Working from home or hardly working?

It is day 124 of the corona epidemic. You’re sat at your home office in London looking out at a beautiful July morning with a cup of coffee. Your partner is in the living room completing a live yoga stream. Your 10 am slack conference with the team went smoothly…


It is day 124 of the corona epidemic. You’re sat at your home office in London looking out at a beautiful July morning with a cup of coffee. Your partner is in the living room completing a live yoga stream. Your 10 am slack conference with the team went smoothly and you are settling into an hour of uninterrupted writing. After spending 25 minutes preparing lunch you will run 5 km to get the blood pumping because this gives you an extra hour of productivity in the afternoon. Your office has been closed since March. It opens again tomorrow.

How will you feel about that?

We have spent much of the previous week wondering when normality will return; but in some ways it won’t. The next three to twelve months will initiate a sea change towards remote work that will surely settle an argument for employers and employees once and for all; are we more or less productive from home?

Prior to the outbreak of Covid 19 remote work was already on the march. A study released by swiss office provider IWG found that 70% of professionals work remotely at least one day a week.

Many companies experimenting with shorter work weeks, reduced hours, or remote work days have had great success boosting productivity. Perpetual Guardian, a statutory trust company based in New Zealand moved to a four day work week after the CEO came across research suggesting that employees were only productive for three hours a day. Two New Zealand universities ran a trial at the company and found that productivity remained stable whilst employee happiness was boosted enormously.

Experiments such as these have become commonplace over the last decade but are easily poopooed as anecdotal by successful companies unwilling to change a winning formula. The virus, however, has forced their hand. Investment in the software, training, and cultural shifts necessary to allow remote work has become vital. Failure to adapt is now failure to survive.

Whilst some  companies scramble to sign up to Zoom, Slack and Skype, in attempts to maintain a semblance of business as usual, others, such as non-alcoholic gin maker Seedlip, are already well versed in remote work culture.

Henry Mills, Head of Sales, puts great stock in what they call the “adult to adult relationship.” He says, “You don’t have time to worry about whether your employees are working at 9:01 or 4:45, as long as the mutual interest is there and the vision is clear for what we are all trying to achieve, the work will get done.” In other words, clear goals and trust is going to be the essential ingredient in motivating your new remote work force.

Short of having a livestream into your homes at all times, how could a boss possibly breathe down your new digital neck? Micromanagement is about to be effectively obliterated making autonomy the norm. The successful navigation of this change will largely depend on employee-employer communication and relationships which will need to be carefully managed from a distance.

Whilst the psychology of autonomy surely makes up a vital component of the remote work experiment there is also a much less ambiguous impact, that of time.

If you live in London your commute is likely double the global average at 74 minutes a day. The collective eradication of the bane that elevates pollution, depression and divorce is giving us back an hour of our lives every single day.

You could Learn to cook? A language? The piano? learn how to meditate?

Add to that 74 minutes the extra hour a day that is normally spent competing for oxygen in office meeting rooms and suddenly you are winning back more than two hours of your day. That’s ten hours of your week, or 21 days of your year!

It seems unlikely, that if people can prove their productivity levels can remain stable they will willingly give up 21 days a year back to commuting. Especially if you consider that some studies have actually shown an increase in productivity for remote workers of up to 40%.

Whilst all of us surely appreciate the extra hours on our day, there are inevitably risks. The blurring of work and non-work boundaries has the potential to increase our stress levels rather than reduce them. If you are unfortunate, your office may be a source of discontent, but at least you get to leave it. If not carefully managed, the lack of physical cues that allow you to loosen up as you head home for the day could be sorely missed.

And what of the watercooler warriors? Creativity comes from synthesising a diverse range of ideas. Whilst some of the more introverted among us may thrive under conditions of uninterrupted work, there are those that need soundboards on which to bounce their thoughts. The sparks necessary to light up collaborative productivity must be carefully fanned under conditions of isolation.

“That’s a terrible idea.”

This sentence, uttered through the bellowing sound of a laugh and a pat on the back maybe warmly received in the office amongst friends. But over WhatsApp the irony is lost. Google’s research project on their most effective groups found that the most important feature for success was psychological safety or; how confident team-mates would be that they wouldn’t be embarrassed or punished for speaking up.

Office banter and bad jokes provide the safety net necessary to suggest bad ideas, which often turn into good ones. No matter how stale your office banter, the alternative may be worse.

Attendance does not equal productivity but nor does more free time. In China, where the experiment is 3 months ahead, workers operating under remote conditions have complained of intrusive bosses who cannot trust their employees to work, distracting family members, and difficulty focusing. Simultaneously, others have reported improved productivity and even love lives.

Over the next few months, companies and employees alike will have to realise that remote work is different work. Managers must set goals and specific KPI’s rather than judge the proxy of attendance. Workers will need to fastidiously divide their days into tasking, critical thinking and family time. Effective digital communication will become absolutely vital to sustain healthy relationships and conflict.

When all is said and done, the work life culture of 2019 will be a thing of the past. Billions of people around the world are about to figure out a way to work from home, and for many, the change will feel irreversible.