centric. It assumes that tasks are the “stuff” of business, but this is like assuming that organs are the stuff of the body, and forgetting about water, blood, and all the other fluid elements.
Now here’s the crucial point:
Strategy, like culture, is a non-task element.
Strategy is not a job. It’s not a task. It is instead the invisible connective tissue that gives shape and context to tasks, like this:
Yes, naturally some companies do try to “taskify” it. There are people who have a job title with the word “strategy” in it, and some will try to carve out workplace time to “come up with a strategy”. And to an extent this works. But in reality strategy is formed almost exclusively outside of the stack of tasks which make up the day-to-day running of the business.
This is the same observation that I made in the last essay about the depiction of strategy in the TV show Succession. The observation that all of the work that truly matters strategically takes place:
- In transit
- In a social setting
- Over a beer
- On a yacht
- In the middle of the night
…essentially anywhere but “work”. Work is where the strategy goes to be checked and implemented, but not where it is born. It is instead born from the fluid dynamics that flow between the decision makers of the organisation when they’re not otherwise engaged.
You can take this with a pinch of salt, but I’d be prepared to go out on a limb and say:
The quality of an organisation’s strategy directly correlates with the amount of “non work” time the senior people spend together.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be roommates or best buddies. All of this could take place within working hours. It just means the time spent together needs to be outside of the task dynamic – which includes taskified strategy sessions.
Assuming you buy all this, you can see what a threat working from home is to strategy. It basically removes all of the liminal space in which strategy occurs. It starves it.
Not only that, it also separates junior team members exposure to strategy. They don’t see the connective tissue being formed, and so fail to appreciate where it comes from (or that it even exists at all) – ensuring they’ll be weak strategic thinkers when it’s their time to take a leadership role.
Interestingly, although I don’t think it’s a substitute, I can see that Slack acts as a fairly decent sticky plaster for this issue, as it creates the space for lots of non-task interaction for remote workers. But clearly not as much as the real thing.
Anyway, I hesitate to say much more about WFH than this, due to my lack of managerial experience with it – however I’d love to hear from any of you who have anything to add / feedback on it.
More broadly however I think you can see here the fundamental issue with strategy in general:
That it’s invisible.
The fact that it’s not a well-defined task means it slips by unnoticed in the majority of organisations, who don’t realise that there is spectral framework giving shape to everything they do.
They think that by simply making a list of the tasks they wish to do they have made a “strategy”; i.e. that strategy is a list of tasks. But no. A strategy is the unifying theory which binds the tasks, and exists at an altogether higher level.
So however you organise your teams, don’t lose this.
It’s the stuff you can’t stick on a timesheet which makes the timesheet stuff work.