As I write, the full London team of my company, Astus, is in the office together for the first time in over 5 months. I’m hugely excited about seeing everyone face to face. Having spoken to them beforehand, it’s certainly thought provoking to have heard so many views that working from home (WFH) is now the new “normal”, but I’d suggest that some of the devotees should be careful what they wish for.
It’s clear that there are benefits from some WFH for everyone, the most obvious being the time and cost of travel saved. There might also, perhaps, be the opportunity for some to move to a less urban setting and spend more time with family or enjoy leisure pursuits (provided the country is not in lockdown, of course).
However, there are some clear personal issues with WFH long term and different ages will be affected differently. Finding a suitable work environment isn’t always easy and not everyone has the luxury of a suitable place to work from. Those who have done it will know that sitting on a bed with a laptop cannot be sustained indefinitely.
Other challenges include the distraction from children, babies, pets, loneliness, a lack of social interaction and, perhaps most importantly, the difficulty in separating work and home life. I also think that many working Mums and Dads need to have the space to be an independent person away from children. They need their own time in which to be an adult in an adult space.
So, I would really question the thought process of some of the major organisations who have announced their intention to leave employees working from home well into 2021 or even beyond. From a management perspective, individuals needing help, either personally or professionally, are far more difficult to spot through an on-screen Zoom meeting than they are in person. And from a business perspective, there are a number of things that make WFH unsustainable in the long run.
Currently we have existing employees WFH, who have had the opportunity to be in the office and in meetings to learn their job and soak up the company culture. Getting new employees, however talented, up to speed is a task that takes many months. Trying to bring a new employee online totally over video meetings would take far longer and I suspect they will never reach the level of ability of their colleagues who benefitted hugely from ad hoc exposure to the company founders, more experienced colleagues and general office chat or help.
There are many unquantifiable benefits to being face to face regularly with colleagues, clients and partners. To list just a few:
Confidence building through being able to run through thoughts informally.
Learning how to handle certain situations by seeing/hearing others.
Building and being part of a positive, fun culture.
Overhearing conversations that you can add value to or learn from.
Understanding team dynamics.
Understanding training requirements.
Picking up potential issues and dealing with them quickly.
These are all important development opportunities that will not happen when working from home.
Overall, I can see far more positive reasons for needing people to be interacting regularly face to face than I can for WFH. The solution for me and for the company I run, Astus, I think will be a flexible model allowing people to work from home more frequently whilst attending the office and making meetings at least 3 days a week – depending on their particular job. I think we’ll also be ripping up the concept of attending 9am to 5pm, preferring to let people travel a less busy times if they wish.
That said, if I was an employee who normally worked out of an office in an expensive location and who has now been told to WFH for the foreseeable future, I think I would be worrying about the long term sustainability of that. I would be thinking, “if this becomes the new normal, perhaps my job could be relocated to areas of the UK or abroad with lower salary costs”. If remote working is the new normal, then proximity to London loses its premium. As I said before, be careful what you wish for.
The country is slowly getting children back to school. It’s now time to get healthy adults back to work safely. If this government is as serious as it says it is about getting Britain’s offices back up and running, then it should lead the way. The public sector, and the civil service, should be setting the standard for the country to follow.
Frances Dickens is Global Chairman of Astus Group, the UK’s leading media barter company.