Has the Covid-19 shutdown changed the way we work forever? Paul McGillick takes a sceptical overview of current workplace futurology.
4 June, 2020
The lockdown triggered by the Covid-19 crisis has resulted in most white-collar workers – at least, those who haven’t lost their jobs altogether – working remotely from home, estimated by demographer, Bernard Salt, to be at least 35% of the workforce. For many this is both a disruption and a novelty. Disruptions can often lead to new ways of thinking and innovation. Novelties, however, tend to wear off.
One immediate consequence of the new work-from-home (WFH) phenomenon has been a flurry of commentary announcing remote working as ‘the new normal’. The office, we are told, is dead and the future – in fact, the immediate future – will entail ‘distributive’ working where people work remotely, either from home or some other convenient location, whether it be the local coffee shop or a nearby co-working space.
Many benefits have been listed, mainly for employees. But it has also been argued that businesses will benefit because they can downsize, making savings on rent and fit-outs, while they also have access to a wider talent pool, one which is not constrained by geographic availability. Employees, on the other hand, benefit from the flexibility, saving time and money from not having to commute, achieving a better work-life balance and generally being able to organise work around many other aspects of their lives which tend to be otherwise neglected.
On a macro-scale, it is even argued that greenhouse emissions will fall because fewer people will commute and cities will themselves be transformed into more liveable, human-scaled places.
For ‘the new normal’ we can also read ‘the new age’ because implicit in the advocacy of remote working is the notion of a new world order where a ‘flat’ social structure replaces a hierarchical one. Employees all become sole traders who can pick and choose who they work for, free from managerial command structures. It is a kind of millennials’ Jetsons dream, a high-tech socialist order in which everyone’s creativity is liberated and, courtesy of digital liberation, the world becomes our oyster.
Not surprisingly, then, it is argued that resistance to the new way of doing things stems from distrust on the part of managers and employers. How do we know they are really working when we don’t have physical oversight? And how do we ensure adequate productivity?
(Actually, they can – digital workplace monitoring products are available which can assess productivity. These are not just to catch the slackers, but are also valuable for fine-tuning how a business is functioning)
The counter argument has been that productivity is actually higher with remote working, as is loyalty – because remote workers feel grateful for the trust placed in them.
But a further counter-argument notes research which shows that remote workers ultimately feel isolated, often find it hard to maintain motivation, discover that they are expected to be available 24/7, end up working long hours and miss the structure which the daily commute and office hours bring to their lives. Remote workers miss the camaraderie of the office and the human connection it offers. Burn out is not uncommon.
According to Bernard Salt census statistics show the number of people working from home has remained steady at 4-5% for more than 20 years. Post-virus he thinks that figure may go to 10%.
Intriguingly, while some research suggests that remote working will indeed be ‘the new normal’, other things suggest not. Several years ago, for example, IBM pulled most of its remote-working staff back into the office, with Chief Marketing Officer, Michelle Paluso, commenting that “team proximity appears to help foster better new ideas”.
Yahoo did the same, with CEO, Marissa Mayer, stating in 2013:
To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.
It needs to be said that every organisation is unique. One size does not fit all – and that includes not only sectors like finance and technology, but also other unlikely ones like radiology, pharmacy services, even medical general practice where digital options have enabled remote servicing where appropriate. And it does not need to be a zero-sum game, because remote working does not necessarily mean never going to the office and never having proximity meetings.
But we also need to review the ‘workplace revolution’ of the last twenty years. This has certainly introduced hugely increased flexibility into the way people work and that flexibility has to a crucial extent been enabled by new communications technology. It has also been driven to an important extent by concern about the cost of office space and the extent to which it is being effectively utilised. Just as crucially, it has been driven by a need to be competitive by offering amenity and general working conditions which will attract the best talent, while being equally competitive in respect of the quality and originality of the goods and services offered to the marketplace.
A new, ‘agile’ workplace has emerged. While it certainly allows for remote working, it is actually based on the principle of proximity: a mobile workforce, but one which basically pivots around a physical location. For an organisation which has decided to engage with the new ‘agile’ workplace there is the need to help the workforce adapt to new ways of working which may involve not having a permanent desk, far less an enclosed office. It will certainly involve a lot of autonomy and a new level of trust between worker and manager when there is no longer any direct line-of-sight supervision – yes, the same trust issue which is raised in regard to WFH. Whether it is working from home or temporarily in a particular work setting within the building, the number of kilometres is not the issue.
Embracing the new ‘agile’ or activity-based working model (first developed by workplace consultants, Veldhoen & Co. in the Netherlands in the 1980s) involves developing a whole new culture for the organisation. Indeed, that’s what Veldhoen & Co do. They are not designers, but workplace consultants who, in partnership with their clients, devise a workplace model which is bespoke to that organisation. They then facilitate the change management process which enables staff to adapt to new ways of working along with making best use of the new support technology.
This is about refining the culture of the organisation or even creating a totally new culture. Organisational cultures do not reside in slogans, but are embedded in the day-to-day actions of everyone who makes up the organisation. A culture does not develop in cyberspace; it results from face-to-face interaction.
Marissa Mayer’s comment is pertinent because the innovation and creativity organisations need in order to survive and prosper can only come from face-to-face interaction. Online meetings just don’t cut it. They are fine if that is the only alternative – up until now referred to as tele-conferencing – but they cannot replace physical interaction, the serendipity of casual encounters (the ‘bump factor’), intra-office chats and the intuitions which come from interpreting eye contact, tone of voice and general social cues – the non-verbal signals that enable one to ‘read a room’.
For the left-brain-dominant tech-head these things may not matter, but there are many reasons why they are crucial to other people who need the stimulus of interpersonal interaction.
So, how much will the lockdown with its default WFH strategy influence the way we work in the future?
The first thing to emphasise is that what has been happening in the lockdown has really only supercharged something that had been happening for some time – namely, the use of digital technology to facilitate greater flexibility in the way we work and run businesses. Remote working has been around for a while and, as we have seen, some organisations – and IBM and Yahoo are not the only ones – have gone a long way down the road with WFH only to retreat to the office.
In an interview with The Australian newspaper (24/4/20), Mirvac CEO, Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz, commented:
After six weeks in lockdown everyone is super-keen to return to head office and a space to congregate. The importance of the office is as much a social connection as business. It’s not natural to keep people apart and the need to congregate is not going away.
Just as there will be a lot of pent-up demand in an economy which has been shut down, there will also be a lot of pent-up demand for social interaction and a return to the collegiality of the physical workplace.
The new flexible workplace – a phenomenon which has been evolving over more than twenty years now – has often been more honoured in the breach than in the observance with many fit-outs content with cool break-out spaces and cute gimmicks. But where due diligence has been followed in the form of careful analysis of a company’s specific needs and commercial objectives, the resulting new workplaces are fit-for-purpose.
The Covid-19 crisis will help clarify when, how and where digital technology is appropriate. Rather than racing off down rabbit holes of ideology or fashion, organisations will be better able to balance out the respective pros and cons of distributive and proximity working. Many organisations had already done this long before the virus crisis. One result of the shutdown will be to show in clear relief the importance of bringing people together in a central location, underlining its importance in generating productivity, innovation, new ideas and cultural robustness – especially as the new ‘agile’ workplace is designed specifically to accommodate different kinds of tasks and workplace activity, different work styles with a mix of individual and team work settings.
People will continue to work from home or other off-site locations, but mostly on a limited basis and by negotiation with their employers and according to the specific character of the business. While there are many benefits to remote working, it is rarely in the interests of either party for employees to work 24/7 remotely. Some businesses by their very nature will, of course, function best with a network of off-site workers. But most will now more clearly understand the benefits of face-to-face interaction and the need for a managerial philosophy which can derive optimal benefits from onsite interaction.
Paul McGillick is Consulting Editor to Indesign and Habitus magazines. He has written extensively on workplace design.
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