Graham Birkenhead, July 7 2020

Working from Home and the Office [WFHO]

We are a mere 4 months into the new rapidly evolving world order, and it is nowhere near over. It will be many months (being optimistic) before the first vaccines are available, there are no effective treatments in sight, and as we learn more and more about this new disease, we realise that its physiological impact is a lot more complex than we at first thought.   In the short term, our saviour will be our collective behaviour and how we organise ourselves.

Quite understandably, people want to move on, they want this to be over.  And recent news shows that people have a strong determination to ‘return to normal’, whether that is getting back to work or socialising or hitting the beach, with many disregarding those behaviours that will help to reduce our collective risk.  There is also a significant proportion of people, who are perhaps less newsworthy, who have changed their behaviour patterns, but it is too early yet to tell how permanent that will be. As people do return to work, the already ‘stretched’ (ie packed) public transport systems will force people onto the already stretched commuter traffic routes, and many of the procedures we put in place to keep us safe will add friction to people’s lives and create resistance.   However, changes in how, where and when we work, and shop and socialise, will be needed.

And changes are happening, opportunities have been created and seized. For example, over the last couple of months, thousands of kilometres of new bike lanes have been built in cities around the world, with large numbers of residential streets being closed to traffic. Another area of change is working from home; there has been much talk of this – including from me.  Initially, it was a way of keeping business going and seen as a temporary thing as part of the process of reducing human-to-human physical interaction and so decreasing the probability of transmission. And now, for those that are able, it could become a more permanent part of the new normal.  


A New Balance

Working from home is an option for many, but by no means the majority.  While a recent US Bureau of Labor Statistics study suggests that 45% of all jobs could be done from home (as compared to the actual 5% measured pre-COVID), that figure is an average with industries such as finance, information, and professional services being very conducive to home working, whereas industries such as construction, leisure, or transportation require people to be on-site. 

As our new normal evolves, there is an opportunity to create a different balance for a significant proportion of our workforce – a balance that exists both personally for the workers in what has often been termed ‘work-life’, and also for the companies who can could reap benefits of having employees both working from home and from the office. 


Advantages and Challenges of Working from Home or Office

For those that are able, there are many advantages to working from home – both for the company and the worker.  Studies show that people are often more productive – with more choice about their personal arrangements for working. Commute times are minimised (I love my 30 second commute), and stress levels are reduced.  Some companies are going to great lengths to ensure people can work from home and are saving on office costs in the process.  Some people thrive in the working conditions that the home environment presents – some don't.

There are challenges for the company too, such as ensuring people have the technology that is up to the job, there are many locations in Canada and US, for example, that are still dependent on very slow internet connections. Many SaaS apps that are available to smaller companies are rather limited in functionality.  Security, both on-line and physically becomes more challenging to enforce and control. Culture and teamwork can be difficult to create amongst people that may have never met physically, and there may be less opportunity for the creativity that can be borne of spontaneous random meetings and discussion.  People and companies often need real, face-to-face human contact to get things done.


Thoughts for Creating our New Normal

So, where does this leave us?   Well, in the new normal that we are building for ourselves, we need to identify and adopt the best of both worlds; a hybrid Working from Home and Office [WFHO] approach. Some organizations are already doing this very successfully.  Companies need to develop good working from home policies and plans.  Giving employees the flexibility to work from home at least some of the time improves job satisfaction and so potentially helps both retention and recruitment (many people have wanted this option for a long time).   But also, companies need to provide what their staff need to work from home: powerful (enough) IT, appropriate screen, internet connection, and how about guidance or support with ‘workspace design’. Requiring people to work in the office for a proportion of the time may be a crucial part of this balance. However, that required office time has to be for specific purposes: re-establish bonds and links with co-workers, discuss problems and issues, affirm culture and values, brainstorm, learn from each other, meet with supervisors and so ‘stock-up’ with activity for the next home-work cycle.  Humans need human contact and technology can’t replace that.

To bind all of this together, management and leadership practices need to adapt too. Our leader-manager’s role is to enable the working environments needed for our workers to thrive. Many of the needed skills were covered in my last post about onboarding the remote worker, and those skills are just good management and leadership skills - anytime anyplace.


We don't know what the new normal will look like, as we are still creating it ...... and it is ours to create.


If you have good (or less good) examples of working from home or hybrid-office working – will you get in touch with me and let me know?  I am gathering good practice and ideas with the aim of sharing.

Written by

Graham Birkenhead


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