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One of the big questions around the impact of the COVID pandemic on the way that we work is how “elastic” its effects will be. As things like working for home become less unavoidable, will we, should we, just snap back to the old ways of working?
For a mutable company, in a constant state of evolution in response to changes in the environment, this snap-back might be even a good thing, with measurable improvements. Provided the improvements really are measured, as many sources suggest that flexible working practices (homeworking, for example) are more productive than office working, in many cases. Flexible working also opens up a bigger, more diverse talent pool (carers, the disabled, parents of young children, and so on).
However, I would be concerned that the end of flexible working and a return to the old status quo might make some people less productive and less happy in their work and reduce diversity. If, that is, the return to the status quo is just the result of managers’ laziness and lack of trust in a remote workforce and new ways of doing things. That famous manager, Alan Sugar, comments on PwC workers still working from home without bothering to ask their employers whether they are finding this arrangement productive: “This is a bloody joke”, Sugar says, “the lazy gits make me sick. Call me old-fashioned but all this work from home BS is a total joke. There is no way people work as hard or productive as when they had to turn up at a work location. The pandemic has had long lasting negative effect”.
Well, Lord Sugar’s experience of working from home is not mine – but I have met managers who only trust employees that they can see. And I have seen employees who know that they aren’t trusted playing “games” with their management (the long lunch hour with a spare jacket on the back of one’s chair at work is not unknown). I suppose that it depends on the work involved but in the sort of knowledge-working fields I’ve been employed in, the best managers have managed by results, not presence – and productivity has come from mutual trust between management and employees.
I would say that flexibility, not diktat, is needed and trusted employees must be given a choice. Telling people that they must work from home, regardless of their home environment, would be as daft as telling them that they must work from the office, even if they can work more productively from home, at least some of the time.
A mutable company should be able to cope with the changing environment as the pandemic ends, and “build back better”. It is important to remember that evolution is continuous, not a one-time change.
The exercise bike company Peloton seems to offer a general metaphor here. As a mutable company should, it took advantage of the new circumstances of the pandemic and sold, not just exercise bikes, but a whole virtual, socially-distanced training and fitness environment. It made a fortune. But then circumstances changed again with the end of the pandemic (real-life gyms re-opened, the open road called, and more competitors appeared). This time, Peleton seems not to have been able to evolve fast enough and is rapidly revising its expectations downwards…
Being mutable is being in a continual state of evolution. But it is also a matter of having some empathy with all stakeholders and maintaining mutual trust during evolution. Here is one manager (who, incidentally, mostly works from home) explaining why his staff must return to their offices:
My experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing.” He added: “We need to get back into the habit of getting into the office. There will be lots of people who disagree with me, but I believe people are more productive, more energetic, more full of ideas, when they are surrounded by other people”.
Conversely, my experience of working from an office is continual interruptions, pointless meetings, parties – and having to work from home (unpaid overtime) in addition, in order to meet my work targets! Everybody’s experience will be different, and I suspect that we all need some face-to-face contact with fellow workers, but many of us do our best work without interruption, in a comfortable space that is our own.
An effective mutable business will be able to deal with this situation, with some metrics for productivity and management by results, instead of management by personal anecdote. Many businesses, however, will just go back to the way things were, without learning from the impact of the pandemic. They may lose their best, most self-motivated, most productive people, who like working flexibly. And, of course, there will be a new pandemic along, sooner or later…