There is no doubt that remote or virtual work is more efficient for white collar workers. And it may be more effective in some cases. But the tragedy of the commons may be coming into play with organizations that encourage individual remote or virtual work giving up their common culture.

The efficiencies of remote work are easily measurable. Organizations need less office space. Employees save all their commuting time and can seamlessly transition back and forth between their work and personal lives throughout the day.

Virtual meetings are more effective in some cases – particularly when more people with more diverse perspectives can join in. Note this works only for purely remote or virtual meetings. The suggestion for how best to engage remote attendees in blended remote-in person meetings is don’t. Blended remote and live meetings don’t work.

The Tragedy of the Commons happens when individuals make decisions that are right for themselves but wrong for the common good. Arguably this is what led to over-fishing Cod in the North Atlantic or over-grazing common lands.

The dots almost connect themselves.

Expect individuals to opt for remote work – especially the more senior individuals who know the culture and the people and have been fully trained. Expect them to be at a stage of their lives where the benefit of flexible time for them outweighs the advantages of working in the same physical space as others. Note, Emma Goldberg and Ben Casselman make a great point in The New York Times about what young people are missing in the power of proximity – essentially, mentoring and training.

At the same time, culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage; thus the risk to the collective, the organization, the common, is existential.

Fifteen years ago, the senior leadership of the MD Anderson Cancer Center were concerned about retaining their nursing staff. With their location in the Texas Medical Center, a collection of over 60 medical institutions, many arranged around a central parking area, nurses could switch hospitals without changing their parking space.

Now, workers can switch companies without leaving their home offices.

Gallup suggests 12 questions to get at employee engagement. Let’s look at those in a virtual/remote world.

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work? The answer is probably “no” if you never actually go to work.
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right? But not at work.
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day? Because you’re never actually at work.
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work? Far less likely if you’re working remotely – unless you have a particularly appreciative boss.
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person? Seems unlikely if they know you only as a picture on a screen.
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development? Again, less likely if you’re not at work.
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count? You catching on yet? You’re not at work.
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important? If it were really important, wouldn’t they want you to show up?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work? You’d know better if you were in the same space they are.
  10. Do I have a best friend at work? Hard to build deep relationships when you’re using only two of your five senses. You’re getting sound and some sight, but no smell, taste or feel.
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress? Less likely if you’re not actually at work.
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow? Only if you actually went to work.

The way forward

You can’t fight the tide. But you can find ways to build employee engagement across Gallup’s 12 questions. It’s going to require disciplined, deliberate, intentional investment in individuals to benefit the collective, the common. It’s going to require bringing people together physically one way or another from time to time. But that may be the only way to save the common in a world of remote work.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #831) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan

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