On 18th March the Government told us to stay at home (well, most of us). It was OK to carry on working so long as we didn’t have to go out. Working From Home was born! OK, there were homeworkers before this but now working from home became normal for most. At first, it was novel, then it became more challenging but now, 6 months later when most of us are ‘back in the office‘ I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the experience, not just as a reaction to lockdown, but more widely.
Lockdown forced a new way of thinking and operating but I reckon it has shed light on opportunities that can have a profound and long-term impact.
Working from home. Not for everyone
For some people, the shift to working from home was pretty straightforward. For others, it was more difficult, even impossible. The split between theses 2 groups really depends on the nature of your work.
1. Dealing with Data
These days, data means computers, devices and the internet. I know people who still swear by paper files but the fact is that the days of paper files are numbered. If you work with data that means you work on a computer of some sort and with the steady march to Cloud storage, it’s all about internet connections. If you work with data and you have a reasonable internet connection, you can work anywhere.
There are other considerations which I will look at below but in principle, if you work with data, you can work from home – or the beach!
2. Dealing with stuff
The story is quite different if your work involves ‘stuff’. You have to be where the ‘stuff’ is. This may be a factory or field, a warehouse or cafe. Unless you can get the stuff you need at home, you have to go out to work.
While working from home is not an option for everyone or even the majority, there are millions of people who can benefit from the opportunities that the ‘Working From Home’ experience has opened up.
My own experience
Perhaps the best way to look at the practicalities is to reflect on my own experience. I worked from home exclusively from late March to early June. I do admit that there were factors that made my experience easier:
- No children – the demands of children at home can make working from home challenging
- A separate workspace – having to work on the dining table can make it difficult to separate work life and home life
- Decent internet – to be effective, your home internet connection needs to compare well with your work-based internet speed
Risk of isolation
With grown-up family at home, I wasn’t isolated but it is easy to see how isolating working at home can be – particularly if you live alone. I feel that working from home should be an option rather than a necessity. Being able to work from home when it suits and at the office, or elsewhere, at other times, maybe gives the best balance.
Importance of breaks
With fewer distractions (daytime TV excepted!), I found it easy to get lost in what I was doing. My home office is in the cellar so I can’t even look out of the window! I did find the lack of daylight to be a difficulty. For these reasons, regular breaks are important. My solution was walking. I tried to get out for fresh air every day.
Zoom is just a tool
Zoom (or Teams/Skype/Google Meet) are just tools allowing 2 or more people to meet remotely. I find them really useful but online meetings can be intense and certainly not the same as a real face-to-face meeting. Personally. I don’t like remote meetings (as opposed to webcasts etc.) for more than 4 or 5 people. There can only be one conversation at once. You simply don’t get the opportunity for ‘side chats’. Just like Homeworking itself, online meetings are now a mainstream addition to the world of work. I would hate to think that every meeting I have from now was online but sometimes, the video meeting is ideal (for modest numbers of participants!).
A change is as good as a rest
I must be honest. By early June, working in a daylight-free cellar every day was beginning to pale somewhat. There was no-one else in the office at that time so it was no big deal to go back to work. I was as socially isolated at Glossop Gasworks as I was at home – if not more so. Nevertheless, there were some of my lockdown working experiences that I didn’t want to lose. I have continued to find time for an hour or 2 walking most days and I am now working fewer days in the office. I know I can work effectively from home and I love the flexibility.
The value of convenience
Commuting is a pain! I am lucky as my commute is now only 10 minutes in the fresh air by bike but I have experienced the daily slog into the city centre where it can take over an hour to travel 10 miles. Many people spend even longer commuting to and from their work every day.
One of the real benefits of homeworking is that it is so darned convenient! Every week, working from home can free up a whole extra day to use as you wish. Never mind the savings in fuel, fancy city-centre coffees and that luxury £10 sandwich at lunchtime. Sure, the shift to homework presents challenges to the coffee bars and sandwich shops that thrive on daily commuters, but I suggest this is only a temporary problem. Coffee bars and sandwich shops are just businesses set up to serve a market. If that market shifts from the city centre to the suburbs then the businesses will follow.
A new approach
I now split my working hours between the office and home. As they are only 10 minutes apart this is easy. I get the benefit of an office environment when I choose and home-work at other times. It is convenient and flexible. I can see the potential for real growth in demand for flexible office space closer to where people live. (Quick plug – check out Glossop Gasworks Workspace) I have heard numerous anecdotal stories of large office-based businesses planning to significantly reduce their reliance on large, expensive, city-centre offices in favour of a more flexible approach based on efficiently interconnected, practical suburban workspaces with a smaller, prestige city-centre location for when it is needed.
People like convenience and flexibility to work the way they choose. Undoubtedly, the lockdown has forced change to be brought on quickly but as new working practices become more normal, there are many effective tools and more options for efficient working than many had appreciated.
We are still in the early days of the new working world and it will be a while yet before the ‘new normal‘ becomes normal. Even so, the opportunities for a more attractive way of working will be hard to ignore in the long term.
Interesting times ahead. If you’d like to talk, do get in touch