With 24% of businesses closed at least temporarily and 49% of people working from home according to the ONS, what will the long-term effects of this be? The Economist has published a couple of interesting articles on this subject as well
(The Nowhere Firm, 26 Mar) and an interesting review of Internet traffic in cities (How the internet has changed during lockdowns, 18 April). It is clear that many firms and people have adapted to home working very quickly. The question is will it last?
The answer is that some of it will. Some firms particularly Internet based businesses have always been virtual – Automattic, the creators of WordPress, GitHub and many others have been created out of the open source wave and have never had large offices. Even call centres are becoming virtualised– some have even handling payments successfully managing security concerns. The idea though is even older and predates the Internet – I worked for a large training company through the 90’s working from home developing courses and my skills, turning up only to deliver the course – that part wasn’t virtual! In the late 80’s, a friend ran a surprisingly large business importing white goods for major retailers from his home. Today an increasing number of my friends work from home delivering a range specialist functions for a diverse business.
Those of us who are used to working from home know the advantages – flexibility, no commuting time, peace and quiet (families permitting), no-one looking over your shoulder, no need for suit and tie – though beware unexpected video calls! There are though some disadvantages, it can be very lonely and hard to keep in touch even with phone calls and video conferencing, getting and staying motivated can be hard – it is easy to become distracted by anything and everything, conversely it’s easy to let work take over your whole life – recent reports on Internet and Slack usage suggest that many people are working late into the evening. You may also need to provide some or all of your office equipment and supplies – check you insurance about working from home and cover for your and your employers office equipment.
Ideally set up a proper workspace, preferably one you can get away from at the end of the working day. When I started working from home I used to make myself go out every evening for a walk and a drink, both to end the day and get some company – I made some great new friends that way.
For businesses the benefits are obvious, they don’t have to provide supply expensive office space, furniture, heating, lighting, canteens, coffee and all the other facilities of modern office life. They may even persuade their workers to provide their own office equipment and possibly computers – though that comes with potential security and data management implications although VPNs and Citrix can solve most of these problems. Barclays head Jes Staley said at the end of April that ‘You’re going to find we use much more significantly our branches as alternate sites for investment bankers and call centre workers and people in the corporate bank. Putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.’
If organisations are going to move away from large city centre offices, does this mean there will also be a trend away from large city centres, after all if you can work remotely it doesn’t matter where you work from, it could be anywhere. Will we see more people moving and working from more attractive remote areas to gain improved quality of life for themselves and their families? What will this do to cities and their amenities? Will this mean improving economies in hard pressed rural and coastal areas? Time will tell.
Managing a wider virtual workforce will set new challenges and require new skills. How do you manage onboarding and induction of remote workers – will you need a physical presence to do this? What exactly will you induct them in to? Many organisations now use online tools for induction for their onsite staff; this will become more prevalent in virtual environments. The difficulty will be in building trust relationships with managers and colleagues you have never physically met.
Once people are working remotely, particularly if you wish to allow flexible working, how will you manage them and monitor performance? Systems which over-monitor and micro-manage such as keystroke counting and presence monitoring are likely to go down even less well in virtual offices as they do in physical ones. Businesses will surely be better to find ways to motivate staff and monitor outputs.
Regular videoconferences using any of the commonly used tools will help to maintain relationships, whether they can build them from scratch I’m less sure about. One tip I have picked up is not to mix physical and remote presence on the same video or teleconference, if you have everyone connect in it gives the same experience to all participants so no one feels disadvantaged. I personally think regular physical meetings will still be required to build and maintain that all-important trust.
No work environment suits everyone. Just as large open plan offices don’t suit a lot of people – introverts tend to find them draining and they have been proven to be remarkably bad at stimulating creativity and communications, then working from home is not likely to suit a lot of people, extroverts particularly are likely to get stimulation from a busy bustling office. Others will find that being able to simply ask the person next to them about something saves a lot of time and worry.
For others, the physical separation of home and office life helps them compartmentalise and the time spent in a commute may not be all lost time, some years ago I took on a job with a nearly 2 hour train commute each way, before I started I was dreading it – in fact it became the most valuable time of the day – I had time to think and reflect with no likelihood of being disturbed, something that never happened in the office.
The risk of course is that our employers pick the solution they think best suits them – which may be the lowest cost option regardless of whether or not it suits their staff or their business, forgetting that their best staff can choose to work somewhere that they enjoy more. What of course they should do is provide a flexible solution and the management practices that allow staff to work in the way that best suits them and the business, I wonder how many will?