COVID-19’s full impact on the world is difficult to comprehend. Its true consequences may not be known for years to come. But in the business world at least we can see clearly that this crisis is forcing all of us to cope with an environment we had never anticipated or planned for.
It can be human nature to retreat during times like this. To keep heads down and focus purely on survival. But doing so could mean losing sight of the opportunities inherent in exploring a whole new way of operating.
For years most of us have been focused on a more or less traditional business model — standard business hours, office premises, face-to-face communications across the board. Some companies, particularly in newer industries, have introduced flexible and mobile working practices for certain aspects of their business. Some have adopted them entirely. But what we might call the standard model is still the most prevalent.
The fact is, however, that there are significant benefits to a more flexible approach. There’s plenty of research to show that it can improve efficiency and productivity, largely as a result of improving the health and wellbeing of every member of the team.
And that’s likely why many, if not most, industries have looked at these practices with interest. Almost every company we work with, for example, has some provision that allows working from home. Many have relaxed the idea of fixed office hours, instead introducing “core hours” that allow people the flexibility to arrive earlier or leave later in the day.
NEW WAY OF WORKING : SAME WAY OF THINKING
What we’ve yet to see, however, is an example of open and flexible working practices being implemented with 100% success. Well-intentioned and genuinely supported as they may be, they still face a certain amount of (mostly unconscious) cynicism.
“So-and-so’s not in today, she’s ‘working from home’”. How many times have you heard that, and seen the accompanying air quotes? We have an built-in impression, born of a kind of working practice muscle memory, that working from home involves watching ‘This Morning’, then perhaps a trip to the shops, followed (after afternoon coffee) by a couple of hours desultory tapping at a keyboard.
Even those of us who regularly use flexible working arrangements might feel a tugging sense of guilt. Going into the office has been standard practice for so long, is so ingrained in our working culture, that it’s a difficult habit to shake.
Technology hasn’t always helped the situation. Software like Citrix, while it’s a great tool, can be unreliable. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending half your working day attempting to connect to a system that you simply cannot access.
Video conferencing may have become commonplace in the business environment, particularly for meetings where it’s not possible or practical to have everyone in the same room. But many still find the experience uncomfortable, with a generation of camera shy people instinctively nudging their chairs just out of shot. As a result, for people might use audio only, particularly during one-to-one calls. Which is fine, from a purely business perspective. But it can magnify the sense of isolation people feel when they’re removed from the office environment.
NO CHOICE : BIG CHANCE
COVID-19, however, by removing the element of choice, is changing everything. We’re now in a time when almost everyone who can work from home must work from home. What’s more, it’s not a short-term thing. This situation is likely to continue for some time to come. So all of us are facing the same challenge together. But with challenge, comes opportunity.
For the first time, we have an opportunity to gather data on the impact of adopting mobile and remote working practice. We already have our control – we know how our businesses function without it, or when we use it only partially. So if we carefully monitor not only productivity and output, but also ‘softer’ impacts on motivation and morale, we’ll have a clear picture of the potential benefits remote and mobile working could have on our businesses.
In fact, productivity and output might not be accurate measures at this time. But efficiency, morale, creativity, motivation — these are all important indicators. We know that where people enjoy and are engaged with their work, productivity improves. So if even those ‘softer’ indicators improve, it demonstrates the potential for entirely new ways of working.
For example, do we need to carry the burden of enormous overheads for large permanent office spaces? Do we need to we limit ourselves to a talent pool from a specific geography when we could benefit from talent around the world? Why should we remunerate our people based on the hours they work, rather than the output they deliver?*
YOU CAN'T DO THAT : WE ALREADY ARE
Sure, there will be challenges to face. Social isolation, building cohesive teams, reduction in spontaneity in some aspects of business — not to mention distractions like delightful 18-month-olds stuffing a banana into your laptop speakers. But what the current crisis is showing us is that we can in fact meet those challenges — because we’re already doing it. And if we can continue to do so after the crisis is over, we could all be looking at sharing considerable rewards.
*But that’s another article…