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The future of work? (2020 version)

July 30, 2020

WFHEarly in the COVID-19 lockdown I took the opportunity to use that extra time to completely re-organise my office and clear some of the clutter accumulated over the last 20 years working from home (WFH).

In the process I found an old APC magazine from 2002 which had an article from Phillipa Yelland about the future of work, featuring a much younger me.

At the time, the article stated, about one in 16 Australians were doing some or all of their work at home or away from the office.

Yes, in 1998 my family moved away from the city to the NSW Southern Highlands. Armed with an eye-wateringly expensive ISDN connection, I started working remotely about three days a week. I carried a concertina of paper files with me between the office and home and I had to remember to divert my office desk phone to my WFH number (these were the days before unified communications!). I often forgot to do this, so had to sheepishly call one of my office colleagues to redirect it for me. With a home Internet connection charged on a time used basis, I was very judicious about when I would go online during the day.

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Since COVID-19 hit, suddenly just about everyone is ‘WFH’. There’s already been a deluge written about WFH and how it has changed our working lives, so I’ll quickly mention the two things that quickly became apparent for me, and then I’ll stop there on that aspect.

First, I realised that your productivity, your output and your results defined how well you were working – which is actually how it should be for any role, but isn’t always the case in organisations.

Second, you have to be far more present, available and responsive. People can’t see you at your desk or walking around the office, so if they can’t reach you straight away (or if you don’t respond to them quickly) there’s a perception that you aren’t working. You don’t have to live up to that same expectation when you are physically in the office.
What I really wanted to talk about is some of the macro trends or the ‘new normal’ of WFH post-COVID.

In The Register, Simon Sharwood predicts a corporate backlash against WFH, and pens an imaginary ‘all staff’ email in 2022 from a CEO cancelling the organisation’s WFH arrangements, calling everyone back into the office. (‘A memo from the distant future… June 2022: The boss decides working from home isn’t the new normal after all’) Sharwood foresees insurmountable issues around staff productivity, inequality and cultural division as the killers for WFH.

On the other hand, Anthony Caruana believes WFH is here to stay, provided we sort out a few technical and operational things first. (‘Working from home is the new cubicle farm’) And it’s not necessarily from a corporation’s altruistic intentions! Responding to Sharwood’s article, Caruana writes: “The clear benefit of working from home is simple for employers. It’s cheap.”

While corporate attitudes are key, I think the future of WFH will largely be driven by personal factors.

WFH simply doesn’t suit everyone. I made the decision back in 1998 to work remotely due to personal and family circumstances knowing that it might be detrimental to my career progression and chances of promotion. However, my motivation was driven more by the constantly changing nature of the work I was doing and being creative – and these could be achieved just as well, if not better, away from the office. That’s not going to suit the ambitious corporate types out there with a five-year plan and career trajectory mapped out.

I’m also not the typical nine-to-five style worker. I’m happy to work whenever I have to, and to keep working on something to get it finished, whatever that takes. That’s a great way to work at home, but not necessarily so great in an office. However, that can be quite difficult for some people to manage. At home, it is hard to keep up the same sort of routine you can have in the office, because the boundaries between work and leisure aren’t marked by the daily commute and the parallel schedules of your colleagues.

The biggest issue by far though is the dichotomy of personality types in the workforce, and how that affects their ability to work from home. I’ve seen a polarised response to WFH during the pandemic. Some of my family, friends and colleagues are revelling in the isolation, and in the opportunities it has given for them to have time to themselves and to ‘get things done’. On the other hand, other people I know are really struggling without being able to draw on the energy and inspiration they generate from the social interactions and physical connections they have in an office environment.

So, what do we do?

We’ve already proven through the pandemic that most office-based businesses have continued to function through the extended lockdown and social distancing period with the majority of their staff WFH, so there is no reason why that can’t continue in some form when things return to ‘normal’. In white-collar industries we can complete all or most of the work we do on a day-to-day basis from home; we can securely access the applications and data we need, we can participate in meetings and connect with our colleagues and customers via a multitude of channels, and we can collaborate effectively on projects and documents.

After all these years, it’s finally dawned on most organisations that ‘work is something we do, not somewhere we go’. Hopefully that means we will all stop being measured by the length of time we spend sitting at our desks or tapping away on our keyboards. We might start getting better at recognising genuine productivity and achievement across all levels of the organisation, which will make it immaterial if we are at home or in the office. That way, where we work becomes a personal choice, and we might get more out of all the different personality types in our employee base in what will be a much more diverse and hybrid workplace.

Pictured top: ‘Female hand writing at home.‘ by Nenad Stojkovic, shared under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

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