With large sections of the global population on lockdown or in different levels of confinement the idea of remote working and the impact on the future of work is preoccupying everyone. Although the circumstances around it are devastating, many people are high-fiving an unexpected upside. This opportunity provides the much-needed empirical ammunition to counter the resistance found in some organizations to introducing more flexible approaches to the way we work. You see they are saying … “ it CAN be done.” With my cautious hat on, WFH Post COVID19, I wonder if we should be careful what we wish for. It is all about intention.
Parallels with the gig economy
There are parallels with my longstanding and well publicized concerns around the gig economy, including discussions with sector gurus such as Rachel Botsman. There may be some upsides, but there is also a sub-text which people need to think about more carefully. Many predict these enforced changes will have benefits, but there is no doubt that there will also be casualties and downsides.
Businesses are trying to anticipate market changes caused by the global pandemic and project what their “new normal” will be. We will see significant disruption in the coming weeks and months, and people really need to read it correctly.
The demand for remote working pre-COVID19 was about supporting employees to meet life demands outside the workplace. It also helped those with long commutes who could spend up to 4 hours a day getting to and from a place of work. It was part of an inclusive policy around employee engagement, autonomy based on trust and understanding the needs of individual employees. Research shows that remote workers are more productive although further studies in the US between 2010-2015 also show highest levels of motivation when employees have a choice of where they want to work. Those who are least productive are the employees forced to work from home.
A report from Owl Labs indicates that more than half of full-time in-office employees want to work remotely. That also tells us that almost half of full-time employees don’t want to.
Presence based culture
The resistance to doing this has been from presence-based corporate cultures where accountability and efficiency are measured by what is physically visible. I have two big questions after discussions with network contacts:
- Does this mean that a need for accountability and control will shift in our brave new world? I am not so convinced.
- Will that control just become digital in format? I think so!
We also be clear what people are looking for. It is more nuanced than selecting one location over another. It’s about flexibility.
WFH Post COVID19
What the global pandemic has revealed is that it is indeed possible for many jobs to be successfully distributed remotely. But for employees working remotely today, it is not business as usual. They are home schooling kids, working with their partners at the kitchen table (with the great new COVID19 term co-spacing which covers a multitude of sins) and under stressful conditions.
There are widely reported issues include:
- a lack of training of managers and supervisors
- a need for established protocols
- inconsistent tech and hardware
- lack of social interaction
- feelings of isolation
- limited understanding of personal circumstances
- reduced understanding of individual needs
- convergence of home and life
Intention is key
One of the main drivers for any organization post introducing WFM Post COVID19, will be their intention. Those with an inclusive culture which have successfully adapted during the lock- downs will surface in a stronger place. For businesses which struggled to cope, their progress will become a key differentiator in the post pandemic business world. The gap between successful adopters and the laggards will become even more exaggerated.
Cutting costs – looking at reduced office space
The opportunity to work from home may not be about inclusion and employee needs, but about cost saving. When governments lift restrictions, some businesses in all sectors will be in dire circumstances. Many will be forced to make economies and one way is to close offices. They now have a workforce which is used to working from home and in some cases clamouring for it.
A report from Gartner suggests “nearly a quarter of respondents said they will move at least 20% of their on-site employees to permanent remote positions.”
I spoke to one leader who is already under pressure to cut budgets in Q3. With a workforce of 200 located in an office in a high rent area of Brussels, he has calculated by switching 50 employees to become home based, he can save significant sums per year on rent. This is regardless of whether the individuals want to work at home or not, or even have suitable accommodation for a home office. “We know now it can be done – even though today it’s less than ideal. But if we moved 25% of our company or an even a higher percentage to remote working, we can apply significant economies in terms of rent reductions. For 50 employees we could save around €2 million a year. We may have to make IT investments in the short-term, but over time that will be recouped. ”
Accountability and control
The other red flag came from a conversation with another leader who expressed concern about employee accountability and was looking at software to track employees’ activities and productivity. Tracking software can calculate:
- The tasks a team is working on
- The time they’re spending on each task.
- Internet usage and the sites they are visiting
- Times they log in and log out and therefore attendance
- Times the device is “sleeping”
- Task management – the result each employee produces and how efficient they are.
- Billable hour if applicable.
Digital tracking softwares are not based on trust and result driven. It is presence-culture in a virtual form. I have heard from one contact whose computer is being monitored and IT note when it goes into sleep mode. She is actually taking care of her mother whose carer can’t have access during the COVID19 lockdown. This is a source of resentment for her.
There is no doubt that for any organization to extend their work from home practices, they have to incorporate soft skill training for remote managers. If this way of working is imposed on employees, it produces different results to the employees who seek it voluntarily as a workplace benefit.
Those who embraced the gig economy found agile working to be the ideal opportunity to create a different type of work/life balance. For others it created significant problems around job and financial insecurity. This has had an impact on their daily lives and well-being, which is plaguing them to this day. In extreme cases workplace agility has become workforce exploitation. Obliging employees to work from home will also impact the office real estate business and all the other enterprises that support large-scale business centres.
So for those who are saying that the global pandemic has boosted their chances of being able to work from home – be careful what you wish for. It’s not without its downsides. WFH post COVID19 is all about intention.
One solution will be to trial a meaningful split when creating an exit strategy for the confinement period. Most businesses may want to apply a staggered return to work to maintain social distancing. Now would be a good time to see who wants to WFH and who prefers the physical workplace.
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