After a year of working from home, besides fried dough sticks, what have we learned?
I vaguely remember in ancient times there was a thing called “work time” and another thing called “off time.” Then overnight, that boundary disappeared, leaving us all confused. Then, in order to survive, we started learning about fried dough sticks.
One Year Later: Blankets, Pajamas, and Thermoses
A year has passed, and we’ve all been hiding behind computer screens for a whole year.
During this past year, we would occasionally receive warm little packages from the company. Last week, we received an extra-large package with a touching little card thanking us for our long-term contributions to the company. The writing was so good that it made people tear up and want to continue working hard. But what was inside the package… blankets, pajamas, and thermoses. These are the most intimate needs… Obviously, they already knew that our standard equipment for online meetings at home, and they were so thoughtful. It’s just a shame that there weren’t any sunflower seeds or peanuts included, or it would have been even more fitting.
This also shows how everyone has spent the past year.
In Silicon Valley, you need to turn on the heat in the winter. During this year of working from home, the biggest extra expense for each family was the electricity bill. In the winter, we might spend an extra 100 dollars a month. This bill has unknowingly been shifted from the company to the employees. Including a blanket expresses the company’s recognition and a small gesture in this regard.
There are pros and cons to long-term work from home, and I personally think that the cons outweigh the pros. But since we have been forced to survive in this situation for a whole year, let’s take a look back today and see if we have learned anything during this year of wearing pajamas and holding thermoses. At least we should confirm that this year has not been spent in vain.
During the peak of the pandemic, when my accumulated vacation hours were about to exceed the limit, I decided to take a day off and rest at home. I chose a Thursday, which is usually the busiest day. All civilization outside was closed, and even nature was locked up. The only thing I could do was stay at home and do nothing. In the morning, I firmly refused to look at the computer and just sat in the backyard with a cup of coffee, basking in the sun, slowly sinking into boredom. Boredom is a very important survival skill, and it even has a bit of taste. But gradually, we have all lost the ability to be bored. It seems that if we don’t find something to bother ourselves with when we have free time, we are wasting our lives. So that day, I slowly drank my coffee and tried to be a boring person.
Then my phone rang, and a cross-departmental manager couldn’t find anyone online, so he called me directly. This is Silicon Valley, where human resources are communal, and there are no such things as interdepartmental barriers. I usually notify all department managers before taking a vacation, but he probably forgot that I was on vacation today, and worse, he may have thought I shouldn’t be on vacation at all. Anyway, he said it wasn’t urgent, but he gave me a bunch of instructions and then hung up. It was like calling 911 and telling them it’s okay, take your time.
He was the first one I remembered who became “you tiao.” Humans didn’t used to be like this.
Anyway, since I had nothing else to do, I turned on my computer and was immediately sucked into that black hole. Once online, even though I marked my Slack and email as on vacation, those hungry questions still flooded in. I remember working until 11 pm that day, only to remember before going to bed that I had taken a vacation. Thinking back to the days of working from nine to five in the office, occasionally skipping an afternoon to go mountain biking, there was a sense of pride. Now, taking a vacation and still working for 10 hours in the cold without anyone knowing…compared to the stolen glory before the pandemic, this is called retribution.
The second time, I learned my lesson and took a vacation on Friday, thinking the chances of being disturbed would be lower. I invited some colleagues to go hiking together. There was no signal on the mountain, so I didn’t have to worry about being soft-hearted and answering a “no rush” call and wasting a day off. When we were sitting on the mountaintop chatting, I realized that I was the only one who took a vacation to go hiking. So…I fell for it again. They all took a day off during work hours without recording it.
It turns out that everyone has become “you tiao” just to survive, and “you tiao” is an international behavior.
A whole year has passed, and what have we learned besides being “you tiao”? Not much, but they are all subtle and important. The most important thing is that Silicon Valley no longer has the “nine-to-five” rule. That’s already a discarded rule.
Freedom under Self-discipline
It turns out that the concept of “freedom under self-discipline” is embodied in our work culture.
When we asked about our vacation hours, we found that everyone had exceeded their limit, but it didn’t really matter. It’s hard to say who owes whom when we’ve been working long hours every day. We all automatically assume that we have the freedom to do what we want, whether it’s hiking, spending time in the backyard, or fixing our bikes, as long as it doesn’t conflict with meetings. It’s all about finding a balance between freedom and self-discipline.
One hundred percent freedom comes with one hundred percent self-discipline. Whether this system is good or bad is no longer up for discussion, because it has been in place for over a year, and whether you’re ready or not, you have to learn to accept this kind of self-discipline, or you’ll be left behind.
Keeping track of vacation hours is a thing of the past. Instead of measuring how long or how much we work each day, we should measure what goals we have accomplished. Silicon Valley has always been a place that values results over time spent. However, the traditional nine-to-five work schedule has been like a century-old dynasty that no one dared to overthrow. But the pandemic has led us to rebel against this system overnight, and has brought about new self-discipline standards.
Therefore, freedom and self-discipline are things that we have all learned since the pandemic.
Responsibility under Trust
Suddenly, the direction of responsibility has changed.
Not long ago, we had a meeting to discuss our personal goals for the next quarter. The boss only arranged the order and resources, and coordinated individual goals within the team framework… In the past, when we were all working in the same office, goals were usually set from top to bottom. Now, it has suddenly become a bottom-up approach – I honestly listed the goals I plan to achieve in the next three months. After three months, only the results matter, not the process or the effort put in. As long as the results are achieved on time, it doesn’t matter how much time or effort was spent. This is a new and bold way of thinking, not a sudden enlightenment of new concepts, but a response to the fact that we can’t control everything and must use different standards. This is also something that has been forced upon us by the need to survive.
In the past, perhaps because we could always see everything, management was always hands-on. As parents, we all have this experience: before our children go to college, we want to control everything; once they move out for college, we can’t control anything, and we say that it’s time to let go. People always like to control those who are in the same room. This time, we learned how to manage people who are not in the same room and cannot be seen.
The most subtle thing about remote work is that the boss doesn’t know how hard you’re working, so he or she must learn to let go. Only by letting go can there be trust, and only with trust can true responsibility be seen. The most genuine responsibility comes from within, from the bottom up, otherwise it’s easy to become complacent and negligent. Remote work is a breeding ground for complacency and negligence, and if managers can’t learn to let go, they will only exhaust themselves. Therefore, management methods must be upgraded – this is a lesson that all bosses should learn.
Letting go and trusting are things that every boss has to learn since the pandemic.
Communication Skills in Isolation
Isolation is one of the most negative things brought about by the pandemic. At the beginning of being stuck at home, there may have been some excitement, fear, and even confusion about the sudden quiet and freedom. So, if we are a little lazy, a little timid, or a little afraid of trouble, we can easily find excuses to isolate ourselves, even closing our doors and feeling a sense of complacency. However, over time, problems arise, and ultimately, we must rely on communication with the outside world to solve them.
In the past, coordination and communication in the office could be completed with just a gesture or a few words, and even accidentally accomplished during lunch in the restaurant or after work at the bar. There was no burden in communication while eating and drinking. However, behind a computer screen, everyone is a stranger.
After working from home, communication does not happen incidentally unless you are very persistent. You must be absolutely professional to find a balance between not overly disturbing others and solving problems. If you do not have this skill, you will find that more than ten things are stuck in place. Since the world only cares about results and not the process, the obstacles that have not been eliminated will ultimately be a bad debt on your head.
In the past year, your value is not just about what you have done, but how you have collaborated and produced the highest efficiency in a closed room. If you are just someone who is good at doing things but not good at communicating, you will suffer this year. To survive, we must learn to coordinate and communicate.
Communication skills are an unexpected gain for everyone since the pandemic.
Finally, we must talk about whether we are really a family.
Who is Family?
Netflix’s 11-year-old Silicon Valley saying, “We are not a family,” has been proven to be true during the pandemic. Although every company claims that we are all a family, when the goal is not achieved, those who should leave will still leave. Only Netflix dares to break this lie.
In the nine-to-five era, we spend an average of nine to ten hours a day with people who are not really our family, eating two or sometimes even three meals a day with them. But excluding sleep, we may only spend four hours a day with our real family. That’s how we spend five years, ten years, twenty years… from the birth of our children, to primary school, to university, everyone is like this.
Those who sit with you in the meeting room and go for a drink with you after work may leave for a new job next month or move away next year. Those who crawl on the floor in diapers, the ones who have been scolded but wag their tails, the ones who nag you to mop the floor, those who blame slow internet without thinking of a solution, those who think you know everything… those are the real family.
Because of the pandemic, we have truly spent a whole year living with our family day and night for the first time, and we have truly come to know what family means. Don’t be fooled, colleagues are never the same as family. Those sitting next to you at the office desk are fake, these are the real ones, and they are all the time you owe for decades.
Accidentally Experiencing the Power of “Zero Rules”
As I write this, I am reminded of the book “No Rules Rules” by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, which was released last year. I haven’t read the book, but I have read many reports and listened to his hour-long podcast interview. Freedom and discipline, responsibility and trust – aren’t these the cultures that Netflix has always insisted on? After 20 years of persistence, the virus cleverly sold this theory to the world, forcing us all to learn how to create the highest efficiency with the least amount of rules.
The biggest revelation that the pandemic has brought me is the power of change – especially when it is for survival. From some perspectives, this pandemic has propelled human evolution forward.
I don’t know how much the pendulum will swing back after the pandemic, but I believe it won’t return to its original position. Once you’ve tasted something different, it’s hard to go back. We must continue to move forward and not look back, because the past is likely to be wrong. Many rules from the past should be modified when we return to the office in the future.
Because of the pandemic, we have the opportunity to reassess our relationship with all the red tape. It is also because of the pandemic that we have inadvertently experienced the power of “zero rules”. It is this power that has unexpectedly made us grow and become more free yet more responsible during the pandemic.
After returning to work, I will miss the days of exploring and growing under “zero rules”, and I will also miss the cow that competed with me for the office desk on the mountaintop.