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by Derek Loosvelt | August 24, 2020

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Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist whose clients have included Google, Nike, Netflix, Sony, and the Obama White House. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, is the author of 12 books, and has taught at Cambridge, MIT, and Harvard. Recently, McCracken conducted research to determine how Americans were impacted by quarantine, taking a close look at how remote work has affected the U.S. workforce—and will likely affect U.S. employers going forward. We spoke with McCracken about his latest study. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.

Vault: First of all, how are you doing and how have you been managing in the pandemic?

McCracken: More or less okay. I work all the time and never go out, so life is pretty much the same now as pre-pandemic.

Can you talk about your background and what led you to become a cultural anthropologist?

I grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, which is really the margin of the margin (Toronto) of the center (England). So I’ve always felt that my culture came from someplace else—like I was a stranger in my own culture. 

Could you talk a little about some of your work with your more high-profile clients?

Clients give me a variety of problems to solve. In the case of the Obama White House, the question was what happened to the middle of American politics. For Netflix, it was what is “binge viewing” and what’s the best way for us to talk about it. For Google, it was how can we use Google data to predict the future. And for Nike, I’ve done a couple of things, including what we need to know about the yoga trend.

What do you think employees, in general, have learned from all this remote work? Do you think most welcome it? Can’t wait to get back to the office?

I think we’ve learned that you can work from home. And now, some of us look at work, the commute, the dressing up, the ceremony, the ritual … in retrospect, this looks like theater. And we were very happy to take the time we saved and spend it on our families and ourselves. At some point, the corporation is probably going to ask employees to come back to work. I think the answer will be a resounding no.

What about working parents—to them, what have been the biggest challenges and benefits of remote work?

People tell me the biggest challenge is helping their kids with their classes. The biggest benefit is that parents have more time to get to know their kids, especially mothers and their daughters. 

This idea of the office as “theater” is interesting. Can you talk more about that? And how has the view of office life changed as the result of Covid?

I think a lot of the things that just seemed like the normal, quite necessary way of working for a company can now look scripted and acted. Now, it looks like we’re going through the motions. And suspicions swirl. People ask me, “Were we doing all that to celebrate the majesty of the corporation, to flatter the egos of the C-suite?”

Some corporations are letting employees work remotely indefinitely, while others are requiring employees return to the office. What do you make of this? Do you think remote work is the future or a fad? Is there any benefit to getting employees back to the office as soon as possible (vaccine or not)?

I think people will really push back when asked to come back. Working from home isn’t perfect, but I think once we get 5G installed, our Zoom calls will be vastly more subtle and vastly more substantial. So there’s a tech fix not far off. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, working remotely—and not commuting to and from an office—“could free up the equivalent of 28 to nearly 50 workdays per year per employee.” However, some employers fear they’ll be taken advantage of if they let their employees work remotely, their employees won’t be as productive, and employees will miss out on collaboration opportunities. What do you make of this? Are employers right to feel this way?

It’s up to management to give their employees work that’s sufficiently interesting that they’ll want to do it. If people are cheating, it’s management’s fault. 

Is there anything else important to know about remote work that employees and employers should know?

I think we covered everything. Thank you for the intelligent questions.

Thank you for the time and thoughtful answers.

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