While it cannot be said publicly, much of the non-essential, white-collar workforce allowed to work at home during the 2020 Covid pandemic had a great deal.
With their dogs and kids within sight, computer-bound workers could do their household chores, snack as much as they wanted, and often wear Skype-approved garb (long sleeve shirts with collars, shorts, and no shoes) to meet with colleagues online.
And while the productivity numbers (the amount of output per hour of work) for 2020 showed an expected decline as businesses closed and workers were laid-off, these numbers also raise questions about measuring output for many tech-dependent white-collar workers. They are also an indication of key changes in the workplace.
Can a stay-at-house computer-based workforce be productive with reduced or minimal collegial contacts? Or, should corporations write off 2020 as a medical emergency and disruptive force that forced a re-evaluation of who are the essential workers and whether they are crucial and overpaid?
Going back to work in a formal office setting from 9-5 is now being openly discussed as outdated, prehistoric, and pre-pandemic behavior. Some workers at Apple and major Wall Street firms and banks are pushing to continue their homey, pajama-bound work habits while expecting the same full salaries and benefits as if they were in the office.
Some employers must be privately saying that 2020 saw employees getting “money for nothing,” as the Dire Straits song says while watching their MTV. But in 2020, it was more like watching the home shopping shows, going shopping, and exercising between Skype meetings.
This explains why QVC and HSN “performed strongly” financially since the pandemic was identified as a deadly health threat in mid-March 2020. The two home shopping venues saw their revenues increase to($3.4 billion, while their ratings gained 10% from April to June, as online traffic rose 36%, as reported in USA Today.
Older Managers vs. New Younger Workers
Maynard G. Krebbs, the first arch typical beatnik who appeared in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis from 1959 to 1963, had a classic opinion of work. He hated it, and when he heard the word “Work,” he jumped in fear. It’s also worth noting that Maynard’s best friend was Dobie Gills, who was more preppy and straight-laced and hated working.
Flash forward 50 years, and employees in their 20s to 40s have a very different view of work and entitlement in the workplace. Based on some of the most liberal and childish diversions created for work in Silicon Valley, the Google and Facebook headquarters boast free snacks, playgrounds, slides, electronic game rooms, and other diversions as part of their work environment.
In a different industry on the other coast, Jamie Dimon, the hard-nosed head of Citibank, said his form was losing money because his employees were still padding around in their PJs.
In a New York Times interview, Dimon said working from home “does not work for younger people, it doesn’t work for those who want to hustle, it doesn’t work in terms of spontaneous idea generation,” He also noted that the bank lost some clients because rivals had the nerve to make a personal visit to a prospect, while JP Morgan bankers were multitasking at home during Zoom calls.
Dimon said his decision to recall the troops into the skyscrapers did not dovetail with the banks’ post-Covid return plans, but the reality of the banking world is that all business is done through face-to-face contacts. After all, what’s the fun of missing all those expense-account business dinners and lunches? “Yes, people don’t like commuting, but so what,” Dimon said.
Big Changes in the Workplace
The prospect of riding the commuter train into the Hoboken station or taking the subways may not be attractive to stay-at-home workers, but working, by definition, has never been on the worker’s terms.
People get paid to work or do something they would not otherwise do in exchange for a consideration: food, cash, favors, or access. Those trade-offs are the basis for civilization and commerce.
Dimon sounds like a 21st century Pharaoh, but he is voicing an established work ethic that many contemporary workers don’t want to accept. Yes, they will receive entire paychecks, dental benefits, and even ex[ece bonuses, but only on their terms.
This is an impending showdown for many high-paying, high-profile businesses. Complex large businesses cannot be conducted via Skype. The parties can negotiate contracts online, but they will take days longer. Real estate purchases require an in-person inspection; although some 3% of buyers selected a new home purchase online, the majority of people would never make a huge purchase without ever stepping foot into their new home. And while you can buy a car online, most people prefer to sit in the vehicle, feel the seats, and gauge the legroom.
Then, there is the alternative work culture, as evidenced by the playgrounds at Google headquarters for their workers to relax.
So are Dimon and other old-line execs just old-school voices going to continue the traditional definition of work, or will they cave into the tech-reliant pajama workers and their predecessor Maynard G. Krebs?