human service robot with big eyes

The new problem of liking working from home (WFH)

When it comes to building robots that look uncannily similar to humans in facial appearance, the end result usually makes even the most stoic of people uncomfortable, and simply creeps us out. Our sense of being uniquely human is core to our understanding of self, our personal autonomy and our sense of innate value.

Robots purposely made to look a little too human, seem to violate that sensibility.

In this article

It seems us humans are very good at recognizing patterns, and differences. Our innate self-sorting skills like to create lists of things that are similar and familiar and those that, well aren't yet.

So if you're making robots, make sure you make them look deliberately a little less than human. (But I digress.)

Dealing with difference and respecting the humanity in our teams

Our evolutionary biology seems to have pre-wired most of us to look for a sense of belonging. When we begin to recognise (or suspect) we don't belong, we usually look for another group, place or even employer, to share our time, skills and gifts with.

Dissolving the ties that bind

Similar to the unhelpful to business trait of ignorance, it seems that ‘othering’ (its DNA found in racism and othering phobias) is not only useful for creating your very only hate group, it's also the key ingredient to corroding the ties that bind a business team together.

Reopening and the new normal, whatever that is

As the world's businesses scramble to reopen after the bulk of the COVID-19 lockdowns come to a close, we are seeing the world has again changed.

The Great Resignation is upon us - or what some commentators are referring to as The Big Quit, as an inordinate number of workers leave their current jobs in search for something more meaningful. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many workers to rethink their careers, work conditions, and long-term goals and reexamine their relationship (or lack of) with their employer.

While some Australian commentators take the 'nothing has changed' view of;

“... we are changing jobs less than ever before..."

and are quick to make statements like,

"... quit rates should increase as more workers seek to move to jobs providing better wages and opportunities. But we repeat: there would be nothing unusual or undesirable about this..."

for business owners who invest in their people, their process and their customers, understanding the drivers behind growing local (and contagious international) trends, are part of proactively planning for success rather than reactively mopping up a mess that someone should have seen coming.

Many important questions are yet to be answered.

  • Will paid work-from-home be the great leveller in terms of gender equality and diversity?
  • What will work mean if our offices are virtual and we lose those day-to-day social interactions with other team members?
  • How will employers manage workers who became accustomed to working from home during the pandemic, and are resistant to returning to the office?
  • And what are the new work health and safety (WHS) issues that the new normal will inevitably bring?
We all know that work will never be the same, even if we don’t yet know all the ways in which it will be different – Stewart Butterfield, Slack co-founder and CEO

Remote teams and belonging, all from home

Managing remote teams is something many entrepreneurs have learnt to address early as they often first build a business with remote teams from different cultures, communities, countries and time zones.

But on a bigger scale, employees working from home (WFH) is just the soft title atop a more difficult and seismic shift many business leaders are yet to really consider - the ramifications of the ‘new normal’ work from home (WFH) options, and what builds a sense of belonging and what erodes that uniquely very human of needs.

Already pushing back against the return to business as normal, are new tried and tested realities.

  • We can accomplish most tasks remotely without a significant drop in productivity or quality.
  • Most employees appreciate flexibility, especially those with long commute times.
  • High-quality knowledge workers are highly networked, connected and have greater mobility and choice of available employers.

The rapid adoption of remote business technology accelerated by COVID-19 restrictions has contributed to an employee's new ability to pull back the corporate veil and see their employers and suppliers in the often harsh light of day.

It's why employees are reacting severely when management tries to dictate their behaviour.

You simply cannot dictate to someone who is highly knowledgeable, connected and as a result empowered, without expecting a negative response.

Like all new frontiers being crossed, crossing them brings new experiences and expectations many of us never saw coming, and business will need to adapt to.

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face regarding work is what happens to the other 60% of workers who can’t work from home?

Diverse employees, staff, team members or something else?

With the realities of employee choice now looking Australian businesses squarely in the face, it's no longer possible to put off dealing with how diversity, inclusion and belonging affect the day-to-day activities of all types of organisations and their cross-business interactions.

  • Customers are expecting to see their own type of people working in the businesses they use and displayed in the brands they support – and our staff are also our customers.
  • Small to medium businesses (SMEs) creating tenders for space in a supply chain are being asked about their diversity and inclusion policy by a growing list of larger businesses.
  • Government departments are requiring increasing supply chain transparency and interaction with a more equitable representation of the broader community.

As small to medium business employs 85+% of all Australians, the very human issue of diversity, inclusion and belonging is a front and centre business competitive issue (and a growing customer expectation).

There is no room for the antiquated behaviours of the ‘Ugly Australian’ on the globally connected business stage and its echoes of the White Australia Policy of the 1970’s.

The new way forward

As a business community, we have to continue to broaden and deepen our cultural awareness, normalise our understanding that language creates its own diversity and culture of belonging, while maintaining a level of curiosity and an ability to reach out and engage with other cultures.

Watch your language

In the same way, we understand habitually using profanity in business environments creates unnecessary friction of varying degrees, we understand the language we use and permit, (and the language we refuse to use), also creates its own environment contributing to the stability or instability of the work culture we are building.

As organisations flatten their traditional hierarchy of leadership model, employees have evolved to the place where job engagement and a commitment to continual professional development, (CPD) must be based upon recognition of their individual value, rather than as a byproduct of direct supervision.

Resist the temptation

The temptation to revert to traditional command and control approaches are today clearly seen as the excess baggage no one looks on favorably – certainly not an indicator of leadership maturity.

We must lead our business to better embed the innate humanity of belonging in our business models and to actively work against the ‘othering’ of difference and dissent.

This starts with embracing diversity, inclusion and belonging as a competitive business advantage and the right thing to do.

None of us are as smart as all of us

The new normal for business is not about hostage-taking and staff controlling companies by tantrums, dictates or bad behaviour, but rather represents a point of view recognising employees as being essential to success and a wake-up call for those businesses who have yet to get the memo.

The last word

As we move through the digital age to the next age one thing is clear - perhaps the great divide of the future workforce will not be between the haves and the have nots, but between those who are able to learn, and then unlearn and learn afresh, and perhaps those employees who can work from home.

Drew Browne Modern Small Business thought-provocateur
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