The COVID-19 crisis of 2020 has forced many companies to reappraise how they organize themselves to do business. After several months of unanticipated working from home for most of their people, they have come to realize that a more flexible model may actually have some benefits in terms of both working practice and cost savings. Few are planning on just reopening their offices and reverting to old ways as soon as it becomes safe to do so but, at the same time, there remain reservations about changing too much too quickly and too irreversibly.
There has been a broad spectrum of ways in which the lockdown has been experienced by different individuals. For some it has been a total liberation, for others an extremely challenging ordeal. For the majority it has been a mixed bag, and they have found themselves muddling through and trying to get on with things as best they can. The upsides have included a greater flexibility and sense of control, and the economy of working more productively and efficiently. Less time is wasted on pointless meetings, politicking and office gossiping, and there is no arduous commute at either end of the day. Performance becomes focused on outputs and results. There is less posturing, as interactions take place within the more informal setting of home, and the playing field is leveled by everyone being on the call (as nobody has the advantage of being in the meeting room). But for many the downsides have been significant. Not everyone has a suitable domestic set-up for extended homeworking: a lack of space, strained family relationships, too many distractions. It can prove a struggle to establish the routine and discipline needed to work effectively in a place that was inherently designed for relaxation and leisure. Loneliness has caused some real mental health issues. People are working harder and longer as they try to adjust to this new way, and find the intensity of perpetual screen time to be gruelling. They miss the social element of work-life, the bonds it creates, and how this contributes to getting the work done. For most, a job is about much more than just a string of tangible accomplishments.
The crisis itself has accentuated some of these impacts. Positively, it has imbued a feeling of everyone everywhere being in this together and the adoption of a siege mentality to help us all get through it. But negatively, it has released a torrent of anxieties. People have found themselves separated from their loved ones, their communities and the daily infrastructure of their lives. They are worrying about the effect this will all have on their children, with education compromised in the short-term and the likelihood of a protracted bleak economic future everywhere robbing them of their prospects. They see revenue disappearing from the businesses that employ them, causing them to contemplate their own dispensability. They absorb a news cycle that gives very little reason for optimism, as they soldier on through an overwhelmingly unprecedented global crisis caused by an infection that nobody seems to understand properly and which might just kill them and those they care about.
As businesses start to transition from the practices passively adopted in immediate response to the emergency of sudden lockdown to a longer-term working model that has been consciously designed, there are a number of areas that demand particular attention:
In terms of mental health, prolonged isolation is not good for people. There is a significantly increased likelihood of burnout, as people work harder and longer. It is more difficult for people to derive and sustain any sense of belonging when they are physically removed. The loss of small moments and serendipitous encounters makes the work both less enjoyable and less creative. Behaviours modelled by bosses become even more crucial for people to take their cues, and there is a significant danger of the emergence of a two-tier workforce.
The traditional approach to recruitment – the process for identifying talent, the places from where it is drawn, and the type of people and skills that are now sought – is not aligned to the new working model. Managing a remote team involves fundamentally different approaches/attitudes and dynamics. In office businesses, expectations and performance are often badly defined, feedback/recognition generally comes from casual personal interactions, and osmotic learning accounts for a significant amount of personal growth/development.
Few companies are completely geared up for a large-scale switch to remote working. Technology will play an increasingly central role in the core activities of the business. New systems and infrastructure will likely be required, alongside a significant ramp-up in security. Some resources will become dispersed, but others will remain centralized. Remote maintenance and troubleshooting capability will be developed, with protocols for handling emergency outages among the distributed workforce.
People need financial support to enable prolonged homeworking – furniture, equipment, supplies, infrastructure, WeWork membership. Offices will be adapted for the activities that can only occur there, such as in-person training/collaborations, major presentations, creative thinking, social connecting. There will be fewer desks and more open spaces, with more dynamism and less pedestrianism. Strong systems will be needed to book space in advance, delineate different working modalities, and establishing priorities for the more limited amount of room.
For most established businesses, the transition to remote working has been a rude and unexpected imposition that they have had to deal with. But there are some companies that had already opted for a distributed workforce before the pandemic struck, driven not by expediency or a desire to save money but by a belief that it represents a superior working model. These companies either regard the above issues as inconsequential or have already found solutions for them. It is possible that there are valuable lessons that could be learned from further investigation of the experience and practices of these companies, though it should be noted that few of them are yet operating at anything approaching the scale of a multinational corporation.