The future of work is human but is it from home?
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Part of the compelling case to make work more human is to give people greater flexibility as to how they work. This includes allowing people the freedom to work from home if they want to. Thanks to the Covid-19 lockdown many have found themselves participating in the great ‘WFH’ experiment. What are the early findings? Is there likely to be a call for more home-working in future? And what do you need to do to make WFH really work for you?
In ‘Working from home’ for BBC Radio 4’s In Business Caroline Bayley explores the upsides and challenges of "WFH". She discovered:
It can lead to higher productivity providing employees are set up for it and have the opportunity to balance it with working from the office.
Too much WFH and the costs are likely to outweigh the benefits for individuals in terms of poorer mental health and the organisation in terms of less R&D.
Working mums are more likely to be steered away from WFH compared to working dads, suffering a ‘motherhood penalty’.
It doesn’t suit agile working and certain types of project work including IT development.
Caroline interviews Professor Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University, an early advocate of WFH, whose enthusiasm has since tempered. In 2013 he co-led the ‘CTrip’ WFH experiment of a 16,000- strong Chinese travel agency. Employees were randomly assigned to work from home or the office. After 9 months home workers performance had gone up 13 per cent. However two thirds were keen to get back to the office and their promotion rate conditional on performance had fallen.
It pointed to something the current lockdown is demonstrating: that WFH full-time has its drawbacks. For individuals there’s the mental stress of too much isolation, deprived of the stimulation and interaction we need to be productive. The very reason we choose a busy office. It prevents boredom and helps us become busy too because we unconsciously fall in with our peers (providing they're busy too). For those with children there’s the opposite challenge of working in an environment that’s too full of unwanted distraction and interruption. On the programme Jane van Zyle, CEO of Working Families, points out how expectations employers have that women with primary age children are fulfilling a motherhood role can lead to those women being offered fewer WFH opportunities compared to working dads.
Professor Bloom predicts that in the medium-term large scale home working would have an adverse cost on productivity because it compromises functions only truly effectively carried out by people coming together physically – R&D for example. This could lead to less new product development and under-investment. How do you have a ‘Google bump’ if most of your workforce is at home and there’s too few people in the cafeteria to bump into?
Caroline refers to the u-turn IBM made during the last decade when it changed its mind about encouraging 40 per cent of its staff to become home workers. During that time agile (or scrum) became the new norm. An approach which produces rich returns because teams work highly collaboratively in close proximity to one another can’t reproduce the same results when those teams are dispersed, even with the wonders of modern ICT.
But WFH is here to stay, certainly until we’re out of the lockdown, and will probably be recommended practice for the next twelve months and until there’s a vaccine along with social distancing.
So how can you make WFH work for you?
According to Frances Holliss (Director of the Workhome Project and another interviewee) there’s plenty you can do. For instance you can:
Make you and your workspace look and feel the part. Wear the clothes you’d wear to work, move furniture and change the lighting (and whilst she didn’t mention it I’m sure she’d have said make things ergonomic too so your body posture is optimal).
Design a journey to work, perhaps including a walk before you start (something as a regular home worker I recommend; if you're confined to a garden, ten minutes with a skipping rope is a good alternative).
Have some WFH rules for yourself and whomever you’re sharing your space with, such as leaving the room to make phone calls or keeping random chat to a minimum.
If possible have two front doors so you have to actually step outside your house to enter your home-office (as is common in the Netherlands). I know someone with such an arrangement and it really makes the office feel separate.
And the message for employers?
When you can’t practice MBWA - managing by wandering around – you need to substitute it by regularly checking in with your people lest you risk not picking up the cues that all is not well. Research indicates employees benefit from more contact from an empathetic boss and more opportunities to feel they’re part of a fully functioning team.
It’s also important to attend to what makes work meaningful (see my other blog post on 'how to make work meaningful', 10th August 2016, for guidance).
Human beings don’t perform at their best when cooped up in their home for extended periods. Even with our wonderful ICT we accomplish more over the long term when we can interact with each other physically in teams, consistent with how we evolved as a social species. It’s the reason we separate home from office and something to celebrate. When the lockdown is lifted most will no doubt return to be with their teams in their offices, with relish.
In the meantime there’s plenty that can be done for those who are WFH to make it more bearable. With a little imagination and resource employees can optimise their home for its new office role. And employers, especially managers and leaders, should do what it takes for their teams to feel listened to, connected and supported if they want to maintain their productivity and engagement (something we'd be happy to help you with).
Post lockdown, there’s a strong case for giving people the flexibility to work three, even four days per week from home, providing they’ve got a well set up workspace, which can be shut off to other members of the household, particularly children.
So is the future of work from home? Yes and no. As ever it seems to be all about balance. For many WFH five days per week for months on end would be dehumanising. On the other hand balancing focussed periods at home with positive and constructive time spent in the office may well enable employee and employer to discover the productivity sweet spot that was previously eluding them. The solution is to simply offer people the choice over how they would prefer to work, which is what many of the best companies do anyway.