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Working from home: be careful what you wish for

As a second wave of coronavirus sends workforces back into the home once again, Kevin McCullagh sifts through the evidence to show that an office-free working future might not be all it is cracked up to be

The future of work is at home. Or at least that’s what the technorati and many senior execs and workers appear to believe. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sent an email to staff in May, to notify them that they could continue working from home as long as they see fit. Google boss Sundar Pichai has just told Time magazine that many of its employees will never return to the office full-time.

Finance directors are shredding property and travel budgets. And many employees report that they are more productive working from home (WFH), have a better work-life balance and certainly don’t miss the commute. A union leader told the UK Government to accept that the ‘world of work has changed,’ and called ministers ‘dinosaurs’ for attempting to get civil servants back to their desks. Get with the programme grandad!

Health concerns aside, the case for WFH seems to be simple, straightforward and utilitarian – and pushing at an open door. The case for the office is complex, nuanced and very human – and needs to be made.

The Third Wave

Before I make that case for the office, some background. The concept of remote working first captured my imagination after reading Alvin Toffler enthuse about ‘telecommuting’ from ‘electronic cottages’ in his 1980 futurist classic, The Third Wave. I managed a highly profitable virtual design team from home for a few years in the 1990s, via dial-up modems and then ISDN lines.

More recently, I have been an early adopter and keen advocate of cloud collaboration tools such as Asana, Zoom, Dropbox, and Google G Suite. My company has long operated a WFH policy of one to two days for ‘head-down’ work, and we switched to remote working in a heartbeat at the start of the lockdown. We pay extortionate central London rents, and we’re heading into a severe recession – but I intend to hang on to office working.

The attractions of WFH are immediately tangible, but short-term for many. While going fully remote will make sense for some individuals and companies, leaders should weigh the longer-term and more intangible impacts before joining the rush.

Productivity mirage

Just as research shows that brainstorming is fun, but doesn’t lead to better ideas, so believing that you’re more productive working from home doesn’t make it so. There is a dearth of robust evidence to support the much-claimed productivity gains of remote working.

The much-cited study of 1,000 employees of the Chinese firm Ctrip is instructive. The highly rigorous WFH experiment led to a reported 13 per cent increase in productivity and a 50 per cent reduction in staff turnover. Impressive, but the details are instructive. The employees worked at a travel booking call centre, had little need for collaboration, and their work could easily be monitored remotely.

To be eligible, every employee had to have a dedicated workspace at home with a door to shut out distractions. Most of the productivity gains came from working longer hours – and at the end of the nine-month experiment, half the home workers returned to the office, citing social isolation and loneliness.

Difficult to turn off

What’s more, one of the authors of the study, the Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom, believes that the mass shift to WFH full time during Covid-19 will prove to be a ‘productivity disaster’ in the longer term, not least due to its impact on employees. Many studies show that workers tend to work longer hours at home and find it more difficult to ‘turn off’, or maintain the boundary between work and life. 

Microsoft’s Data Analytics team found that on average people worked four extra hours a week over lockdown – that went up to eight extra hours for senior managers. Many mothers have had to work longer hours to make up for the parenting and family distractions, as they often work in family spaces, while fathers manage to secure the home office or spare room. Other studies show that these longer hours are often driven by increased anxiety among workers who feel their position is more precarious. Evidence of physical and mental health costs are also mounting.

Octavius Black, chief executive of performance management consultancy the Mind Gym, says: ‘There is a risk of productivity collapse as people burn out, can’t cope, feel exhausted, and opt out. Companies won’t notice until quite far down the road, and will find it hard to recover.’

Stilted innovation

Some jobs are better suited to WFH than others – for example, many call centre staff, software coders and accountants can work effectively from home. Others less so;  besides jobs which obviously require a physical presence, from retail workers to surgeons, there are many jobs with more nuanced benefits of face-to-face interaction – particularly those that require sophisticated teamwork and creativity.

Face-to-face collaboration is necessary for creativity and innovation. Bloom’s research has shown it is essential for developing new ideas and keeping staff motivated and focused. ‘I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation … The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth.’

‘Jobs was a famous opponent of remote work who believed that the best work came from accidentally bumping into other people…’

Steve Jobs was a famous opponent of remote work who believed that the best work came from accidentally bumping into other people:  ‘Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions … You run into someone; you ask what they’re doing, you say “Wow,” and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.’ Encouraging chance encounters between knowledge workers in hallways and cafes has been a mainstay of office design for decades.

Offices also help to create and maintain what anthropologists call ‘weak ties’, the shallow and peripheral relationships with people inside and outside the organisation. These weak ties have been proved to increase innovation and service quality, but they are hard to establish and maintain remotely. Anyone vaguely familiar with workplace design knows all of this, yet it seems to be absent from the current WFH debate

Laboured communication

One of the main reasons for working longer hours, particularly for managers, is the need to communicate more intentionally and frequently when WFH. Remote working also encourages more formal, ‘asynchronous’ and written communication, all taking much longer than ‘grabbing’ someone for a quick chat in the office.

While it’s more laborious, intentional communication can be done adequately via video conference, instant message or email. The hidden damage is the communication that doesn’t happen. Lots of important communication happens unintentionally. Overheard conversations and chats in the kitchen add to our projects,  learning and life. Zoom blinkers and impoverishes communication – and risks reducing us to Zoombies.

Constrained learning

Like communication, learning is often unintentional and happens as much by proximity and osmosis as by design. Younger members of the team learn a lot from being around more senior members. Sure, many seniors are better able to work remotely, but it’s often part of their role to develop juniors, and that happens more effectively face-to-face. Offices are spaces where we observe and learn what it means to be our kind of professional, through a bundle of rituals, behaviours and on-the-job coaching.

Hiring and onboarding new employees remotely is … sub-optimal, to say the least. Doing first interviews over Zoom is OK, but I would never make a final hiring decision without spending face time with someone – ideally more than once. New recruits need to bond with teammates, be shown ‘how things are done around here’, and figure out how best they should fit into their new team. Most of which is best done face-to-face.

‘It is harder for home workers to earn the trust of their managers…’

While remote workers may not be entirely ‘out of sight, out of mind’, it is harder for managers to observe their learning and progress. It is also harder for home workers to earn the trust of their managers by demonstrating that they are able to work more autonomously at the required level. This is why recognition and promotions often take longer for remote workers.

Culture erosion

One of the key reasons WFH worked better than many expected was that teammates knew each other, many trusted each other and, over time, had reached an understanding of how to get things done – and why. A general understanding of how things get done and what good looks like is the difference between a growing company and one with an uncertain future.

In management speak, over the past six months, home workers have been drawing on ‘cultural capital’ that has been banked over previous years. Relationships, culture and trust will erode over time through lack of face-to-face interaction. The tacit sense of the meaning of work, how relationships matter and the rituals of getting it done need constant renewal and reinforcement. Leaders need to live and role-model a culture, and that is far more effectively done in person.

Losing a sense of spirit

Managers have a better sense of what’s going on with their people and projects when they share the same space. For example, it is much easier to spot if someone is struggling or going off on a tangent in the office. Leaders can also get a better sense of the spirit of the team, and whether an individual might need support. Leaders lose their peripheral vision in remote mode.

From an employee perspective, workers might like getting up a little later to WFH but many miss the sense of camaraderie. As author and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan puts it, ‘It makes what could be a grind quite fun. A lot of people are [now] saying “I’m getting my work done but it’s quite hard for it to feel meaningful”’.’ Studies show that remote workers tend to feel more left out and have less attachment to their companies. Culture is pivotal to success – it takes years to build and can wither within months of WFH. For all the talk of soulless offices, working together is what makes us human; empathy, collaboration and creativity are all best practised face-to-face.

Gigified jobs

Managers are encouraged to measure outputs not ‘presenteeism’ in the WFH era. While this chimes with the ‘work smart’ spirit of the times, the common result is more snooping on employees’ calls, keystrokes and coffee breaks – and in FaceBook’s case, their location. While Mark Zuckerberg is happy for his staff to work from wherever they like, he plans to grade salaries based on local pay levels –  and if they cheat the system, staff face ‘severe ramifications’, as the Zuck monitors their internet addresses to check employees are not lying about their location.

Once managers become comfortable with more work taking place outside the office, costs pressures will drive them to move more work from their existing workforce, either by using lower-cost workers in Burnley or Bangalore, or by contracting tasks out to knowledge gig workers. Be careful what you wish for.

Shirking from home

WFH has a role to play for many companies, and managers need to get over their fears about ‘shirking from home’. Offices are not always the best environments for ‘head-down’ focused work and a hybrid approach of mixing office and home work will become the norm for many. However, as leaders devise new WFH policies, it would be wise to reflect on the forced experiment of the last six months. We need to evaluate what was gained and lost, and put measures in place to amplify the advantages and mitigate the disadvantages.

Figuring out the right thing to do is the essence of leadership – not simply going with the flow. Many might find aspects of office work – and their commute – a drag. And leaders are likely to have been the least troubled by WFH from their spacious homes and secure jobs. But for the sake of the next generation of talent, and their companies, cities and society, leaders need to make the long-term case for working together in the office.

Kevin McCullagh is the founder of London-based product strategy consultancy Plan, and a regular speaker at WORKTECH. His clients include Deutsche Telecom, Carl Zeiss, Ford, HP, Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung, Toyota and Yamaha.
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