Sonari Glinton: You're listening to "Now, What's Next?", an original podcast from Morgan Stanley. I'm Sonari Glinton. It was April, 2020, just as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to hit North America and Jessica Meir already had a head start on the rest of us, at least, when it came to working remotely.
Jessica Meir: If you need to work on something by yourself, you're taking some notes or you're preparing for something, I'd probably be doing that in my sleeping quarters, and that's about the size of a phone booth.
Glinton: Jessica had been working from a distance, 254 miles to be exact, for over six months. That's 254 miles straight up.
Meir: It was my dream to go to space and to be an astronaut since I was five years old. And I have thought about it ever since then. And it was even more incredible than I could have ever imagined.
Glinton: Jessica is a NASA astronaut. For a half a year, home was the International Space Station and it gave her a unique view of how coronavirus was blazing the path across the surface of the planet, changing virtually everything in its wake.
Meir: We're looking out the window, seeing the earth look as magnificent as it ever has, but then we're trying to understand what's happening down there. And the fact that everyone's lives have really changed and we have entered these totally new ways of living on the ground.
Glinton: It wasn't until Jessica returned to earth in the midst of COVID that she actually felt cut off from the rest of the world.
Meir: I find the isolation and confinement on earth to be much more difficult to deal with that in space. It was just part of the mission up there. There's a reason for it, but here on earth, our society is just not built that way. We look out the window, we want to go outside. We want to interact with other people. That's just how we are as human species.
Glinton: We can learn something from astronauts. As many of us do our jobs in our basements or in our bedrooms, astronauts are used to working in tin cans orbiting the earth. Jessica Meir, you have been to the International Space Station and you've spent years being trained for it. What kind of advice would you give me and the rest of us who are feeling isolated as remote workers, what we can do?
Meir: We might feel like we're stuck in our routine and we're isolated and then we're in this small confined space. Find something to break that pattern up on the space station. When you're floating, let me tell you everything is more fun. Everything. It brings out this kind of inner child and this five-year-old self, because at any moment, no matter what you're doing, you can spin around in a ball or shoot down the length of the module like Superman. And it just gives people this sense of levity and playfulness. And I think maybe that's something that we can all remember to benefit when we're here.
Glinton: Many of us were abruptly sent home at the beginning of the pandemic. And many of us are still here. We've had to contend with all sorts of challenges, working in our bedrooms, having our kids burst in our Zoom calls. I'm here standing in my closet, forgetting what day it is. We all have tried different ways to cope. Me, I try to take conference calls while on walks or when I'm nervous. One day I walked the full 17 miles to the ocean by accident. But am I the only one who's missing my work life or missing talking about the bachelor with the IT guy. It's estimated that over 40% of the US Labor Force is working from home and will be for the foreseeable future. Maybe for forever.
Microsoft has already given their employees the option to keep working remotely once the pandemic is behind us. Others like Shopify, Dropbox, and Upwork say most of their employees are never coming back to the office. And it might mean the end of the workplace as we know it. Today, we're talking to the pioneers who are blazing that trail. Jessica Meir, the astronaut has a perspective that at first seems unique. She works very remotely. Her bosses and the bulk of her team is in Houston and her office is her home, but she's not alone. We want to see what we can learn from folks. Who've had a taste of the future of work and can tell us what we might expect
Glinton: This season on Now, What's Next, an original podcast from Morgan Stanley, we're trying to figure out what life after a global pandemic looks like or can look like. Some of these changes will be subtle, others dramatic, but no matter what, even after the dust settles, life is not going back to the way it was before. We're exploring how the world continues to evolve in the face of a global crisis. And the rare chance has given us to rethink our assumptions. Now this may be a once in a lifetime challenge, but it's also an opportunity to create real and lasting change. Today, what's next for how we work?
Ashley Mitchell: I did it myself. Can I do it myself? What do you mean?
Speaker 4: [inaudible].
Mitchell: You're going to put it in my brain.
Speaker 4: [crosstalk].
Mitchell: Don't put it too far.
Speaker 4: It's going to be more uncomfortable.
Mitchell: Oh, no.
Glinton: That is Ashley Mitchell. He's a medical animator from the UK and yes, that is him getting a COVID test. In the middle of the pandemic, Ashley has just arrived in Barbados and a negative COVID test is part of the entry requirements. But it's worth it because the pandemic has given Ashley the excuse to fulfill his dream of moving to paradise. Ashley is a digital nomad. He can work anywhere there's a good internet connection. Normally being a digital nomad means strain no further than local cafe. That is until the Barbados government announced that it will let remote workers into the country on year long visas. It's called the Barbados Welcome Stamp. The idea, entice a different kind of tourist, the digital nomad. After all tourism in Barbados has been hard hit by the pandemic. You might recall a few episodes ago, we talked to Valerie Workman, who is a travel concierge on the island.
Valerie Workman: I knew depression set in for a lot of people because there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
Glinton: The hope is digital nomads like Ashley will put money back into the Barbados economy.
Mitchell: So I've lived in the city in England and I've always felt like I had to be near a city to find work and things like that. And then you're paying a premium to do that. So as soon as the pandemic hit and the social life was taken away, it's like, "Why am I paying all this money to be at a city center that no longer exists?"
Glinton: Ashley arrived in Barbados a world away from his tiny apartment in Leeds. Wasn't easy. He had to wrap up his old life and deal with all the paperwork and complications of moving to an entirely new country, but you won't hear Ashley complaining
Mitchell: So in England I would tend to just work all day indoors, very unhealthy. It would be a lot of procrastinating. I'm the master of procrastination. So a full day's work would actually take me all day and all night just because I'd be chipping away at it. And then you do five minutes like, "Oh, I'm going to have a break now." Oh, God. But here there's a lot more fun things to do. I'll be wanting to condense that work into small bits and get it done so that I can go out swimming or so that I can go for a drink later and stuff.
Glinton: By moving to Barbados, Ashley has found a way to make remote work more fun, but a laptop on a beach probably won't be the reality for the rest of us anytime soon. Ashley had money and the relative freedom to move. Lots of folks don't. You're not moving to work remotely in Barbados if you're a single parent struggling to make ends, meet with a minimum wage job let's say in a call center. You also need a fair amount of courage to just pick up and move far away from your family and friends. And besides, Barbados would get pretty crowded if everyone just showed up, but working from long distance, like 1000s of miles is something some people already have a whole lot of experience with.
Ali Darwich: It's really eye opening. Honestly, it's the first time I work in such a multicultural company. So it's kind of really interesting to see like, who celebrates what and which languages do they learn? What do they learn in school? I don't know how to describe it, but I feel like it makes it for a really rich experience.
Glinton: This is Ali Darwich. Ali lives and works in Monterey, Mexico for a company called Modern Tribe. It's a digital agency that creates custom applications and websites. They have some big name clients like Nike and Harvard University and 140 employees all working from home, spread out all over the globe.
Darwich: Our other teammates is in South Africa and Paul, I believe he seems Taiwan or Korea. So yeah, we're all spread all together. We have a ton of teammates in Argentina and Chile. We have another teammate called Barron, he's from England, but he's currently stranded in Kuala Lumpur.
Glinton: There are things that Ali loves about working on a virtual team.
Darwich: First of all, there are no office politics. So that makes it like much better and healthier environment. There are no gossiping or stuff like that.
Glinton: But it also means that Modern Tribe has to find ways to get their team working remotely, to have some of those same interactions that take place at the office water cooler or in the break room.
Darwich: Even on the company chat channel, we have our own channels where we can talk about random stuff. It's really nice because even the CEOs and our bosses encourage us to talk about random stuff. Sometimes we play video games together. For example, sometimes we talk about movies or suggest each other TV show. Sometimes we talk about building Legos.
Glinton: I'm interested in what working at Modern Tribe is like, because I want to find a company who's already way ahead of us. We're on year one of remote work, but Modern Tribe is on year 20. That's how they started two decades ago. So they've learned a thing or two about how to work effectively when you're not all in the same office. Ali's boss, Shane Pearlman is the founder of Modern Tribe.
Shane Pearlman: In December, I will have been working remotely for 20 years. I started during the dot bomb meltdown. I was living in Santa Cruz in the Valley and I lost five jobs between 2000 and 2001.
Glinton: After writing out the dot com bust, Shane decided two things. He wanted to be able to work wherever he wanted and he wanted to be able to surf. Now this was 2000 when high-speed internet was still not really a thing, but Shane started his company with the idea that it could support the kind of life that he wanted to live. Fast forward to 2020, and Shane now lives on the beautiful Island of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, just off the coast of West Africa. I'm talking to him from his home and office overlooking the beach of [inaudible 00:11:47]. What Shane learned from 20 years of what he calls remote first working, might surprise you. The biggest challenge wasn't scheduling across multiple time zones or handling international payroll or hiring people you've never met before. It's forging those emotional bonds between people that turn them into a team, camaraderie, trust and a word empathy.
Pearlman: To me, empathy is our biggest challenge without question. Great teams like really good teams, they assume the best in each other. And they know each other's strengths and weaknesses. And a lot of that trust and that empathy, it actually comes from shared experiences and in-person makes all the difference.
Glinton: But even Modern Tribe's work from home model isn't COVID proof. Despite all of that experience working around the globe, they found that it's still crucial, even if it's just once a year to see each other in person and connect. For their company, it was the annual retreat.
Pearlman: That retreat is gold for us. It's what gives us huge retention. It's what connects people emotionally so that when stuff gets hard and there's stress and a pandemic and people aren't feeling great at home, that they know that these people have their back and they can assume the best.
Glinton: Modern Tribe had a retreat plan for Italy in April, 2020. And that obviously didn't happen.
Pearlman: And I would actually say that frankly, the biggest struggle we've had, the biggest loss that COVID has caused my company culturally, it was not having that retreat. I think we're going to see a degree of turnover and challenges that we just would not have had if we'd been able to get everybody back together and just tighten those bonds.
Glinton: Companies and their employees may seem to be adjusting to work from home. They may even be thriving, but without proper preparation and without focusing on building a strong culture of empathy, Shane thinks they're heading for a crash.
Pearlman: So if you were to ask me to look in the crystal ball and ask how this new remote work trend will proliferate and goes. I think actually my guess is a lot of people are going to have a pretty good experience for a little while. About two, three years, they'll get that bump in productivity that everyone gets. But what they're going to bump into is that, that whole trust and empathy and soft skill side, it has a shelf life and all these people who work together and build strong teams, well, it's going to last a couple of years. And then through a mixture of turnover and the sort of challenges that atrophy, well, my guess is the biggest challenges companies are going to face is how to connect people in remote environment.
Glinton: Oh, yeah, those were Shane's kids you heard in the background. Even 20 years of remote working can't solve that. In the future, some companies will stay remote. Some will move back into office spaces that might not look anything like the ones we're used to, but the ones that will really thrive, those will be the ones that understand that human contact is still too important to be relegated to a corner of a Zoom window. Companies like Modern Tribe might be the wave of the future. If so, then this number should give you pause. There are 4 billion square feet of office space in the US alone. We don't have to imagine everyone abandoning their offices, even to some leaving could cause a crisis.
Glinton: If you visit one of the first skyscrapers like the Monadnock Building in Chicago, you might notice something interesting. When completed it was the largest office building in the world. That was 140 years ago. The office hasn't changed that much since. New ideas are long overdue. You can imagine that a world with fewer offices would leave the people who design offices absolutely terrified. Michelle Lee is one of those people. She was working on designing some big, impressive, and brilliantly conceived office spaces for a major client when suddenly...
Michelle Lee: We were working with a client on a number of their offices, and many of them being quite large when the pandemic hit.
Glinton: Michelle is a strategy director at Rapt Studio, a design firm that helps companies like Google and the sneaker company Vans create the offices of the future. I'm talking to Michelle because the team at Rapt has spent a lot of time thinking deeply about the future of work and the future of offices. But the pandemic has made us think about the office in much more practical terms. For instance, will cubicles be back in fashion? Will we be surrounded by plexiglass dividers or temperature taking stations? But Michelle says, we've been asking the wrong questions. She has a completely different philosophy about all of this stuff.
Lee: It's simply the idea to focus on the people or the workforce, not the office or the workplace.
Glinton: Well, hearing that, the question is could we have been going about this all wrong? Like Modern Tribe's CEO, Shane Pearlman says, it's those human connections that actually matter most. And once you start thinking that way, then you realize that the future of the office is going to be something more mutable, more adaptable to our very human needs. And frankly, our very messy lives.
Lee: In this world, if you're really thinking about the people, then the office has now expanded to touch a diverse set of spaces. The home, maybe the neighborhood cafe, the park, the library, all in concert with an office. The headquarters, as well as the virtual spaces and the tools. So really the workplace ought to respond to the needs of the distributed workforce and the people.
Glinton: Michelle thinks we can combine the two work models and get the best of both worlds. It's not a choice of working from home or working in an office.
Lee: A company has now decided they're going to do a hybrid model where employees work three days at home and two days in the office. Maybe I start my week at home with focused work, as well as remote collaboration. And then mid-week, I go to the office for intense in-person collaboration sessions to socialize and all kind of reconnect and to the mission of our company, get inspired. And that allows for the kinds of interactions that are impossible to duplicate in the digital realm. So this is an opportunity to reconceive the purpose of that office before the office had to do all the things.
Glinton: And it might not just be good for the companies, but the workers as well. We know that the cubicle lifestyle is not exactly healthy. Most office workers sit 10 hours a day. And we know there are all sorts of health problems associated with all of that sitting. Heart disease, obesity, diabetes, you name it. We get it. Not to mention the sick buildings, florescent lighting and all that bad takeout food.
Lee: In a post-pandemic world, I hope offices are not plexiglass and cubicles. I have been putting that out there. Please do not let that be it. That is not the world that I think most people want to live in. Certainly I do not want to. I will feel like I have failed if that is the new norm.
Glinton: In the end is not the workspaces that we're making for ourselves, our offices, bedrooms, space stations. That matters so much as the relationships, the human connections. And those can be a lot harder to build, especially if we're all at a distance, but it is not impossible.
Jessica Meir, our NASA astronaut trained for years to go live in a space station in earth's orbit. And while a lot of that was actual rocket science, it was almost as important for her to just be able to live side-by-side with the same crew in a confined space, many miles from home without going nuts.
Meir: We actually try to train for that here on the ground, by going into analog environments, doing underground caving missions together, living underwater, an underwater habitat. So environments that mimic some of these characteristics, have you in these close confines in kind of a stress situation. So you start understanding more about which of your syncrasies are going to come out about you and how that might affect the team. And you can try to modulate that a little bit and realize it, and then communicate effectively. I think that was the biggest thing for us as a crew. Whenever we did have those moments along the way, we would stop and talk about it. And then it was fine. We, more than anything, we were like family members and friends together.
Glinton: Connecting—as family, as friends, as colleagues—it’s what makes work, well, workable. This is what all our guests in this episode try to do. It's Ali Darwich from Modern Tribe connecting with new colleagues from new cultures. It's Shane Pearlman flying his team from around the globe to meet face-to-face and build empathy. And it's Michelle Lee and the team at Rapt building workforces, not work spaces, where human contact might be different than before, but no less necessary.
We may have taken those relationships for granted when we were all sitting around in the same room, but in a post-pandemic world, we're going to have to focus on those same relationships. But there is a whole other way to think about it, leaving your home and going to a place that was separate to work is a fairly new concept. It was the industrial revolution that created the division between work and home in the first place. The risk we run is not that the boundaries between work and home come down, what's actually worrisome is the risk of a divide between those who can work remotely. Whether it's at home or in Barbados and those who can't. Those divisions are likely to run alongside those ancient fault lines of race, gender, and class.
We risk leaving a huge swath of the population behind. And if that happens, then all this time spent cooped up during the pandemic really will have been in vain. I'm Sonari Glinton and this is "Now, What's Next?", an original podcast from Morgan Stanley.