Solving Problems by Looking Elsewhere

I usually start off a post here with a personal vignette from my life. This time it will be a news item that I read almost 50 years ago (!)– that obviously made a deep impression.

Back in the 1970s the Federal Trade Commission set up a committee to find a solution to the (relatively rare) disaster of babies dying while sitting on the lap of their parents during a plane’s takeoff and emergency braking (whereupon the baby would go flying forward). After due deliberation and much expert testimony, the committee announced that their recommendation was…. to do NOTHING!

I was taken aback – as you probably are right now. Then I read on. Of course, a few babies’ lives could be saved by demanding parents to buy a reduced rate ticket for their tot and strap them into a bassinet or whatever. That would lead to zero deaths. But the committee members went further: what happens when you demand a ticket be bought for the baby? The answer (they had economists figure this out): a certain percentage of people will decide to drive to their destination instead of flying (especially for relatively short, inter-city distances) and then the number of babies dying in automobile accidents will be far higher than the airplane deaths! (As is well known, air transportation – per mile – is the SAFEST mode of travel in the world.)

That was a lesson that I have never forgotten – when faced with a problem, don’t only concentrate on the data within the problem proper, but rather think about the (seemingly irrelevant) “ancillary” elements that could be decisive.

This all came back to me recently in our “post-Corona” situation in which the following question is being bandied about: should companies and organizations force their workers to return to the office, or enable them to continue working from home?

The main elements seem clear cut regarding both options:

Return to the office: a- organizations need an esprit de corps i.e., a sense of community (or common purpose) that can’t be maintained if everyone is at home or elsewhere; b- managers need to stay on top of workers for guidance and some supervision; c- the “water cooler effect” – serendipitous conversations that lead to insights and breakthroughs, only happen when people are physically together.

Work from home: a- huge savings in rent for the company with far less office space necessary; b- higher worker morale (and productivity?) when workers don’t have to spend lots of time on the road to and from work; c- flexible worktime, something especially advantageous for parents (usually mothers) of young children.

As one can see, these are all directly related to the work situation itself. However, if one takes a wider perspective, then some other considerations bubble to the surface. Here are several.

Saving money? Not necessarily. Electricity bills can skyrocket for the company, with far greater use of computers and other appliances to communicate from afar. And does anyone think that workers will pay for their own increased electricity bills (computers, air-conditioning, etc.)? In fact, many home A/Cs will use far more electricity than one gigantic central A/C at the office. Thus, even without considering the economic cost for company or worker, society as a whole might actually LOSE out here with INCREASED carbon emissions!

And then there’s a possible, unintended tertiary effect. If workers can work from anywhere, many will then move to more “amenable” (for them) places to live. But no company will allow workers never to meet each other face-to-face, so then (here we go again with the airplanes!) we have to factor airfare costs into the company’s “savings” equation, for the quarterly “ingathering” of the worker self-exiles.

Moreover, as we already see with many Silicon Valley employees moving to Colorado and other rural and suburban areas – away from the denser cities – here too society exacerbates the carbon footprint problem, as it is now well documented that city folk use far less “carbon” than their suburban/exurban compatriots. Why so? Not only far less transportation expenditures, but the housing carbon footprint (urban apartment buildings vs suburban one-family homes) is much lower in the city. So that society loses out again…

Improved worker morale? Not for everyone. Many (perhaps most) people need to get away from “the house” as a break from the humdrum of everyday life. Others are “physical presence” type of people who need the visceral immediacy of “corporeal” interaction, so that meeting virtually might actually be depressing, not morale-boosting. And still others have marriages that are holding on by a thread mainly because one spouse (or both) are out of the house for many hours. (Which is why divorce rates spike immediately after retirement.) Then there are those who like the clear differentiation between private life and workplace – getting a frantic email from the boss late in the evening is not what they bargained for. Not to mention the vastly different “working at home experience” between parents with children at home, and empty nesters who can work in quiet. (Then again, there might be more parenting being done – good for the kids and society at large; bad for the parents’ employers.)

Organizational culture: The ones probably most against permanent work-from-home are… managers! It’s not only more challenging to manage workers from afar, but more “problematic” (from their standpoint): what if it turns out that many workers don’t need managers at all?! Today’s “information worker” is well educated and socialized to think independently. That’s great for the organization as a whole – but not necessarily for many who run the organization.

I’m sure that with a little thought, you too could come up with several additional, broader societal considerations, unintended consequences, and wider ramifications for this burning issue. More important, though, is to look beyond whatever other narrow problem you face now and in the future. What you see is not necessarily what you’ll get if you focus only on what you see right in front of you.

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