Accepting The New Reality

We are experiencing a Work-From-Home (WFH) revolution. Organizations and executives who wanted to test WFH but worried about “how to pull it off” and “risking having to put the genie back in the bottle” were given no choice. Covid will change policy more than any election; same thing about the workplace when (if?) things return to normal.

When WatchMojo transitioned to WFH, we had to move quickly in the face of a pandemic. Once we “settled in,” one colleague said “if we do any work it’s a bonus,” which I thought was an extremely pessimistic (and unacceptable) position. After all, if we cannot get any work done, then the CFO in me wondered, why not join not just for-profit corporations like Le Cirque du Soleil (backed by two PE firms with $400 billion in assets under management), the Montreal Canadiens, and academic organizations like Harvard and Stanford (endowment funds of $40B and $28B respectively) and send everyone home and collect employment insurance, until we resume operations. I did not actually consider that, for the record.

The entrepreneur in me does not give up, of course, so I pushed my team to migrate operations to a WFH configuration, staying ahead of government requirements unlike many corporations who dragged their feet. To each their own.

Mind you, I get it (somewhat). When you are in the media business, shutting off the printing press or going off the air is your last option, because you realize you may never come back. It’s not that different in other industries. I’m not judging, these are unprecedented times.

Once we adjusted our operations and settled in, another colleague said “we will likely see a 5-10% drop, eventually, in productivity” which I thought was wishful thinking and too optimistic.

People who win – survive in bad times, thrive in good ones – can find the middle ground.

To Adapt and/or to Adjust

I am not an extreme kind of guy, there’s always a balanced outlook that makes most sense.

The following isn’t a passive aggressive “this is how many ‘other’ execs and HR managers may look at this.” I’ve always alluded to the struggle between conflicting forces within each one of us, so yes, seeing some owners acting in selfish ways as they evaluate their workforce needs going forward, I am outlining all of the thoughts and emotions that you go through.

To do so, I will frame it under Freud’s Id/Ego/Super ego framework whereby:

  • Id = raw instincts, animal survival.
  • Super-ego = idealistic, ethical.
  • Ego = balanced outlook bridging the two “extremes.”

Humor me.

The idealistic view

Let’s start with the super-ego, as I have a tendency to put myself in others’ shoes. I actually polled the office and over 90% said they were equally or more productive working from home.

But I’m a perfectionist wanting everyone to be happy, so I focused on the two who said they were less productive. One colleague said:

“Slow down production just a little bit please. Working from home isnt a seamless switch from working at the office. Things take longer now. Having to use remote access (sometimes theres connection issues, doesnt connect at all until many tries or waiting and trying again much later) to get a file, send it to yourself, wait for it to send, download it on your home mac… Making makeshift home setup even work… Lots of little things slow down a regular day or work now.”

I wonder what would king Solomon think?

My first instinctive reaction (the “here to serve” mantra) was actually more compassionate and empathetic. Thinking, sure, on the one hand:

It’s unrealistic to think that our workflow, work hours, production targets, overall business will remain unchanged. That’s silly.

Realistically, over time, the company may very well not have all FTEs in the office. Indeed, at our company, after one week, half favor it:

Granted, some companies will offer that as a recruitment tool. But if you don’t have a hard time recruiting personnel, that’s not their call, but yours. But indeed, while the conventional wisdom is that employees will clamor for WFH while employers try to put the genie back in the bottle, I’m not convinced of that. In fact, for those

i) whose work allows it,

ii) who have demonstrated an ability to focus and deliver results and

iii) those who want to do so,

it may happen, it may not. It will be a perk, a privilege. There’s no obligation to do this. It’s extra work for managers and frankly, managing a WFH team requires a different set of skills and temperament. So we shall see. I am evaluating things.

The survivalist instinct

Now, if only humans and emotions were so one-dimensional. Before you read the following, bear in mind my “benchmark” is seeing far-deeper pocketed owners and CEOs cut jobs and scale back expenses. That’s what I am looking at. Not taking that into consideration as you read this paints an incomplete and unfair picture. With that in mind, meet the id, who’d say (with more colorful language, natch):

“Look around, people have lost their jobs, shouldn’t you be glad to be working? I know I am!”

I’ve always said that success is fluid, subjective and relative. So is survival. As a human being, you pop your head up and see the carnage around, and wonder, why are people complaining?”

When someone asks you to slow down, the Id wants to reply: “Look around, people have lost their jobs, what’s your beef, exactly?” And frankly, seeing 3.3 million Americans and 1 million Canadians (where we’re based) file for unemployment this past week alone, it is a bit disheartening to hear people complain. Shocking, even. The unemployment rate is already up to 10% – the highest it’s been in 70 years – it will get worse before it gets better. They’re forecasting 40 million will be unemployed in the USA this year. I am getting inundated with people asking if we have job openings. “Why isn’t everyone just happy to be working? People would be so appreciative to have stable/secure jobs now…”

Now bear in mind, employees around the world and at WatchMojo have been asking to work from home. Producing infotainment content for fans as a source of escapism isn’t exactly grueling conditions, especially when you see cashiers, nursesfast food workersdelivery people, first responders showing up to work, keeping the economy going and coming to the aid of the sick while risking their lives. Where’s the perspective?

Interestingly, our freelancers (people who through their own volition – thanks to Canada’s health safety net – prefer to remain independent as contractors, historically have more experience working for other organizations before joining our extended team as contributors but don’t have Unemployment Insurance as a result of being contract workers) have all in unison thanked us for keeping their paychecks intact, thanking us for our “efforts in keeping this going, still be working, especially since [their] spouses have been laid off.”

As an employer, you don’t actually ever expect gratitude, but it’s nice to hear it.

The pragmatic perspective

The reality is that neither the Id nor the Super-ego are “right.” One thing I learned is how little your employees know you. Believe it or not, when this too shall pass, I think that more employees will covet working at the office than employers wanting having all of their employees back on-site. Historically, it’s as if employees don’t trust their employers’ intentions, while employers in turn don’t trust their employees – period. Granted, maybe that’s just me, or the profile of our jobs, but I suspect many employers like ours will explore if:

  • everyone got paid based on output (while maintaining quality levels) as that is easier to balance motivation with productivity;
  • through turnover and attrition, as full time employees (FTEs) leave, they could just get replaced with remote contributors to streamline the operations.

It’s hard (legally, but mainly ethically) to do that when people show up to an office, but if they work from home, I assure you there are HR and Finance departments cranking out the models. It’s one thing when you’re a tight knit team, but if I may be candid, it’s not just that having a gathering of employees creates HR headaches, they spread disease: Covid just upped the stakes. A few years ago, some companies adopted “unlimited vacation days” and by and large, it didn’t work: some abused it, others felt an obligation to take fewer days than they would if they had a hard number. That fad passed. Managing sick days when people have to work on-site is more daunting. Does a mild cough merit someone staying home if they can still work fine otherwise? What to do when one employee misses an insane amount of time but doesn’t actually take care of themselves? Smart employers will see the benefits of more – not less – employees working from home. And more – not less – employees will miss the social interaction, camaraderie, atmosphere of work. Business is busy-ness, something to do to stay occupied. It’s also a place where parents can get a break from parenting, share a meal with others and so on.

The reality is this Covid-imposed WFH phase is one big experiment. Everyone is learning. But we’re realizing that our values were misplaced. Hopefully we will come out of this with a better appreciation of nurses, teachers, service employees. And employers of employees, and employees of employers.

So, what would King Solomon do?

The ego’s conclusion is more pragmatic, practical, realistic. Our business was spared the direct hit, but as everyone will be affected, our revenues will be lowered while costs will grow as we look at a myriad of tech solutions to make everyone’s lives easier so in that context, for the time being, even the Super-ego in me isn’t inclined to reduce output, since we’re already looking at reduced revenues.

As this was literally the first full week with the organization WFH, we don’t want to rush to change anything. Let’s see:

a) what happens when you WFH, can you maintain operations at the same level?

b) if you don’t and there’s a 10% drop,

  • does it matter?
  • can tech offset that?
  • do you just ask people to compromise/meet you in the middle (you save 1-2 hours on commute time, though granted, if you have kids now, you also have to take care of them… but in “normal times,” kids are at school/daycare).

Bear in mind, I’ve already told working parents that they’re parents first (I have two daughters; my wife and I started the company, so we also work throughout). Some of us parents will need to rethink our days. Maybe it’s not a straight 9-to-5, but working every few hours, with a small break… but finishing our day later. Clearly those with kids or spouses at home will have one optimal setup vs others.

All interesting, fascinating things to contemplate.

Then, you start to tinker with a possible model. Do you – gasp – eventually have hybrid job offers:

  • people who work from home get 80-90% of the salary of those who work on-site?
  • though, wait a minute, people who work on-site end up costing more: office space, rent, coffee/water, then the externality of getting one another sick. Oh lord! Covid bad!
  • OK, maybe those offset one another and it doesn’t matter who works where.

It’s premature. You’re just happy to be operational. But it’s one amazing experiment. You’ll evolve, adapt, and thrive soon enough, because that’s the human spirit.

How to survive to once again thrive

As an entrepreneur, you succeed by balancing the primal instincts entrepreneurs have with the empathy you need to display to retain and motivate your people.

Some of your people will be able to work fine remotely, even be more productive… while others tend to lag a bit. And, that’s fine: together as a team we may end up achieving more (Gestalt: sum of the parts is larger than individual units, added together separately).

The workforce – where we spend 60-75% of our time – is undergoing a revolution. There’s going to be some turbulence, and indeed, amongst those who said “equally productive,” one observed: “it’s more a question of being expected to complete extra tasks that are being added onto my schedule.“

Clearly, this is a reality for many early on. My sense is like standing on a doctor’s scale, we’ll overshoot and overwork ourselves, then experience a regression to the mean. But until then, as the Id and Super-ego struggle inside of me, my tendency is that balance ought to prevail, and the following is not mutually exclusive.

Yes, we are here to make changes to improve, but in terms of what we can produce, right now: it is/should be business as usual because we’re lucky to remain in business, even though our revenues may be lower.

As an entrepreneur, you also realize and acknowledge that you have a drive and ambition that is not met by most in your organization, so you adjust that. But you also don’t want to settle, or lose sight of the principles and values that build your organization. So, you should push back, and there’s no shame in that – especially when deeper pocketed owners and organizations discard their people like tissue.

In that light, if anyone’s expectation is: “I keep my job, even if revenue weakens, I should not get fired not should I get paid less, but I should also produce less” – well, that’s ground zero between the Id and Super-Ego. While the request may appear to be a no-brainer to the Super-ego, it’s a non-starter to the Id. Enter the Ego, that views this over a continuum: expect some loss of productivity at the onset, in exchange for productivity – and loyalty – gains over time.

Everything Happens for a Reaason

I realize now how and why some of the unique challenges we have faced have prepared me for this. In 2013, when we only had 1 million subscribers and one channel, a procedural error led YouTube to disable our channel. We worked feverishly to remedy that, but in the years since, I have lived with the spectre of waking up to see everything that we have built to vanish. No one could have expected entire businesses and sectors of the economy to come to a standstill, so they’re in shock. That’s been my life for a decade now.

Today, we have diversified into other brands, other platforms, and reach 150 million viewers with 50 million subscribers on YouTube, Snap, Facebook, Twitter and Tiktok.

I definitely want to emphasize the luck we have to have been spared, and want to prepare my team to realize everyone will be affected by this, just some over time, with Covid’s ripple effects.

We want to be realistic that WFH workflow needs some adjustment, but everyone needs to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and realize what compromise actually means.

In private, internal conversations, we’re encouraging employees who are struggling to adjust to speak up, but it’s hard. We have so many young staffers who’ve read or heard horror stories elsewhere, so there’s this wall that first needs to be broken down. I’m trying to foster an environment where everyone is comfortable to open up, not only those who are struggling in a WFH setup but those who excel. No, not so much to be handed more work, but so that their tips can be replicated across the organization. We will come out stronger as a result of this if we find out what works. We not only have many more remote freelancers than on-site employees, but we’ve also had full-time employees who needed to work remotely (whose spouses moved, for example). We trust them and they trust us. To them, this is business as usual.

Ultimately, this is not business as usual, and business – and life – will never be the same. It’s important to take away the good from this: respecting certain jobs whose values and worth were too discounted, but not lose sight of the drive and ingenuity required on the road to recovery.