Remote work. What happened to the new normal?

Covid changed the way we work.

As cities locked down and offices were forced to close, white-collar workers had to adjust to working from home. To everyone’s surprise, things worked out just fine. Productivity didn’t drop and with some adjustments, we all carried on with our work.

When cities and offices re-opened, many workers chose not to return to the office. First, due to the fear of getting infected, but later, due to the improvements to lifestyle working from home can bring. This is especially evident for parents and grandparents, who found it easier to do drop-offs and pick-ups and plan around family life. Being able to save an hour (and for some, even more) on a daily commute was just another bonus.

Once the world returned to some normality, businesses started asking workers to come back to the office at least one or two days per week which was met with some resistance. What is most interesting though, is what happened when the global economy started to turn for the worse.

Covid devastated hospitality and tourism work, but the knowledge economy (and all industries that could work from home efficiently) went through a boom. This was partly due to what we now know was an overreaction by governments, which printed trillions of dollars to prop up the economy and central banks who reduced interest rates to almost 0%.

That honeymoon is now over and economies globally are going through a downturn or recession. This has led to a change in attitude on working from home. Some of the biggest supporters of the policy have backflipped and asked workers to return to the office. Apple and Google are two prominent companies that have changed their tune and asked teams to return to the office and it is no secret that Elon Musk has asked Twitter employees to return.  A similar story is happening across SMEs.

The verdict on WFH

POSITIVE: It’s better for recruiting and retaining the best talent and pleases the employee. The goal of every business should be happy employees. They are more aligned with the company’s purpose, less likely to leave and more productive. As business leaders, we should be doing everything we can to make them happy – it is great for the employee and it’s great for the business.

Experienced employees have fewer distractions when working from home and can get through a larger volume of work. It provides flexibility to manage their family and social lives and still provide their best to their employer. Work-life balance is more sustainable and increases productivity.

NEGATIVE: While it is not the norm, people do take advantage of the increase in autonomy. There are anecdotal stories of people working for Facebook as well as start-ups in Silicon Valley, both on full-time wages of hundreds of thousands of dollars and doing 20-30 hours a week combined. More locally, it’s no surprise that Mondays and Fridays are the favourite days for WFH. Long weekends can be fun.

But even if everyone is doing all the right things, there is another, less talked about issue. The younger generation that has recently entered the workforce, often straight out of university or high school, spend their formative career years listening, watching, and learning from more experienced colleagues. This is lost when working from home, even with the best-intentioned policies. There are some things you just cannot learn from reading a manual or watching a video. The nuances and edge cases that build up knowledge are learnt in the doing or the watching and listening.

Levels WFH policy.

We are an experienced and small team. We all like going into the office and do so every day but if someone wants to work from home for any reason, no questions are asked. As we grow, we too will no doubt need to consider our policy more deeply.

My personal view is that ‘face time’ is a must. At least one or two days per week where all local employees are in the office together is vital for team cohesion. I also find the most creative solutions and brilliant ideas come in collaboration but it can’t be forced. It’s those times you suddenly grab someone to whiteboard an idea together or ask them a question that grows into a new process or way of doing things.

No matter which side you fall on, the reality is working from home is here to stay. While I personally prefer to work from the office, I know there is a place and a need for WFH too.

What do you believe is the best work-from-home policy?

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