Remote Onboarding

Post #111 by Laurie Aznavoorian

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
Isn’t it ironic … don’t you think

No need to get into the chorus of that Alanis Morissette song, we heard it enough in 1995 to subject ourselves to it again or stomach another debate about whether these examples are situational or literary irony. For the record, they are not irony, but unfortunate events makes me think of personal experiences I’ve had over the past few months. In fact here are a few ideas for additional lines:

You resigned from work to start a brand-new job The very next week a pandemic hits the globe It screwed your going away drinks and made onboarding a bitch Isn’t ironic… don’t you think.

Colleagues who sat beside me in the past know I’m a kinesthetic learner, one who acquires knowledge through actions and repetition. It is only through incessant questioning of co-workers that I have managed to grasp the basics of computer operations; and accountants in more than one architectural practice can attest I’ve never truly mastered the nuances of timesheet coding.

Now with Stage 4 restrictions for those lucky enough to live in Melbourne, there’s no going to the office, masks are required, no outdoor strolls lasting more than an hour and an 8:00pm curfew to boot. Before stage 4 my husband and I took turns choosing who would work from home while the other went to their office to avoid dualling Teams meetings.

Now it’s us full time with Saucy Pissweak, our cat. For me the absence of a captive colleague at the adjacent desk to ask how do you …is devastating. Don’t get me wrong Saucy’s smart and clever enough to run from the room if Mike Pompeo or Mitch McConnel appears on television when we watch the US news, but these advanced feline skills have done nothing to facilitate rapid onboarding in the new role.

Researchers have identified onboarding as one of three critical activities for organisational health that have suffered during this pandemic. While it is important, the reference has nothing to do with the silly things like timesheets that I’ve joking about, you can learn that if you bother to read the new employee pack. This refers to the transfer of tacit knowledge such as how things are done around here, who is who in the zoo and the ability to be steeped in company vision, history, process and culture.

The second activity is the ability to develop what they call ‘weak ties’, relationships that occur between teams and connections you make over time waiting to heat up your leftovers or kicking the photocopier. These shallow or peripheral contacts are vital for innovation because they enable exaptation to occur. That is when characteristics from one process are applied to another. In our world it might be a workplace designer chatting with a health care designer about materials that are more hygienic.

The third activity is leader’s ability to observe and foster relationships among their team that are likely to produce benefits for the practice in the future. Perhaps this is the most important as it accounts for the invisible spark you see when creative people riff off each other. One last activity mentioned did not make the list of those deemed critical, which is surprising given the role it plays in career development – remote work makes it difficult to schmooze, make small talk, arse kiss and brown nose.

What this research and our own experiences reminds us is something we learned studying architecture or design; space matters, especially spaces that foster human connection. Human beings want to belong and feel a connection to their colleagues, for many this is a key motivator for going to work – along with a pesky mortgage, car payment and habit of wine guzzling.

In an article arguing the importance of keeping and returning to offices post Covid INSEAD adjunct professor Gianpiero Petriglieri talked about the anxiety he felt when he didn’t have an office, he acknowledged much of this was performance driven, a manifestation of a fear that you hadn’t made the grade, achieved your numbers or look the part.  

He was talking about a physical office but has since reflected on this in response to many questioning the need for any office. Anxiety he argues can become existential, leading to a fear that our job has no meaning. Furthermore, “when we take the office away every performance becomes existential, anything you do becomes an expression of who you are…You may find this happening to you, as office after office closes around the world and our professional lives start feeling far more precarious.”

It’s a bit heady, but the part about performance becoming existential struck a chord. I felt this when I was asked to present myself to my new colleagues on a Teams call. Staring at a laptop with dozens of still pictures and mute icons activated I talked about where I had come from and what I hoped to achieve in my new role.  

The plan is to start small, begin with a tiny task, eliminating a single word from our conversations – that word is staff. I envision a world where we refer to employees differently. This initiative has deep roots going back to my childhood. My brothers and I often called each other names when we were young, our favourites were turd or retard.

Our working-class parents rolled their eyes. They had their own Rat Pack lexicon comprised of dandies like broads, dames and a plethora of racial slurs that peppered everyday conversations. They saw no harm us calling one another turds or retards in fact sometimes they did it too. But those were innocent times, now we are woke. Apart from the word turd, which we can all agree will never lose its timeless allure, we’ve retired many words that were once commonplace. Isn’t it time to call our co-workers just that: co-workers, teammates or how about people?

Sources:

Gianpiero Petriglieri, “In Praise of the Office.” Harvard Business Review, July 15, 2020

Ethan Bernstein, Hayley Blunden, Andrew Brodsky, Wonbin Sohn, and Ben Waber “The Implications of Working Without an Office.” Harvard Business Review, July 15, 2020

Nathan Furr, Jeffrey H Dyer and Kyle Nel, “When Your Moon Shots Don’t Take Off.” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2019

POST COVID

I caught up with an old friend, as you do when you’re housebound reminiscing about the days when you could grab a chicken laksa at Jimmy’s or share a beer after work. He mentioned former colleagues of his were on the verge of moving into a new office just as Covid-19 hit and wondered aloud whether the design would still be relevant. He asked what I thought.

Another old friend called and wanted to know the same, followed by a colleague in London and then a client – all imploring, what does it mean, where to next? Having the privilege of talking with many company leaders about what keeps them up at night, they felt I might have some enlightened viewpoint.

But truth be told I wasn’t even savvy enough to ask the company I did a workplace strategy for in January to consider pandemic. It seems an egregious oversight now, and even Mr. Stable Genius in America saying “who’d of known a pandemic was in the midst” doesn’t make me feel better.

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

We should have known, history proves it’s happened before, real stable geniuses warned us.

The experience has caused a lot of us to consider what’s next. In this post, I share my views with the warning that they are coloured with a shit brown crayon. A cynical posture developed from consuming more world news and political podcasts than is healthy, and while it would be right to argue judging society and what may happen next by the shortcomings of world leaders and the other yahoos who make the headlines, it never the less has significant bearing on my outlook.

With that caveat, here goes: 

ITS JUST LIKE FEB FAST – ON MARCH FIRST YOU’RE BACK TO BOOZING LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW

History tells us there will be pandemics that can and will disrupt lives. Despite the earnest dedication some practice in following restrictions, as soon as we get the chance, we’ll revert to what we were before. Especially if the behaviour satisfies a real or psychological need lying dormant under our compliant facades. We need our Super to recover, Kardashians need nose jobs and bogans must have new tattoos! You want proof, the governor of the US state of Georgia has opened for business despite experts’ warnings, and people in that state are already queuing up to get haircuts and fake fingernails.

Certainly, some behaviours will stick, singing Happy Birthday will become a part of handwashing rituals, but don’t expect much more. AIDS did not stop people from having sex it simply changed the conditions of the exchange. 30 years beyond the initial crisis, AIDS is now returning and the twenty somethings that didn’t experience the heartache of going to seven funerals a year don’t understand what’s the big deal about not wearing a condom. It simply proves, people are people: they’re horny, selfish and greedy and many would lose a memory challenge with a goldfish.

Putting a more positive spin on this, Aristotle eloquently noted in 385 BC. 

Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”

We are neither beast nor god, we haven’t changed in +- 2400 years and we aren’t going to change now. In fact, since the 1950s there has been a steady increase in migration to cities that is expected to continue,

people like to be by other people, amenity, culture and possibilities that come from living in a dense environment. Going to work everyday provides much of the same.

Reflecting on sage advice another philosopher named Dolores once gave me “honey be careful what you wish for”, she said that after she said, “clean your room or you’re grounded.” 

Before Covid people wished they didn’t have to go into the office, now that the realities of working from home are apparent: partners passing wind with abandon, kids no longer cute and the cat proving to be a poor conversationalist, many have changed their tunes.

GENIES DON’T GO BACK IN BOTTLES

Through this process we’ve been exposed to technology that has changed the way we communicate. Looking to history again, we’re not known for giving up shiny things that intrigue us even when they’re untested or fail to serve us well e.g. the atomic bomb and gene editing.

We’re now a population of Zoomers, experts in lighting and stage setting, possessing great proficiency in muting when necessary; we will never give up the tools we’ve discovered. Never

But that does not mean we won’t want to occasionally sit in a room with others again and we will want to be closer than 1.6 meters apart too. The technology will become another tool that enhances experience over distance.

If we’re wise, these experiences could herald an age of greater inclusion, it’s been a veritable watchword for the past decade tossed around loosely with little conviction, but perhaps now we can be truly inclusive by employing  people who can’t come to an office like those with disabilities, neuro diversity or a preference to live in places without a good coffee shop.

The past weeks proved many jobs can be done out of the office with the right technology, the challenge we’ll now face is whether micromanaging bosses will insist their underlings return to the office to sit under their noses the way they did pre-Covid. It’s not a point to be tossed aside lightly, don’t underestimate the power that comes from making others treat you as a demigod, especially when they’ve been left with only the ability to endlessly pontificate about is how many VC’s they’ve attended to make them feel important; they’re itching to get back to being kowtowed to. 

A LICENSE FOR FURTHER INEQUITY?

One of the maladies of our times is the inequity and polarisation that’s metastasised through society, sadly this pandemic has only exacerbated that. We forget how privileged we are to work from home while nurses, EMTs, firemen and the check-out girl at Woolworths have no choice. Their only choice is to eat or risk getting sick.

The ad campaign – violence ‘is
never OK.’ … by The Victorian State Government 

Will Covid become another divisive issue that drives a wedge between haves and have nots? You say no, we would never! But this pandemic has proved some people are real shits. Seriously, having to fine people $5000 in New South Wales for spitting and coughing on public officials, yelling at checkout clerks because there’s no toilet paper and harassing nurses at the petrol pumps! That sounded bad till I read about the Republican-controlled state legislature in Wisconsin who thinks it’s okay to force voters to stand in the cold, exposed to Covid to be handed a ballot from a senior citizen volunteer rather than allow a vote by mail. What’s more, in America they don’t even get a sausage as they queue.

It is these behaviours that bring out the shit brown crayon.

People ponder, will Covid signal the end of co-working! No, it is merely an opportunity for further specialisation, which is already prevalent in the industry. There are co-working spaces for women only, veterans and start up entrepreneurs why not push this further and further differentiate?

Once we develop tests for antibodies and can track people using the CovidSafe app, Co-working companies will be free to cater to haves and have nots (in this case antibodies) Clubs can open for those who want to get infected because they believe herd immunity is a good thing, somewhat of a resurgence of Chicken Pox parties that were all the rage before a vaccine was developed in 1995.

At their 1:6 seating ratios WeWork sites would suit this perfectly and they can save money by forgetting Purell dispensers that others will be forced to install. They can also forget putting bollards out front to keep the protesters at bay who are sick of the haves getting everything. If a centre or two is blown up it’s just herd mentality on steroids.

For WeWork it will be a resurrection. Like a Phoenix emerging from the flames destressed bonds will be forgiven, defaulted interest payments and talks of bankruptcy a distant memory. Neumann will emerge from the smoke, climb into his Gulfstream G650 and party again like it’s 1999. 

Adam Neumann, WeWork’s cofounder and former CEO, has lost his billionaire status, according to Bloomberg. The ousted CEO was worth as much as $14 billion before WeWork’s botched IPO, according to Bloomberg. Now, Bloomberg estimates his net worth at $450 million.

By Laurie Aznavoorian