Will Covid-19 Cause A Permanent Shift To Home Working?
Is working from home going to become the new normal for vast swathes of the office-based working population? Furthermore, what will the impact be on the technology world?
There’s no doubt that tech firms are benefiting from COVID-19. Not in any sinister ‘taking advantage of the situation’ kind of way, but in a ‘if you’re working from home, need to have meetings or keep in touch with family and friends, we’ve got the technology that can help you keep working and stay connected’ kind of way. If you didn’t already know about Zoom, for example, the chances are you not only know about it now, but you’ve probably downloaded it and had a drink with your friends or used it to participate in a video conference with colleagues. March saw a 535% rise in daily traffic to the Zoom.us download page, a huge uptake in a technology that, actually, there are data security concerns over – but that is a subject for another blog.
Remote Working is Techtastic
What I’m illustrating is that these types of technologies have seen a huge increase in usage over recent weeks. Zoom isn’t alone, think Slack, Skype (yes, that old chestnut!), RingCentral, GoToMeeting, Whatsapp, HouseParty, Hangouts and Facetime. These all provide the chance to stay in touch whilst staying at home. Apparently, Google and Microsoft are offering their tools for free, in the hope that people who start using them in a crisis may carry on once normality returns. Whether your usage is for work or socialising, these technologies allow us to work from home in a way never before perceived or, in fact, required.
Whilst it is easier than ever to work from home, might this simplicity result in a permanent shit to home working? Employers might well face a movement from employees who have quite enjoyed the experience to remain remote working even when the threat of COVID-19 has subsided. Many are reporting getting more work done, having better quality and balance of life without the dreaded commute and, of course, saving money with no morning coffee, transport costs or coffee shop lunches to pay for. Companies could benefit financially as well, the overhead of large office space could be slashed, although this would leave those who own, clean and maintain these spaces in strife. Again, a subject for another blog.
Remote Working Can Have its Downsides
Of course, there are downsides (and we’re not even talking here about children!). Some corporates are reporting that systems are starting to creak. Networks, unused to having a majority of their connections coming in over the VPN, are experiencing idiosyncrasies, while ISPs have come under pressure to lift bandwidth caps so that remote workers do not get cut off from their employers halfway through the month. Additionally, workforce collaborations can be less fruitful. There is a lot to be said for tearoom banter, exchange of ideas and the basics of getting to know one’s colleagues on a personal level, the extent to which this can be done over video conferencing is limited.
Look After the Mind as Well As The Network
Then there is the question of mental health. Wellbeing is an important factor to consider when a workforce works from home. Taking care of your mind as well as your body is really important. Regular breaks, keeping in contact with colleagues, and planning your day effectively will prevent you from falling into the possible pitfalls of home working. The key to working from home is clear communication with your boss and knowing exactly what’s expected of you.
“Have really clear-set expectations for communications day to day,” says Barbara Larson, a professor of management at Northeastern University in Boston who studies remote working. “Ask [your manager] if they don’t mind having a 10-minute call to kick off the day and wrap up the day.”
Working from home can feel unstructured and isolating. Last year, a study of 2,500 remote workers by online brand development agency Buffer found that loneliness was the second-most reported challenge, one experienced by 19% of respondents. Loneliness can make people feel less motivated and less productive. Working from home doesn’t suit everyone and certain personality types will thrive over others. Motivation is key, and for those that struggle with motivation, make sure you hide the TV remote!!
It helps to continue to act as if you were going out to work. Get up at the same time each day, shower, dress and go to work in the home office you have created for yourself. Try to ensure it’s in a quiet place in your home, not a thoroughfare where interruptions from children, pets or spouses could cause distraction (or even frustration). It can also be helpful to create boundaries with those you share your house with. If you are lucky enough to have a room to work from, shut the door and tell everyone that if the door is closed, they should act as if you’re not in the house. Finally, make sure you stick to the rules at the end of the day too. Turn your computer off and stop answering calls at the usual time. Try not to fall into the trap of checking emails late at night or answering the phone just because you can. It is important to bookend your day, not just for yourself, but your family too.
The New Normal
Working from home could well become the new normal for many office-based employees. Employers can also benefit from a reduction in office costs, improved productivity rates from more contented workers and, consequently, better staff retention.
In an interesting article in Wired, Ismail Amla, chief growth officer at Capita Consulting, give his thoughts on remote working. Before Covid-19, remote working was something that many craved, but few were granted. Now, when there is little alternative, is the time we will find out just how essential face to face meetings or business trips really are. Some companies have traditionally been reluctant to let employees work remotely due to concerns over. According to Amla, “If it turns out that workers can in fact do their jobs just as efficiently from home, we could see firms in certain sectors drop their objection to home working, and adopting entirely new organisational structures, where they jettison physical offices altogether, or perhaps only maintain a smaller headquarters for key staff.” Central to the future of home working will be trust. If employees can prove productivity does not suffer and that they can be trusted to achieve their objectives, the historical arguments against remote working will be hard to peddle. On the flip side, Amla points out that “remote working forces employers to treat their employees like adults – and for that to work we will need to engage our people in a renewed sense of common corporate purpose.”
If remote working is the new normal, this is an enormous opportunity for the tech sector to have a big impact and reap significant rewards. There is a pattern of accelerated technology adoption across the board. Will we finally see the benefits of AI and augmented reality being used to replicate the personal connections of face to face meetings? Video conference tea breaks and lunches could serve to break any isolation and lack of human interaction, ensuring teams still feel like a tight unit, working together even when physically apart.
“This is just the start of a journey,” Amla says. “Historically the technology has been ahead of the cultural and societal acceptance of what a new general operating model might look like.” Coronavirus as given our system a huge jolt. One that will force us to embrace technology and ways of working that we were previously reluctant to use. Before COVID-19 we had a choice not to, now that choice, like our freedoms, has been taken away.
When this is over, we may well find that these different, adopted ways of working and living have become our new normal. We also might well find we live in a nicer, more accepting, kinder society. Well, we can live in hope!!