Generally speaking, we spend our day to day lives in a relatively small number of locations. And however the specifics of those places might vary from person to person, they’re universal enough that we can refer to them as such. The home. The gym. The park. The office. That one in particular is interesting, because whether it makes you think of a never-ending maze of battery-farm style cubicles, or an open plan, fun loving, dog friendly workplace, ‘the office’ is a universal concept because it’s been central to the majority of jobs for over half a century. But as high speed internet has increased in reliability and availability, this has started to change, with the idea of working from your own home becoming both more viable and more popular. This has been reflected by the advent of applications like Slack and Microsoft Teams, software designed to provide businesses with centralised communication platforms, connecting individuals wherever they are. But the shift has still been a relatively slow one, with many companies being reluctant to embrace such a drastic departure from the traditional working environment. As recently as 2019, in a report compiled by Deloitte, only around 50% of global companies felt that managing employees on a remote basis would be a future trend for their business. And obviously, not much has changed since 2019. Oh wait… EVERYTHING has changed. In early 2020 with the onset of lockdowns and social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses quickly realised that office environments were no longer logistically sustainable, and scrambled to move huge numbers of their employees from office settings to remote working.
The result was a rapid acceleration of what had previously been a very gradual transition, cramming what might have been the next decade of progress into a few short months. It’ll be awhile until the long term consequences of this are clear, but what is notable is the positivity of the general reaction, with almost 60 percent of Americans who started working from home during the pandemic saying they would prefer to continue doing so, once it had ended. And workers weren’t the only ones convinced: Twitter, Facebook and many other companies indicated a willingness to allow more employees to work from home in the future. I understand this positive reaction, from both sides. Personally I’ve been working from home for ten years, and managing teams remotely for a big chunk of that time, so I’ve seen most of the benefits first hand. More comfortable surroundings, fewer distractions, no dress code – ok, well a more relaxed dress code. And perhaps the biggest benefit? No commute. Less wasted time. Time not spent working, but not spent with your loved ones either. All of these elements add up to a less stressful and more productive working environment, which is great – for individuals, but also for their employers. In the past many businesses have been skeptical about letting their employees work from home – they imagine them sitting around watching TV in the middle of the day. And obviously there is a level of trust involved in remote working. But if employers can embrace the idea that quality and volume of work have only a partial relation to the number of hours their workers spend on the clock, then they can begin to recognise that affording their employees more autonomy can ultimately work in their favour. And there are other benefits for them too. More working from home means fewer office expenses, and a widened talent pool, that isn’t just restricted to the residents of a handful of large cities. This can be a win for everyone. Now none of this is to say that remote working doesn’t come with its share of challenges.
The work/life balance is a notoriously difficult one to strike, and inevitably there’s a level of personal discipline involved in implementing the structure lost when the physical divide between the two is gone. It’s also important not to diminish the value of face-to-face interactions. It shouldn’t be a surprise that working from home can be an isolating experience, in a social sense as well as in regard to maintaining relationships within a team. So going fully remote probably isn’t ideal either. But the opportunity that the COVID-19 pandemic has given us, to reassess how often we really need to be in the same place, is a valuable learning experience. There have been plenty of occasions in the past when I’ve travelled literally thousands of miles to attend meetings some of which have been crucial face to face interactions, but plenty of which could easily have been conducted via Zoom. And being forced to rethink this from first principles could allow us to completely rebuild our working strategies – for the better. This is still a relatively new paradigm, and whether we’re talking about the personal challenges for individuals or the logistical obstacles for businesses, there are clearly still issues to be resolved. But it’s obvious, now more than ever before, that remote working is a viable and valuable option for the future of business. And that coming out the other side of a global crisis, this is at least one area in which there is less to be gained from a return to normality, than there is from looking to the future.