Whether New York is dead or not will predictably remain an argument that sells newspapers, but is not otherwise useful. However, The demise of actual offices may be creating significant collateral damage to one of the city’s most precious assets. I am speaking, of course, about impromptu togetherness: the water cooler, coffee, after-work libation and lunch.
There is a hopeful proposition that video meetings cure the problems presented by social distance, but like all miracle cures, it pays to watch for side effects.
With all-Zoom all-the-time, every meeting is scheduled. But the giant hairball we call the media business doesn’t behave according to a schedule. Insights don’t always come in the half-hour window designated. The diverse set of skills required for most decisions makes meetings logistically painful, and over-optimized ‘drumbeat’ processes trip on themselves. That’s all good until something goes wrong. Before COVID-19, we could always pick up the pieces of a failed meeting using the informal system.
There’s magic in the possibilities of real people digging into real problems, face to face. Informal settings favor throwing out the rules, and reframing the problem. As communication junkies will tell you, most communication is nonverbal, and a fuzzy video will never communicate the telltale stink-eye across the table. How will this play out?
If WFH becomes the norm, our ability to make new, informal trust networks is compromised.
As existing networks retreat to their pods, the fragile elements of change will be the canaries in our mine. Innovation, for example, might suffer. We all know great ideas appear first on the back of a napkin. The decline of ad hoc interaction will increase dependence on clean business process, and may stymie creative teams that thrive on a little human interaction.
What are We Learning?
If everyone gets a vaccine tomorrow, landlords will no doubt prove that being in offices leads to productivity. Zoom will show proof that not being in offices does the same thing, bars and restaurant traffic will revert to PC (pre-COVID) levels, and boondoggle-prone middle managers will jump right back into the Sky Club.
But everyone won’t get a vaccine tomorrow, and despite the palpable pleading to make things like they used to be, they won’t be. In fact, we will have a decision to make about how much WFH will be part of our world after COVID. That will be a difficult decision, especially in the absence of unbiased facts about productivity.
The difficulty occurs because we can easily ascertain how much offices cost, but we don’t have a credible way to estimate the benefit. Cost savings always win over productivity arguments, so it is likely that WFH will continue to look like a step change from the PC years.
Have we learned anything except maybe that your boss has terrible taste in wallpaper? Metaphorically speaking, the only hope is Lunch.
Who You Gonna Call?
Trust won’t auger in, it will fade away. Trust is harder to build when conceived through a prophylactic haze of pixels. Ask any team building expert. We might characterize the risk we face as a decline in the quality and quantity of business relationships. Especially in the media business, leaders need a great number of informal relationships. Consider this almost real-life example.
A text goes out from a client’s media department. “Can the person who talks to the agency person who talks to the trading desk tell them that the trading desk should call somebody at Hearst and see if they will extend their bid requests from Rubicon to include attention data from Moat, or at least use Grapeshot data, or whatever they call that now that Oracle bought it. Asap.”
Quick. Who calls who, and what do they ask for?
Only trusting relationships among experienced people can close a gap like that. And that situation, or one like it, happens a thousand times a day in the online media industry. To make sure we have the right connectivity as people, we will need research regarding the limits of WFH, and how to organize to offset the drawbacks.
How can we rebuild the joy and energy spurred by human contact and extemporaneous conversation? Meet me at your local pub around 5:30 — and we can talk about it.