Prior to Covid-19, the very thought of people working from home was odd.
It was a realm reserved for senior executives, who would sometimes – on the very seldom occasion - pull rank and arrange to be working from their spacious home. No doubt with a desk and wall-to-wall bookshelf behind them.
For the humble manager or office-worker, this option just wasn’t an option. Yes, you could arrange to be AT home to take in a delivery of a washing machine on a certain day, but this normally meant you had to accrue a certain number of hours or a certain amount of goodwill before this privilege was granted. And, whilst you were waiting for the delivery, you weren’t actually working.
This was ‘corporate flexibility’ back in 2019. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Companies took pride in their relaxed attitudes to people having normal lives and then flexing their rules to allow the staff to live those lives.
For the very lucky, this could even be extended to actually working from home on some days.
Back on the olden days, it was a bit of a palaver, but achievable. In the early days, before cloud storage and remote access networks, you may have had to take half of your desk on the train the evening before – to make sure that you had access to the stuff you needed to reference.
I can remember doing exactly that on a few days back in the 1990s. I wrote a weekly report for the business about TV viewing patterns. I’d recently become a dad, so being at home one day a week for the first month or so was the agreement we reached. I’d take home a pile of papers on the Thursday evening and write the report on the Friday and then phone the office to dictate the words of the report… yes, this was before email existed.
More recently, but still pre-pandemic, working from home was more achievable technologically, but still a rarity. Those that got a chance to do this felt special. Those that didn’t get a chance to do it felt aggrieved. There was always a suspicion about those who were “working from home”. Many times, I’ve seen people use that phrase and put exaggerated air quotes around the “working from home” bit – as if those that were at home were definitely not working. It was seen as skiving, pretending to work and a bit of a doss.
Businesses were unsure about it. Monitoring performance and effort was difficult. It was just too hard.
Why couldn’t everyone just be in the office all the time?
And then 2020 happened.
Almost overnight, millions of office workers across the world started working from home. Let’s pause here and be grateful to the teams of IT staff who made this work relatively seamlessly with little or no preparation time.
Suddenly everyone was at home.
Was everyone skiving? No.
Did everyone have to take home boxes and boxes of papers. No (but I’m sure some still did).
Has it been successful? Yes.
Do people want this to continue forever? Well, actually no.
There’s loads of research out there which shows that people are actually craving a return to the office. We are social animals. We need that contact with our colleagues. Conversations, ‘banter’ and in-jokes are what makes the office fun. A fun environment creates a better sense of team. Better teamwork means better performance.
So as the vaccination programme rolls out and organisations start planning for a slow return-to-work, there’s a whole new set of questions to be answered.
How many people do we want to have in the office on any given day?
Can a booking system work, where people book their days IN the office in advance?
Will that soon become similar to the holiday booking system where people clambered to be first to put in their request for summer breaks or Christmas?
And how long will it take before those that are “working from home” are resentful of those that are “working from the office”?
Will the WFHs use air quotes when talking about those lucky individuals who are “working from the office”? As if those who have commuted into work are now sitting with their feet on their desks, having nice conversations with their colleagues about last night’s EastEnders, Jenny from Accounts being pregnant or Tim in Sales being in line for a promotion.
Covid has taught us a lot of things.
But I doubt very much whether many would have foreseen people being super keen to have 2 or 3 days a week commuting into work to spend 8 hours in their office… rather than having a whole week working from home. The tables are-a-turning.
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