Working from home has long been a goal for some. Now, this has become a reality for workers across the globe much faster and more comprehensively than they ever thought possible. But does the reality live up to the dream long term? David Jordan, Deputy Editor of The Mover, investigates.
Like it or not, working from home (WFH), has become a way of life for many of us, and while most will, for a time at least, enjoy the escape from office life, crowded commuter trains and the luxury of an extra hour or so in bed, the sudden change forced upon us by the coronavirus pandemic may not be so welcome in the longer term.
In the late 1970s, when the first office computers began to talk to each other, pundits predicted that home working would soon be the norm, large office buildings would be abandoned, and commuting into city centres would be consigned to the history books. Forty-odd years later - notwithstanding the current aberration - that has not been the case, despite the giant leaps technology has taken since those early years. So, what went wrong, and will being forced to work from home during lockdown change the way we work when life returns to normal? No doubt to some extent it will, but the notion held by many that there will be a mass exodus from offices in favour of home working will, I believe, prove to be as misguided as the predictions of the 1970s.
We are all different, but fundamentally human beings are social animals and need a certain amount of human interaction to keep us mentally healthy. Being isolated for long periods, with only a phone and a computer screen for company, may be fine for a while, but will surely take its toll on our mental wellbeing if it were to become the norm. No small talk in the office, no interaction of personalities to stimulate the creative juices, no collective energy to feed from and no one to bounce ideas off and get a human reaction. Yes, we can have meetings on Zoom or WhatsApp in front of our carefully arranged bookshelves, but it’s a poor substitute for being there face-to-face with real people in the real world.
There’s also the ritual of getting up and travelling to work. Yes it can be seen as a waste of time and money, but there is a psychological change that takes place when you arrive at your office desk that just doesn’t happen when you walk into your spare room and switch on the computer. That is of course if you have a spare room and are not having to share your space with the rest of your household around the kitchen table!
There are problems for management too. How do you supervise and motivate people working remotely? How do you decide who can work from home and who can’t, and how will that be seen by other members of the team?
Jack Jampel is the Senior Manager, Global Mobility for the Stryker Corporation, one of the world’s leading medical technology companies employing over 33,000 people worldwide. His personal view is that, although home working has appeared to have been largely successful during COVID-19, there is not much research to back up the anecdotal evidence that it’s good for employees or companies on a larger scale for long term. “I think working from home has worked as best it can during an emergency situation, but I don’t think that organisations have really done any significant studies yet into how and to what impact large numbers of employees could work from home in the future,” he said. “Companies just want to get things back to a more norm and then maybe they’ll look at it more closely. When the pandemic hit, things went into survival mode almost overnight without any real detail planning, but if working from home was to become more normal it would require careful planning: compliance and legal studies, network capabilities, your personal work space, managing WFH employees, all this will need to be taken into account.”
Jack also pointed out that the work from home success we have today is misleading, with few distractions to tempt workers away from their home-bound desks. “We should also remember that during the pandemic lockdown things were different, people were forced to stay home and couldn’t do the things they would normally do, so it’s not surprising they were happy to put in eight to ten hours working from home. Under normal circumstances you must be organised and dedicated to work from home, it’s not as simple as just flipping a switch.”
Of course, working from home when instructed to do so by your company as part of a global necessity is not the same as choosing to do so when many of your colleagues don’t have the same opportunity. “Working from home was usually employee initiated rather than being a definite company strategy, so that meant there were relatively few people working in that way. That can sometimes lead to resentment from those who must go to the office every day. There’s also the question of trust. If you’re away from your desk in the office for a few minutes that’s OK, but if your manager calls you at home and you don’t answer right away, there’s always a feeling that you’re not at home when you should be working. It will more likely have negative connotations.”
Jack concludes therefore that working from home may not be the panacea that many are expecting and the concept needs close scrutiny. “Managers should be cautious about jumping in to WFH as a long-term larger solution as they reopen their businesses. Every company and industry is different and although it will work for some it may not be right for others.”
To help mitigate some of the difficulties The Mover has become aware of software that helps managers to control remote workers. It might be considered to be intrusive by some, but it can be tailored to individual needs to provide a practical solution to the management problem, (see side bar). We were also talking to one moving company that had offered some of its staff the opportunity of working from home, but for a reduced salary. This acknowledged that they had more freedom and no commuting costs, and helped to reduce resentment from the staff who were unable to do the same. Not everyone was happy with the idea though!
Gus Sunwoo is from Asian Tigers Mobility in South Korea. His country was one of the first to be affected by coronavirus and quickly imposed a strict regime of test and trace. The result was that the country never went into lockdown as such, but Gus asked his staff to work from home to avoid the need for them to travel on public transport. He said that everyone was enthusiastic about it at first, but the novelty wore off. “At first everybody wanted to try home working; who wouldn’t want to do that? But after a couple of days they couldn't wait to come back as they needed the structure of being away from home to get their work done. We have a very structured corporate environment where, in normal times, everyone is required to be in the office, at all levels. Although we had regular video meetings, it felt very strange to some people not to have that structural support in the same way. If people were uncomfortable working from home, we let them come to the office. The office never closed. Home working definitely suited some people better than others.”
Changing with caution
Laura Ganon, at mobility specialist FINK in Brazi,l has found WFH works well in her company. But even so, she said she would not be rushing to change the way things were done in the past. “When we can go back to normal, I don’t think I will go back to the old ways. I will let it run for a few months to see how it settles down. Of course there will be some people who want to go back to the office, which is fine, but it may be that others will prefer to work from home in the future even when it’s not strictly necessary. Rather than worry about productivity, I have the opposite problem: our staff are very loyal and helpful, many having to be pushed to take their holiday entitlement. Working from home makes that more difficult to enforce, so we have had to start cutting their access to the system when people are on vacation. It’s the only way to make them stop!”
Not for new hires
Working from home might be fine for some people, but it’s not so good for junior staff who need training and supervision. Oded Carmi, President of DN Van Lines, a United States domestic moving company, has some concerns about the effectiveness of WFH in the long run. "Working from home was never an option at my company prior to the pandemic,” he explained. “The forced experience has had mixed results. I was pleased to find that many of our top performers continued to operate at a high level while working remotely, but found that those who normally require direct supervision had a drop in productivity. We also found that it was incredibly difficult to on-board new employees and integrate them with the greater staff without in person interaction. Going forward, that ability to work from home will be reserved for more senior employees that have proven their ability to self manage. It will not be given as an option to new hires or those that require direct management to be successful."
As we emerge from the effects of the pandemic, many things will be different, and some companies will inevitably fall by the wayside in the wake of the lockdown. Finding ways to cut overheads will be high on the agenda in most board rooms as managers grapple to balance the books in whatever the ‘new normal’ turns out to be. But ditching the office in favour of widespread home working could, without careful planning, result in disaster.
As we’ve seen during the lockdown, WFH in the short term can be very agreeable and productive, but as things eventually return to normal, and they will, I believe most people will be desperate to return to their offices and the traditional world of work they knew.
Only time will tell.
WFH - be careful what you wish for
If you’re enjoying the novelty of working from home and longing for the day when WFH becomes the new normal, you may be in for a surprise.
The BBC’s technology programme Click recently featured an item about employee time tracking software being offered by Hubstaff, one of a growing number of companies developing solutions to the problem of monitoring employee activity when away from the traditional office.
As well as logging start and finish times, the system also allows managers to view things like what URLs are being visited, the time spent working on projects, the employee’s productivity and even their location.
While managers may see this as a vital management tool, others will take a different view and condemn it as an Orwellian intrusion.
Whatever you think, systems like this are likely to become part of the new normal. Will they make the world a better place, or be the price we have to pay for the freedom of working from home?
To view the Hubstaff ‘quick tour’ video click here.
Jack Jampel, Stryker Corporation
Gus Sunwoo, Asian Tigers Mobility
Laura Ganon, FINK
Oded Carmi, DN Van Lines