WFH – working from home – is the new acronym we are all unexpectedly using. The threat from coronavirus is suddenly very real. After weeks of watching it wreak havoc in China, and then move across Europe and the United States, it is now with us, affecting more and more people in the UK every day, and leaving us wondering how we are going to keep working with our lives turned upside down.
In the week before the Prime Minister advised it, Freshwater ran a one-day all-staff working from home trial. And I’m glad we did. It meant we could move to the real thing seamlessly the following week, having successfully tested our systems and ways of working.
Obviously, there are companies and organisations in the UK where workers are simply unable to work from home. And, of course, there are those incredible key workers who we’re all relying on to go to work each day to help see the country through this crisis, including doctors, nurses, paramedics, carers, teachers and delivery drivers.
But office-based service industries, such as ours, have more scope to maintain business continuity in these turbulent times, and while major events we run have been postponed, we’re lucky in that much of our other work involves providing strategic advice to clients and creating content – both of which can be done remotely.
Nevertheless, teams and talking are hugely important to us. How do you simulate the water cooler and kitchen chatter that can, so often, lead to a great idea for a client?
Well, first the good news. A 2019 Harvard University Study found that people who are given the freedom to ‘work from anywhere’ were 4.4% more productive than those who have more rigid workplace requirements.
But the adjustment can also be jarring. Isolation from colleagues – combined with close quarters to spouses or children – can be difficult to manage. Research also shows that what remote workers gain in productivity, they often miss in harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking.
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was an opponent of remote work, believing that employees’ best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of a computer. “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions,” he said. “You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
Technology is changing incredibly rapidly, however. Our teams are having virtual ‘huddles’ and ‘meeting’ clients via video links. These may not be quite the same as relationships built sharing an office ‘pod’ or chatting over a coffee, but ‘needs must’ will produce more innovations in technology and ways of working as the crisis continues.
Of course, there is also the issue of staff welfare to consider alongside all of this. While working from home is necessary to suppress the spread of coronavirus, it can create other health problems from lack of exercise, loneliness and new kinds of stress.
It’s important that, as far as possible, staff stick to their normal morning routine and aren’t tempted to wear their pyjamas all day. They should create boundaries between work and home, break up their time spent sitting, stand up to have a tea or coffee break and avoid sitting in their work space to eat lunch. Social distancing makes it harder to find ways to exercise, but it will remain essential for physical and mental health.
We are social animals, not robots, but we have to make this work for the greater good, and it will be important to monitor closely how well it’s going, together with any potential side-effects and unintended consequences.
There is a big difference between working from home occasionally and doing it for long, unbroken periods. Even people whose work is normally home-based will find it difficult not having the days when they go out to visit a client or attend an event.
When we emerge from the crisis, hopefully with the economy not too badly damaged, it will be interesting to see what the new world of work looks like. The likelihood is that offices will still suit many types of work but perhaps this will be blended with even more home working in some combination.
My guess is that when we stop having to self-isolate there will also be an outpouring of networking, with business conferences and events better attended than ever. There will, I’m sure, be plenty to talk about.
This article was written by our Chief Executive, Angharad Neagle, and appeared in the Western Mail newspaper on 23 March 2020.