28. The Vanishing Workplace

When the pandemic finally gets under control—soon we hope—work for many people will not go back to the way it was before.

Some people may go back to their offices but not necessarily every day. Others, who’ve moved to places where housing is cheaper and life less hectic, will engage with colleagues only remotely, just as they’re doing today. What will that mean for those people—and for their companies?

Our guest this episode is our own colleague, Ethan Bernstein, who teaches Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School. Starting in March 2020 he’s been on a team of researchers tracking the experience of a group 600 U.S-based white-collar employees. Every two weeks, the team has been polling these people about how they’re feeling on multiple levels.

In our conversation, Ethan shared news with us that was both good and bad. On the positive side, the results showed that the stress of working from home quickly abated for many people. (That’s not been the case, of course, for those with children to care for.) People quickly became more confident about their Zoom skills. Many expressed the feeling that “we’re all in it together.”

Over time, however, the researchers have seen workplace networks shrink. Connections among people working closely with one another have remained strong. What’s been lost, though, are random connections with others, the ones we used to have bumping into co-workers at the proverbial water cooler. That’s a loss on a personal level and, as Ethan notes, it can also constrain organizational creativity.