It is said that there are two ways to learn.
The first way is intellectually. Like a philosopher, this approach to learning is limited to only ideas. Some ideas will appear more true than others, however they are all ideas in the end. Reading this reflection is an intellectual approach to learning.
The second way is experientially. Like a scientist, this approach to learning involves our senses and first-hand lived experiences, also known as ‘research’. It is only through experiencing an idea that we can discover what is real for us.
Over the past year, work from home has not been an idea but an experience.
All of us in knowledge-based professions have been scientists, running the greatest experiment ever imaginable with respect to how we work. At a scale that’s unimaginable: almost every single knowledge worker in the world. And simultaneously.
The size of the global workforce is estimated to be about 3 billion people. Research published last year showed that about 40% of the US workforce are working from home due to pandemic precautions. Rough back-of-the-napkin math would suggest that nearly 1 billion people participated in this WFH experiment over the past year.
Unlike most experiments, where all other variables are expected to be constant and one variable is changed to see the overall effect, the great WFH experiment was conducted in an environment with many other variables changing. This of course makes it much more difficult to draw conclusions.
As I reflect on what I have learned from the past year of observing myself and others in this WFH experiment, a few themes emerge.
Resilience. Had we learned at the onset of the pandemic that we would be asked to work from home for at least 12 months continuously, there would have been strong resistance. In many ways, I am glad that it unfolded in chapters, a few months at a time, as it provided the space to accept this new reality.
Trust. Without the benefit of literally seeing the people who I work for and with, it became very clear to me where I have trust in others, and also where I do not. It has been a growth opportunity for me to learn how to earn, build and maintain trust in relationships without the past norm of physical presence.
Freedom. On occasion, the freedom to choose when to work, be it late into the night, early morning or on the weekend, can feel quite nice. On repeat, this freedom can turn into a prison, where one is always working. The freedom is really a freedom to choose, and it requires making an intentional choice of when to work, and when not to work.
Boundaries. This WFH experiment has required a new skill, one that I had not explicitly learned until now. Without the boundaries from the change in physical spaces, I have had to learn how to set my own boundaries. It can feel uncomfortable to ask for what I need from those I work with, and even more so from those I live with.
Space. There was a lot of noise in my day-to-day lifestyle that has been cut out in the past year. I am sure it has been replaced by other noises that I am not aware of yet, however I have noticed that with shorter and fewer meetings, disappearing commutes, and business travel and conferences paused, there is more space that I appreciate.
Focus. There is another skill that can go underestimated. The ability to focus oneself without the external support of others. Social media, Slack notifications and email all take us away from being able to do our best work. Some have adapted well to being able to find focus, others have not and have found it challenging.
I do believe that WFH is not for everyone, and not for every work culture. It is for me though and for my teams. I understand that we did not have a choice over the past year, however do believe that over the next year, many will begin to have choices, even if the options feel different than what we once were. The biggest choice we can make is to be intentional about how we think about the future of work. The future will not look like the past.
What I have learned from this great WFH experiment is that when I am open to change versus resistant to it, and grounded in reality versus feeling disappointed by it, I show up with an energy and enthusiasm that becomes fuel for the journey.
Life is but a journey after all. The truth is that I have nowhere to go, I will always be on my way, (even while working from home).