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The Great Remote Working Conundrum: Be Careful What You Wish For

Courtesy Gerry Sweeney, CEO of Hornbill

The curve in the above diagram is one you are probably familiar with. It represents the common human psychological reaction to change, used to illustrate everything from grief to success to self belief. What is important to note about all of these curves is that there are always two extremes followed by a happy medium. Gerry Sweeney has put together this brilliantly detailed graph of the current working situation, but the 5 key phases at the bottom are great summaries of the feelings we’ve all experienced over the past few months. We are now past the ‘operational optimism’ peak and are somewhere in the homeworking reality slope or considered planning if you are ahead of the curve (no pun intended). But the next two segments are coming up and fast and we all need to be prepared to deal with them and what they entail, whatever the new normal looks like.

As countries went into lockdown, office workers and non-essential workers across the world flocked home, with varying levels of preparation, with no knowledge of how long this new phase of enforced isolation would last. Makeshift desks popped up on kitchen tables, beds in rented rooms, and if the weather or wifi allowed, garden furniture. The gradually emptying commuter trains were full of people clutching second monitors, mouse pads, important documents, headsets and I even saw someone struggling with their ergonomic desk chair! The lucky (usually older) people, retreated to their well equipped “home office”.

The benefits of working from home have always been highlighted and have been touted a lot more over the past few months and, now, 54% of adults want to work remotely most of the time after the pandemic, according to a new study from IBM. But we like to take the “healthy skeptic” view at Consider, and look through all the available lenses. We believe there may be some unintended consequences in the heightened appeal of home working.

We have been adjusting to a ‘new normal’, and generally the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. People welcomed not spending hours on a sweaty commute pressed up against someone else’s armpit, no one missed the rush out of the door as the sun rises to make it onto a train or being stuck in traffic in rush hour. In the first couple of weeks, in the ‘operational optimism’ phase, the novelty and camaraderie of shared experience was bubbling through all our conversations, we laughed on zoom calls about having kids running around in the background, showing pets off on video calls, organising Friday night work drinks and quizzes with our colleagues and comparing notes on lockdown situations throughout the world with our global colleagues and clients. Lots of people were writing articles and commenting how they would like this to become the new normal, how easy the transition had been, how they wish they could work from home as a rule, they felt less tired, less stressed, more efficient, able to spend more time with their family, less distracted by office chats and meetings were run with clearer purpose. 80% of remote workers felt healthier, less tired, more human or more connected to their family since transitioning to remote work, and 85%, found advantages in remote work that make for a better work/life balance.

But after that initial honeymoon period, how are we all coping? We have been sliding slowly down the slope into the trough of ‘homeworking reality’. The realisation that there is a big difference between the short term benefits versus this becoming a permanent state of business are becoming more apparent… Many people cite great productivity improvements in working from home. It is probably true that we can complete more tasks in less time (especially when you include travel time) but the issue is nuanced. Is greater efficiency the same as greater effectiveness? I may be more efficient at home, but am I really more effective?

Those first 2 weeks of locked down working from home are a distant memory now and the novelty has worn off. Cracks are starting to show and there are some common drawbacks that come under 5 key headings, defined as Interaction, Location, Distraction, Motivation and Attention. Complaints include: interrupted/poor wifi connection, lack of phone signal, more zoom meetings than you can fit in the day, spending all day looking at a screen only to then spend the evening socialising via a screen, blurred lines of start and end to the day, loneliness, less down time, no separation of work space and personal space, confined spaces with children, lack of variety to the days, and the lack of breaks around the proverbial water tank. 61% were worried that as remote work continues, they will be expected to be even more reachable outside normal business hours. The question remains, can corporate culture, connection, learning, creativity, innovation and collaboration be preserved when working from the kitchen table?

Arguably the smooth transition at the beginning of lockdown was enabled only by the fact that we had the time in the office previously to build relationships, friendships and rapport with people in person that have been translated online. What does this mean for any new joiners? If we all continue to work from home then any new joiners will miss out on that welcome period of being able to ask people ‘simple’ questions to get up to speed, without having to set a formal meeting, and going out for lunch to bond with your team.

We should not underestimate the human side of work – after retirement people generally don’t discuss cost cutting or projects that went according to schedule but rather the colleagues, people and characters peppered in these memories that touched their lives. Video conferencing cannot replace this camaraderie felt in person.

Zoom fatigue is becoming an increasing issue. Back to back zoom calls can be draining because of the amount of focus needed. “Humans are social and need typical social contact.” It’s tougher to read social cues and body language via video than in-person so requires much more concentration than a face to face meeting.

Work-life balance has been touted as the major advantage of remote working, but the flip side of the coin is that the lines are blurred between switching off at the end of the day for work, to the extent that we are actually working more. Your laptop is ever present, you aren’t ‘leaving’ your working space. The temptation to check emails or to just work an extra half an hour in place of the commute is meaning that people are more fatigued by working longer hours than normal. A survey found that remote workers are logging an additional 3.13 hours per day working from home. Those who say they’re significantly more productive at home are logging 4.64 extra hours each day, which can be draining. There are also less obvious breaks unless you are very strict with yourself, the normal walk to the staff canteen or coffee shop that breaks up the day is no longer. There is added pressure of feeling the need to ‘prove’ you are working hard and efficiently, as you no longer have the excuse of being stuck on a commute to not be online at 8.30 in the morning, or needing to pick the kids up from school as a reason to leave early.

From an employer’s perspective there is also a divide between whether this remote working situation should continue on a more permanent basis. According to a recent survey of 317 chief financial officers by Gartner, 74 per cent intend to move at least 5 per cent of their previously onsite work force to remote work on a permanent basis, even after the crisis is over.

On the one hand this would reduce the need for office space, so costs of rent, bills and cleaning would drop significantly (by up to 77% according to some surveys). The cost of the commute would also not have to be factored into wages. On the other hand providing all the necessary equipment to ensure homes are as well kitted out as the office, with individual wifi etc is a big undertaking. There is also less scrutiny than in the office. You can’t just walk up to the person you want to talk to, you have to call them and they may not pick up, so basic or easy conversations become much bigger undertakings. If all employees are able to work from anywhere, then those that can be paid based on rural pay benchmarks are going to be much more attractive prospects to employers than similarly skilled prospects expecting metropolitan rates of pay. When location is no longer a criteria for employment, why stop at remote states or counties, when you can exploit the wage arbitrage of educated, skilled talent in low cost locations. Remote working may seem great for an individual, but when it becomes the norm, the pool of available talent gets much larger and competition for jobs could become tougher, and pay rates under pressure.

But is that all bad? For example, many workers have been hoping the big city job bubbles would burst. With increasing pressure on already struggling transport systems, extortionate property prices, forcing people into longer and longer commutes, some companies had started to look at moving headquarters to lower cost regions. By the same token, in recent years, global corporations have swapped their 1950’s headquarters campuses in sleepy suburbs for hi-tech, vibrant city facilities that attract younger talent.

As with most things balance is key. There are upsides and downsides to both working from home and in the office. Perhaps there will be greater chance for those that need it or want it to have greater flexibility than before. There is no one size fits all. Working from home or working in an office affects different people in different ways. Living and working in a high rise flat with 3 children and no outdoor space provides a very different work environment than those with a separate study or office space and no children. Women are more likely to have to take on childcare and housework whilst also maintaining their usual job. There are many jobs that are not able to be done from home and there are some that are just more suited and easier to do in an office. There are a lot of people saying they would like to be able to work from an office 2 or 3 days of a week and from home the rest.

Discussions about remote work and the future of work have been accelerated and forced up the agenda by the current situation with Covid-19. The companies that were ahead of the curve are doing well and have been mostly business as usual, but it means the gap between the laggards and leaders is about to get wider and no one wants to get left behind. This is something that needs to be seriously considered now.

Simon Sinek offered some perspective in his own inimitable style on this brief economist video, which is worth a watch:

One clear conclusion, is that there is no clear conclusion. The excitement of the early days of lockdown has been replaced with a more tempered balanced view of the benefits of both home and office working. We would be well advised to think carefully, and take our time before jumping to actions that may be difficult to unwind.

Thanks for reading!