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A memo from the distant future... June 2022: The boss decides working from home isn't the new normal after all

Because nobody wants to be the new Yahoo! apparently

Date: June 1, 2022
To: All staff
From: CEO of A Corporation That Said Remote Work Was The New Normal In June 2020

As what we now call the "foothills peak" of the COVID-19 pandemic approached in April 2020, our company quickly built work-from-home infrastructure that made it possible to continue business-as-close-to-normal-as-possible.

Our entire team stepped up and translated our culture into the virtual realm. Productivity remained high across all business units and departments. Innovation continued apace. Team spirit swelled. Costs shrank. So did our CO2 footprint. Many of you told me your waistlines did likewise as cutting out commute times freed you for more physical activity.

So in June 2020 we announced that work from home would become our new normal.

Today, I write to let you know that era will end.

Here are the reasons why.

You're not afraid of layoffs any more... and that's made you complacent

When the economy was in free fall and layoffs were very much on the agenda, we all had great motivation to be our best in the virtual world. Since the "Himalaya" pandemic peak in mid-2021 and the arrival of the COVaccine, the economy has stabilised and we've seen that enthusiasm fall away.

A significant portion of you now report malfunctioning webcams or poor broadband performance that, mysteriously, means you are less active participants in virtual meetings.

Those are hard signals of disengagement our managers, as well as HR's machine-learning analytics, can spot easily and work to remedy. But our team leaders also tell us they miss soft signals that help them to understand your frustrations, or enthusiasms, or well-being. With 20 people each in tiny video windows, they struggle to pick up non-verbal cues that let them manage effectively.

Intergenerational lifestyle inequity

Among those non-verbal cues we miss on a video call is growing resentment at having your homes co-opted by work now that it is again safe to commute.

Younger team members seldom have the luxury of a dedicated workspace in the home. Those that do tend to be more advanced in their career or come from privileged backgrounds.

Emotionally bruised by the pandemic, months of social justice protests and then the horrors of the Biden inauguration massacre, our managers may not have been at their most empathetic of late. But they should have picked up that those of you who live in smaller homes often feel that long-term work from home means constant incursions into private spaces.

When two tribes go to war

Early in the pandemic, many nations made attendance at school optional, which quickly created an unfair burden on teachers who had to prepare lessons for classrooms and the virtual world.

We've been guilty of the same sin by making office attendance optional. The unintended consequence of that decision has been creating two tribes: one with access to all the infrastructure in the office and another working from home. A simple example is an A3 printer. Those of you in our offices designed documents to be seen on A3 paper. Those at home either dealt with smaller type or lots of scrolling. Some people straddled the two environments. Some teams fractured along lines of access to tech. And the only way to repair those fractures is to work together again.

Blunt instruments

The collaboration tools that got us through the worst of the crisis are not fit for purpose because most were designed as either an enabler of mobile work or occasional remote collaboration, but not to replace the kind of communication and collaboration that takes place in physical workspaces. We're stuck working within the limitations of those tools which tie us to scheduled interactions and discourage spontaneous encounters. That needs to change.

Big tech behaving badly

Technology companies have behaved badly. To be blunt, as soon as we asked for help building work-from-home infrastructure they knew they had a grip on some sensitive parts of our corporate anatomy and quickly started to squeeze. Prices rose fast. Licence terms became ever more onerous. Audits became so frequent we had to bulk up our compliance unit at a time the very few hires we've made were focused on finding revenue.

We've therefore joined the so-called Cloud Evaporation class-action lawsuit to seek redress from clouds that retrospectively changed their rules to make data egress ridiculously expensive, as part of an economy-wide push-back against predatory clouds.

Curse those old press releases

When the company was in hyper-growth mode and we opened new offices almost every month, our press releases contained a cookie-cutter statement that "we don't just pick office locations for price or convenience. We want to become good citizens in the communities we inhabit and nourish all aspects of neighborhood life."

Those words were cover for deals we cut with local government to get tax holidays or to have them build amenities that made those offices viable, in return for our commitment that you'd all be spending money in local cafes, dry cleaners and childcare centers, and perhaps even move to the area to provide a surge of property taxes.

Local governments are reminding us of those deals and demanding we either bring you and your spending back, or start paying tax retrospectively.

Pressure from pension funds

You may also have read about pension funds lobbying governments. Their beef is that commercial real estate is one of their main investments and if that class of asset tanks, you can expect considerably smaller retirement incomes. Which in turn means governments have to provide more income support that they can't currently afford.

The political pain that would cause is enormous so we're basically being told that paying rent is a public good and we need to keep doing it to keep a big part of the financial system humming.

The weight of history

We've also been conscious that companies which allow working from home to meander without regular review perhaps coincidentally have a history of entering long-term decline. IBM ended working from home in 2017 while it was already in decline. Yahoo! didn't pay enough attention to its work-from-home workforce.

I can't look you or any stakeholder in the eye and say I will do anything that would make our company the next Yahoo! or IBM.

So I look forward to seeing you all back in the office this July 1. We've coated all surfaces with RedMenace, the miraculous virus-killing spray activated by Wi-Fi that China gave to the world to apologize for the plague. You'll find a bottle of hand sanitizer, a box of disposable masks, a guide to the expanded campus gym, and a 32-page waiver when you arrive.

Warm regards,

CEO of A Corporation That Said Remote Work Was The New Normal In June 2020. ®

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