What’s Lost and Gained When We Put In 9-to-5 From Home?

On Thursday, Tobi Lütke, the founder and chief executive of Ottawa-based Shopify, announced on Twitter that most of his company’s 5,000 employees had permanently become stay-at-home workers.


Credit…Chris Wattie/Reuters

That came the same day as a similar announcement from Facebook, and it followed remote working moves by Twitter and OpenText, a mainstay of Canada’s tech industry based in Waterloo, Ontario.

Shopify, the most valuable corporation on the Canadian stock exchange, provides products and services that allow small and medium-size retailers to move online, a popular recourse for those shuttered by the pandemic.

In the post-pandemic world, the company’s Canadian offices will become “recruitment hubs” and places where employees can meet in person when necessary. The future of a recently announced Shopify office in Vancouver is still being sorted out. So is the overall meaning of a permanent shift to remote work.

It seems beyond churlish for anyone who still has a job to be grumbling about where they perform their work duties. But for a lot of people, remote work is an unwelcome novelty.

I’ve worked from home (and on the road for assignments) since CompuServe was my email provider, but many only began a few months ago with the lockdown.

I called Henry Mintzberg, one of Canada’s leading business theorists and a professor of management studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, to talk about remote work. Given that he has long urged managers to connect regularly with employees on the shop or office floor, I was somewhat surprised by his assessment. Here’s some of our conversation, which has been edited for space and clarity.

Is it possible to already draw conclusions from the global move to at-home work during the pandemic?

Many people work quite independently of each other, sometimes even when facing each other.

There are many, many kinds of work where people don’t need to interact with each other. And so why not at home? Why invest in all those bricks and mortars?

Two months of using Zoom sometimes three or four times a day makes me realize that while it’s not quite the same as face-to-face, it’s awfully close, especially compared to email.

So as people get used to that, they clearly don’t have to go into the office, they don’t have to get in an airplane. That’s obviously going to have an impact.

Credit…Ian Austen/The New York Times

What do we lose by not dealing with colleagues virtually?

My first book, “The Nature of Managerial Work,” was about the oral nature of the manager’s job: about inflection, hand movements and tone of voice and all that kind of thing.

We have all that actually on video. So, in fact, there’s not much loss.

I think what’s lost is almost psychic in a sense that when walk into a room, you can feel a sense of energy or whatever. And you don’t have that.

But as someone who was always suspicious of that, you’re losing very little. I’m stunned by how little you lose and how much you gain because you don’t have to spend hours in an airplane or driving to work.

But there has always been a concern that remote working can impede careers.

Right, the out of sight, out of mind kind of thing, although this isn’t quite out of sight. It’s hard to play the politics on a Zoom call and you’re not scheming behind the coffee machine. But maybe that’ll be a good thing.

And don’t forget, if everybody’s doing it, you still got to promote people. So if everybody’s at home, you’ve got to promote people at home. You can’t just promote people who come into the office.

Obviously, many jobs can’t be done at home. But is there work that doesn’t involve, say, working in a sawmill or a store, treating patients at hospitals or whatever that’s still best done in person?

For my groups, some of our most intense brainstorming has been when we’re face-to-face and struggling with issues and then coming up with creative solutions.

The really creative, difficult project work, I think, needs face-to-face interaction. People will still come in and work interactively at times because if they don’t you’re going to get less and less creativity.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

My colleague Dan Bilefsky spoke recently to someone whose work is both creative and cannot be done profitably from home: a Mongolian contortionist with Cirque du Soleil. She’s been stuck on a cruise ship for weeks as the pandemic shutdown has put the once wildly successful Cirque into a deep crisis.

Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times
Credit…Brendan Kergin/Castanet Kamloops, via The Canadian Press and Associated Press
  • A national flyover by the Snowbirds of the Royal Canadian Air Force that was intended to cheer up the nation instead turned into a tragedy.

  • One of Saudi Arabia’s top intelligence officers, an expert in artificial intelligence, is now lying low in Canada. In what appears to be part of an effort to pressure him to return home, two of his adult children and one of his brothers have been arrested by the Saudi security forces and held incommunicado.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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