It’s been a bit full on work-wise this week. To be honest, I’m a bit knackered, which wouldn’t be so bad, but I had a day off on Monday! I’m beginning to think (eight weeks into the social experiment that is lockdown and working from home) that there must be an intensity factor that comes with home working as opposed to being in the office. In some ways this is not a bad thing. There’s no doubt that I am more productive in the time that I spend working now than I was before this enforced move. There are far fewer distractions and interruptions, and even though the time that I spend in virtual meetings with individuals and the team has probably increased slightly (for good reasons while we all support one another through the transition), I’m definitely getting more done.
However, it’s also the case that I am completely done in most days by about 4.30pm, even though I’m taking a proper break at lunchtime most days, and I don’t have the added burden of the daily commute to and from Bristol. The idea of work intensity (and its impact on emotional exhaustion and wellbeing) has been the subject of some academic research, but the literature is not extensive. In their 2017 paper, Boekhurst et al find a direct relationship between work intensity, emotional exhaustion and an inability to separate work from other aspects of life (psychological detachment). In simple terms, working intensely for an extended period leads to emotional exhaustion that in turn makes it much more difficult to switch off from work and impacts on non-work aspects of life.
The challenge for employers contemplating a move to more home-working will be to ensure that employees do not fall into a downward spiral of working too hard and too long, and being unable to disconnect and recharge the batteries. The risk is that failing to adequately manage this will lead to staff burnout, and a reduction in the efficiency that is an otherwise oft-heralded result of working from home.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m now off to crack open a bottle of red, kick back, and forget about the job for at least the next 48 hours!
“Creativity is born of chaos, even if it is somewhat difficult to glimpse the possibilities in the midst of the confusion.” – Charles Handy
Yesterday’s post attempted to identify the rationale behind the change in the messaging around coronavirus in England. I suggested that a return to a strategy of herd immunity was one possible explanation for the move away from Stay Home towards something a little less directive, and a lot more ambiguous. The post focused on the possible short term implications of the change and the danger that the relaxation in the approach to restrictions would lead to a second spike in cases in the short term. That danger remains, but I wanted to be a bit more upbeat today, by focusing not on the short term dangers that still exist, but rather thinking about how our way of life might change in the longer term as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
It seems pretty clear that work for those of us employed in administrative and management roles in the service sector (defined in its widest sense), work will never be the same again. Many organisations in the public and private sectors who had previously been wholly dismissive of the idea that mass home working could be a good thing, have had their world view turned on its head. The genie is out of the bottle and conversations are already turning towards ways in which we can turn current office spaces into collaborative workplaces where homeworkers come together for one or two days a week to discuss projects and new initiatives. The banks of nondescript desks (or worse, divided cubicles) are likely to be significantly reduced in number, and organisations will be looking at ways to reduce their footprint in expensive rented office blocks in city centres and commercial districts. But as well as the place of work changing, it’s likely that we will also see a new approach to the way that work is managed. Management by outcomes will necessarily replace the presenteeism (monitoring staff by hours at the workplace rather than productivity or getting the job done); and there will be a change in the approach to working hours, with much greater flexibility to fit the working day around caring responsibilities, for example.+
And the shift to home working on a regular basis as a matter of course is likely to have other knock-on effects to our way of life. It seems inevitable that there will be a reduction in congestion and commuter-stress as less people routinely travel to and for work. More meetings will be conducted virtually through e-conferencing and shared working will exploit the functionality in on-line collaborative tools like Microsoft Teams and equivalent Google products. This should have a major positive impact on work:life balance as people spend less time getting to and from work and are less tired and anxious as a result. The shift away from city centres and commercial districts as business hubs could be bad news for the retail and hospitality businesses that depend on employees for much of their weekday trade. However, many of these have necessarily already changed their business models to cope with the last seven weeks of lockdown restrictions. It’s likely that decentralisation of businesses away from urban centres to suburban areas will be coupled with a continued expansion of home delivery services. It may even by the case that new businesses will spring up close to suburban and residential areas to cater for the needs of home workers who are looking for local workspaces outside their homes. A kind of cyber café but catering not just for nerdy teens, but also for home workers who need to spend some time in a more social space, or simply get away from the house for a while. It’s a kind of Costa Plus or Starbucks Extra offering – a decent working space and secure, high-speed internet connection and good quality coffee and carrot cake available to order!
More people spending more time at home could well lead to other changes too. Local shopping districts will benefit from greater footfall. People will have more time available for preparing and cooking food, and will have more disposable income as commuting costs are halved or more with the shift to mainly home working. Those local producers who have already introduced home delivery services for everything from fresh fruit and veg to meat, cakes, cheese, and beverages will be in a strong position to capitalise on this new market in the longer term. Deliveries will become more and more efficient as people are at home much more and available to receive products at the first time of trying.
The wider impact on communities could be truly revolutionary. As investment in high speed broadband is rolled out across the length and breadth of the UK, places that have historically been dormitories for workers travelling into regional urban centres could be transformed. Rural and former industrial areas that have become used to a daily morning migration to work in the nearest city will see more people spending time local to their homes and with income to spend. More than that, though, people who spend more time in their home communities are more likely to feel socially connected to that community and to take a more active interest in what is happening there. Parents working flexibly for at least some part of each week will have more time to support school activities; libraries (often already equipped with excellent internet connections) could become local support centres for home workers; sports clubs and leisure centres will have the opportunity to expand services to meet an increased demand from people who have more free time during weekdays and early evenings. Community pubs and local restaurants will become the places where people will go to meet and chat and fill the need for social engagement that was previously met in the office kitchen or around the apocryphal water-cooler.
It’s a vision of the future that has huge potential. Re-positioning work as part of a healthy approach to life that is centred in communities but virtually connected to the organisation and the wider world. The last seven weeks has given us a glimpse of what that vision could feel like in reality. I started this post with a quote from Charles Handy, and it is fitting that I should finish with one :
“We are all prisoners of our past. It is hard to think of things except in the way we have always thought of them. But that solves no problems and seldom changes anything.“
It’s been obvious for a little while now, but hearing the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England explaining today that covid-19 will be with us for some time to come, really brings home the fact that things will never quite be as they were before all this began. The ‘new normal’ is no longer a theoretical label about how things might be – rather it is a shorthand for how things inevitably must be. And that new reality will take some getting used to.
The Chief Executive of Barclays is quoted today as saying that large offices filled with white collar workers may well be a thing of the past. The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to working from home. Organisations and companies the length and breadth of the UK have quickly shifted to remote working with staff using any number of digital tools to carry on their jobs – often more effectively than they would have been in the office. File sharing, video conferencing, instant messaging – if we didn’t know much about these tools five weeks’ ago, we certainly do now.
There are obvious advantages to working from home : no more expensive and unpleasant commuting (good for the environment and the individual bank balance); flexibility to combine work with caring responsibilities; potential to design your workspace around your individual preferences, and to work in different spaces to achieve different tasks. Organisationally too, there has been a shift away from ‘presenteeism’ (the cultural belief that work is done in long hours in the office) to managing by outcomes – as long as the work gets done, individuals are allowed freedom and control over how they organise their time and tasks.
On the debit side, working from home is only possible if your home space can accommodate the demand for somewhere to set up a laptop and screen, a keyboard, and the headset that’s a necessity for video-conferencing if you have anybody else in the home with you. At the same time, whilst many of us have adapted reasonably well to home working, we are using kitchen chairs and dining tables, or sofas and coffee tables, and ergonomically that is storing up all sorts of problems for us in terms of backache, repetitive strain injuries and so on. There is also a social cost. Video-conference calls to colleagues and virtual coffee morning sessions are all well and good, but they don’t really replace the occasional, serendipitous collisions that happen in any office from day to day – the so-called water-cooler encounters.
There may well also be a wider economic cost to the shift from office to home working. High streets and urban centres are already struggling to survive, and a lot of their business derives from office workers popping out from central business districts for lunch, or calling in to shops on their way home of an evening. Significantly reducing that footfall is sure to have an impact on those businesses (even while it may see a resurgence in the vitality of suburban shopping streets).
So the ‘new normal’ will be a very different country to what we had become used to. There will be advantages and disadvantages, and it may take a while before we know whether – on balance – things are better overall. But they will certainly be different.
There are many advantages to working from home. Chief among these is the shortness of the commute, freeing up in the order two to two and a half hours a day typically for what would otherwise be our normal schlepp between Cardiff and Bristol. If my experience of the last couple of weeks is anything to go by, working in the kitchen of our house also means that I regularly get to enjoy the smell of new-baked bread (Mrs P. is becoming something of an expert); and I am saving a fortune each week in not having to purchase snacks, lunch and the occasional hot chocolate from the University’s excellent coffee shops liberally dotted around the campus.
However, there is darker side to working from home that is less well documented. The articles that have appeared all over Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn rightly refer to the importance of setting up your workstation to ensure good posture. Lots of advice refers to the critical ratio of the distance between the edge of the desk to the keyboard and then to the screen. It goes without saying that regular breaks are essential to protect against eye strain, back ache or excessive tension in the shoulders. That’s all well and good. However, one thing that nobody warns about is ear rot.
Having spent a reasonable percentage of each of the last 13 working days with my head gripped between a set of earphones and a microphone on a succession of Skype, Zoom and BlueJeans meetings, my ears are starting to show the unmistakeable signs of what can only be the aural equivalent of trench foot! Thankfully, the meeting to total work time ratio declines sharply from tomorrow on, which is just as well. There was a real danger of me losing my lug-holes just at the point when they were likely to be called on to provide essential fixings for a face mask!