A Most Opportune Moment: Whose Careers Are Damaged Most by Remote Work?
I was 22 years old and my stomach churned as I approached the Arthur Andersen Consulting headquarters in Washington, DC, on a steamy June morning. I was reporting for work on my first day, and the gray building loomed larger as my cheap shiny black shoes shuffled along the crowded DC sidewalk. My worries numbered […]
I was 22 years old and my stomach churned as I approached the Arthur Andersen Consulting headquarters in Washington, DC, on a steamy June morning. I was reporting for work on my first day, and the gray building loomed larger as my cheap shiny black shoes shuffled along the crowded DC sidewalk. My worries numbered into the thousands… here are a few: since I only owned six suits, would I be able to mix them with different shirts and ties so I can make them last longer than just six business days? Would my colleagues unmask me as an unqualified imposter, realizing I was only a math major from a small Michigan liberal arts school? And my perennial worry since second grade: who will I sit with at lunch every day?
As I entered the offices, I realized there were nine other “green-beans” starting along with me on that very same day. Phew, that was a relief… at least I wasn’t alone. My start group contained seven women and three men. As we mingled, I’m not sure if I was more overwhelmed by the smells (cologne, coffee, and 1980s hair products) or the sights (marble counters, wall sconces, and senior partners brushing past wearing expensive shiny shoes). I had no time to decide because we were all promptly ushered into a classroom where we would spend the next three weeks learning the Andersen way and marinating in the culture.
After three weeks, all ten of us were flown out to Andersen’s campus in St. Charles, Illinois, for another three weeks… more marination and infusion. As we breathed in the midwestern air, the bonds we developed as a DC start group were strong, even as we bonded with additional “Arthur Androids” from all over the world who were in St. Charles at the same time. (This is when I learned that “The Hague” was a place you could be from.) It was a crash course in how professionals be professional, how work happens, and what a company culture is. The official purpose of these six full indoctrinating weeks was tech training: learning how to build technology systems with business requirements and analysis, mainframe databases, and COBOL code. Sure, we learned all that, but that was only 40% of my full takeaway. The real learning was all the other stuff: how do you demonstrate accountability to a boss or client, how do you organize your time, when do you ask for help. In this crucible of others, I also learned about myself: am I a fourth-quarter adrenalin performer? Do I avoid conflict? What are my weaknesses compared to my peers? How do I cope with the feeling of dread that awakens me each morning?
Over the rest of my career, spanning three more tech companies and countless projects and teams, I continued to absorb skills, norms, and behaviors, but never at the blinding velocity of those early months at my first professional job.
As the world has adjusted to a “new normal” over the last four months , I’ve often wondered how different that experience would’ve been if I’d been remote for all of it. The comparison is jarring. I would have completed the official learning objectives, but I would have been denied access to the much more valuable array of enduring behaviors and skills rooted in those live experiences. If they’re lucky enough to have jobs, today’s early career professionals are severely impeded. While career veterans can rely on comfortably familiar networks built over decades, new workplace entrants struggle for meaningful boss and colleague facetime. This essential aspect of their career is sporadically sparked to life like Frankenstein, unmuted on command as a two-dimensional image in an electronic grid.
During these past four weeks, as a CEO of a startup tech company with 33 years of professional experience, I attended an average of 17 meetings a week. The job demands networking and connections, and I have no trouble adding 3-5 new meaningful connections every week, all aimed at growing our company. Working remotely has slowed me down slightly; but for the most part, my appetite for challenge and my ability to fulfill my role are intact. This is not so for our early career professionals with smaller networks and a much larger appetite for skill-gathering and absorption.
When you combine that impediment with the uncertainty of not knowing when this will end, or even what the world will look like when it does, the picture looks even bleaker for our young professional colleagues.
Or does it?
Ever the optimist, I see opportunity in this barren desert of apparent chaos. Believe it or not, the forced reboot of the professional world holds some bright spots for our young future heroes. Here are a few:
The path to success isn’t gone… it’s different. The myriad skills and behaviors I gained were calibrated for an in-person world. But there is a corresponding array of such skills and behaviors in our new, electronically remote realm. The infusion doesn’t have to vanish; it’s just a different marinade. I learned how to shake hands confidently and that pinpoint Oxford shirts were keys to success. New keys to success are being defined, and those who learn them (or who define them) have a chance at unlocking higher levels. And maybe the new behaviors won’t be as bias-laden or random as handshakes and white shirts.
This crisis is ripe for innovation. Because the obstacles to connection are now greater and more widespread than ever, great reward awaits those who do break through (and there will be plenty of room for those innovators). We thought it was impossible to send messages instantly until AOL and Prodigy gave us email. A 30-year-old invented basketball in the 1880s to keep athletes occupied during cold Massachusetts winters. Companies and individuals will find ways to overcome the massive obstacles to connecting and networking, and those ventures will be spawned by early career professionals.
The old way exacted a heavy cost. Remember my first six weeks of marination at Arthur Andersen? Each morning, I donned a dry-cleaned shirt and suit and commuted by metro to downtown DC. Since we weren’t allowed to bring lunch, I bought lunch, and I spent another hour commuting home, every single workday. This impractical regimen endured mostly unchanged for 33 years, except for the wardrobe which relaxed a bit. The sheer improvement in productivity and quality time, not to mention cash savings, by eliminating everyday commutes gives today’s professionals a measurable productivity advantage in the form of 5-15 hours per week. The problem is that more productive “alone time” isn’t needed when today’s professionals are already alone most of their work week. This newfound time surplus should be reallocated toward the most starved activities like colleague connection time, customer facetime, and networking. Even more benefit gained by this savings: meetings are no longer missed or postponed due to weather, traffic, or even home improvement contractors; they happen, and attendance is up!
Frankenstein author Mary Shelley summed it up better than I can: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” Today’s early career professionals face an uphill climb as their careers are starting at what appears to be an awkward and inopportune moment. But somehow, as has been proven so many times before in human history, the indomitable drive to succeed, connect, and build something different will eventually win out, once again.
This crisis, this virus, could have burst on the scene in any decade, on any generation. But of all the generations who could have inherited this chance, the opportunity to redefine work as we know it accrues to this cohort of early career professionals. This generation is also no stranger to obstacles, and they have proven that they can not only overcome them, but improve the world in the process. As experienced professionals, the least we can do for our young colleagues is to take an early career starter out for a virtual lunch, and make sure they see that they’re embarking on a valuable career at a most opportune moment.