Each day is now bringing more positive news about the end of the pandemic. Although there are still concerns about the variants, the situation is far better than a year ago when we had no vaccines and idea how long the crisis would run for.
Many governments, including here in the UK, are now actively working on plans that should see a a new phase where the public is expected to remain cautious, but the various lockdowns, restrictions, and mask mandates will all be relaxed. The next key date for the UK is July 19th. After this date, the government will remove all Covid restrictions and this includes the advice to work from home, although the PM Boris Johnson has said that it will be up to individual companies to decide on whether to recall everyone to the office or to continue some home working – there will no longer be any direction from Whitehall.
Naturally this is going to have a big impact on companies and the use of offices. Every office-based employee moved to a work-from-home (WFH) environment in March 2020 and now the discussion is focused on how to return to the office. Naturally, when there was a crisis, it was easy to mandate that everyone has to work from home. Now that we are seeing an end to restrictions, the situation is less clear cut. The government is making it clear that they are now leaving it up to employers.
Last month, the British government announced a flexible working taskforce to explore all the potential future options. One of the suggested ideas was a default right to work from home – so all office-based employees would automatically have the right to tell their employer where they plan to work from.
The situation is fairly confusing, because this taskforce is just exploring ideas – these are not new rules or regulations yet. Many companies, including most of the tech giants, have announced that they will permanently embrace flexible working. Many of their employees enjoyed the increased flexibility of WFH and want to keep it as an option. So if you work for Salesforce or Twitter then itâ€™s likely that you can pick and choose the days that you spend time in the office and time at home.
Spotify is a good example, because they have at least thought about it carefully. They will repurpose all their office estate so employees have office facilities, but it may not look like it did before the pandemic – individual desks for use by one person are probably now entering the history books.
But the confusion over this return to the office demonstrates that the creation of a productive and positive network of home-based workers is about far more than just connecting people together on Slack and allowing them to work anywhere.
The most recent Harvard Business Review podcast features some thoughtful suggestions from Professor Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University. Professor Bloom has studied the economic effect of home working for several years and he makes some valid points in the podcast. These include the problems of managing real estate use if employees have complete freedom over when and where they work. Also, the difficulties of planning meetings where some team members are on Teams or Zoom and some are crowded together in a meeting room.
Professor Bloom advises that companies will probably need to mandate the days that can be used as home working days – either at a company level or with individual team managers deciding. Either way, for meetings to run effectively he believes that everyone should be entirely remote or all in-person.
Whether you agree or not, what Professor Bloom is pointing out is the danger of a twin-track workforce. He argues that, when everyone works from home, it is more likely that their performance is measured on output – i.e. what do they deliver? Once some team members are visible back in the office then the old problems of judging people based on perceived effort, hours at the desk, and who has lunch with which manager all come back into view. The playing field is no longer level.
It takes effort to make a fully remote team work well together because it is about more than just the process. It requires organisations to adopt a virtual mindset across everything that they do – from recruitment to training, management, security and scheduling. Â It also requires them toÂ recognise the importance ofÂ flexible working and self-scheduling to Â enable homeworkers to enjoy an improved work-life balance.
At SensÃ©e we’ve been focused on WFH since 2004 – long before the pandemic arrived – so these are issues that we’re very familiar with. Â Nevertheless, the point shouldÂ not be lost. Â The key question for many organisations is no longer ‘how do we make homeworking work?’ it is ‘how do we make hybrid working work?’ And that calls for a whole new mindset.