Blogs & News
COVID-19: Working from Home – why it will Hurt your Business?
Joydeep Hor, Founder & Managing Principal
It seems that the majority of organisations around the world, and certainly in most western countries have asked their workforce to work from home as one of the many COVID-19 triggered organisational responses.
In theory, working from home (“WFH“) should actually lead to an increase in productivity for most employees. After all, think of all that time that is spent getting ready for work and in transit that is now not needed. This assumes, of course, that not only has their organisation “geared up” technologically to allow these employees to work from home but that there is the usual volume of work for those employees to do when they are at home.
The reality is, however, considerably different to that theoretical premise. Let’s take a look at why that is and shed some insight in so doing on what organisations might be able to do to guard against that potentially negative impact. I should say at the outset that I don’t want to buy in to the “should you trust your employees more” discussion and debate because anyone who has worked across the thousands of organisations I have in my career knows that if your systems are too heavily reliant on trust, you have helped neither your people nor your organisation.
When can WFH work well?
WFH arrangements work well only in one or more of the following situations:
- where an employee is already used to working from home as part of their usual contractual arrangements with their employer;
- where the WFH is used to supplement, rather than be a substitute for, the work that an employee has to do at their ordinary place of work; and
- where the nature of an employee’s role is such that they are regularly and routinely distracted at their usual place of work and that prevents them from completing other (usually important) tasks and projects.
Outside of one of the above situations, in the vast majority of instances WFH arrangements will be sub-optimal in terms of productivity and efficacy for an organisation.
Preliminary COVID-19 feedback on WFH
From having spoken to a significant number of organisations in the last few days, in short, the majority of people working from home regarded the first day of their WFH arrangements as a novelty. On second and subsequent days they have:
- struggled for motivation;
- driven themselves insane; and/or
- found it difficult not be distracted with other things happening in their home environment.
The Importance of Routine
One of the reasons WFH is challenging is that it represents a new routine for people: it is, in short, a major change.
However, unlike other major changes that people have had to deal with in their work lives (including loss of a job) this has been implemented without much forewarning and without many alternative options even being available. In fact, most employers in Australia have probably flagrantly breached their obligations around consultation when it comes to introducing change.
The real problem is that most new routines, for example, a delayed start time or changed days of working still mean that you would have to do the things needed to get ready for and go to work. Showering, shaving, applying make-up, choosing what to wear, preparing lunch, getting kids ready in a hurry may all be mundane but are all important parts of the routine.
Showering, shaving, applying make-up, choosing what to wear, preparing lunch, getting kids ready in a hurry may all be mundane but are all important parts of the routine.
While employees may resent many aspects of that routine, the reality is that that routine plays an important part of their effectiveness at work. In sporting terms, that is the pre-match warm-up that minimises the risk of “injury” (read inefficiency or lack of effectiveness) when at work.
All of a sudden with WFH there is a very different routine, which may involve very few of the things that are part of one’s ordinary routine. Critically, there is no consideration typically that an employee needs to have to how the outside world might look at them or interact with them in subsequent hours.
Like many other business-owners, I like my workplace and I like work. I have never met a single business-owner anywhere in the world who says that they wake up and really don’t want to go to their place of work!
I understand though that that may not be the same for non-owner employees in organisations. The extent to which someone enjoys or doesn’t enjoy going to work depends on a range of factors:
- their relationship with their manager and colleagues;
- the social interactions they have with others;
- their career motivation;
- the benefits offered by their employer; and
- the relativity of interactions they have with co-workers as against interactions they might have with other people in their lives.
One thing though that everyone needs (even people like myself who are self-confessed workaholics!) is the need for separation. Physical, emotional and social separation on a weekly if not a daily basis is absolutely critical to the ability of anyone to keep performing at an acceptable level.
Physical, emotional and social separation on a weekly if not a daily basis is absolutely critical to the ability of anyone to keep performing at an acceptable level.
In a WFH environment, there is simply no separation. One wakes up at their place of both home and work … stays there to do their work … doesn’t go “home” anywhere and instead is at their place of work 24/7.
It is no surprise that some employees feel that they are in fact doing more work when they are at home because of this than when they are at work. I very much doubt (with the greatest respect to people who may be of that belief) that that is actually the case and in my experience if a person can output even at 80% of their usual output they are ahead of the benchmark. What is in fact happening is that people are not getting any separation.
Imagine when your weekends are only differentiated from weekdays by what you do during whatever your core daily working hours are but for all other intents and purposes involve you staying at your place of work.
Morale and Camaraderie
As one of the few organisations who has both had the luxury of being able to allow most staff to continue to come to a very spacious (and socially-distanced) office environment and one where that is the organisational choice I have made, I am so glad that that is the path my firm has gone down.
While trying to keep up with our firm’s main game of being accessible to our clients particularly when they have so many issues confronting them, we have faced into these unprecedented times as a unified team. Our team members see each other each day and communication is at an all-time high, as is productivity.
At a time where there is so much uncertainty in society with mixed messaging from governments and frightening and reassuring data is in our faces concurrently, people need the comfort of normality: their workplace can give them that.
At a time where there is so much uncertainty in society with mixed messaging from governments and frightening and reassuring data being in our faces concurrently, people need the comfort of normality: their workplace can give them that.
I understand and respect that for some organisations, their size and office layout may simply not make working from the workplace a safe or viable option. But I do wonder whether organisations have fully explored their options and thought laterally as to what they can do to respect the importance of morale and camaraderie building by having a few days for different groups being spent in the office.
Phones, Social Media and Distractions
Any employer will know that staff have far more distractions at their disposal and almost begging for attention than has ever been the case in world history. I remain astounded at the brazen way people in many organisations will have their mobile phones on their desk (when there is no work need for it), respond to personal messages and peruse social media as though it is the divine right of being an employee.
Those who analogise those behaviours to the smoke break or the occasional personal call to/from one’s landline are clearly living a different reality to the one I see and hear about from my clients.
This is not about casting aspersions on character: it is simply about recognising that this risk is there. Judging by the number of social media posts made by people who are WFH during what are usual working hours, I think we can safely conclude that the distractions are perhaps as at much risk of spreading as the virus itself.
It goes without saying that on something like this in a WFH context you do have to trust and trust significantly, but unless you have hard metrics to measure output this is something where organisations need to help their people to help themselves.
Managers have had it drummed in to them for a long time that staff communications, particularly where those communications involve performance management or other critical feedback, should happen face-to-face. Not only that, but there is almost an “advisable infrastructure” for the handling of these kinds of communications.
For those of you who have attended one of my workshops or seminars on people management you would know that I regularly poke fun at the over-bureaucratisation of performance management. But what happens to that now?
Are organisations saying to their managers: while you don’t have the capability to manage performance or indeed your team in person we still want you to be managing that virtually? If the answer to that is yes, how realistic is it to expect that this will happen? Managers are at their managerial worst when they themselves are dealing with uncertainty.
Managers are at their managerial worst when they themselves are dealing with uncertainty.
I can guarantee that the willingness and capability of managers to deal with workflow execution, expectations around performance and a range of other things will be enormously reduced in a WFH environment.
Uncertainty and (mis)Information
I am a big advocate of organisations and employers “controlling the narrative” when it comes to issues affecting their organisation. Unions and industrial organisations are most effective in organisations where leadership either is unable to control the narrative (often because they do not know what the narrative is or needs to be) or chooses not to place importance on it.
My people management quadrants paradigm emphasises the need to look at the sociology quadrant or “how does something look” for this very reason.
We are about to see, leave aside government stimuli etc, an extraordinary global recession and there will be countless numbers of businesses that will not survive and hundreds of thousands of employees who will lose their jobs. While supermarkets may well flourish in the panic-buying market and have a need for people, the simple reality is that this will not even go close to being enough to cushion the impact of mass unemployment. If previous recessions have taught us anything, there will be more people who will commit suicide as a result of the economic impact of what is transpiring, tragically, than will die from COVID-19 in Australia.
Consider this: your workforce is WFH and you have told them to do that by assuming that everyone “gets” that that is the safe thing to do. Now they have just heard that two-thirds of the country’s national airline carrier has been stood down. You should understand that they are apprehending that they are next.
There is no known end-date in sight for any of this. Your ability to communicate with your people meaningfully is severely curtailed when they are WFH.
Organisations need to talk to their people very openly about all of the matters I have addressed in this article. For too long, employers (particularly in countries like Australia, the US and the UK) have avoided honest conversations with their people about important subjects such as trust and distrust, bad habits and human natures. These things are avoided for fear of provoking legal claims, being accused of being insensitive etc. At these most critical of times, honesty and openness on difficult subjects is what is sorely needed. What is also needed is some careful holistic thinking before knee-jerk decisions are made.