‘I’m WFH.’ The message is so common now across many offices that it’s taken for granted. The person working from home has made a decision that s/he will be more productive not schlepping into the office, or else they are balancing work and life by taking the kids to school. It’s a shibboleth that can’t be challenged and any criticism marks the questioner out as a back-number, outsider, dinosaur, old-economy stick in the mud. Look what happened when Marissa Mayer suggested that, you know, showing up might be a good idea for a company, Yahoo, that appeared to be heading for the Scottish Third Division of internet companies. But let’s question the unquestionable anyway.
The WFH phenomenon is relatively young. Of course there have always been jobs where it was possible to work from home but it was only with the confluence of broadband and affordable laptops and smartphones that it became a mainstream affair, embracing the vast field of knowledge workers. That helps to explain the immaturity and lack of best practices and processes that are only too common today, where few companies have any useful yardstick for controlling presence and productivity. This is a model for working that’s based on the oldest methodology of them all: wing-it-and-see.
Cowed by a rising tide of ambulance-chasing lawyers and rules, regulations, directives and mandates by countries, regions and super-states like the EU, HR managers nodded and gave a free pass to newly empowered workers. The result today might not quite be anarchy but it can look an awful lot like the lunatics have taken over the asylum as employees enjoy extraordinary largesse in figuring out their own working hours and places of occupation.
Ultras of the WFH wing won’t brook any opposition, insisting that workers gain job satisfaction, time to focus, and a more pleasant weighting of family and leisure time with the necessities of work. Any attempt to suggest that there might be some benefits of congregating with colleagues is seen as puritanical hogwash and most people are too scared to say that we need some parameters. Let’s look at a few examples that I have heard, unprompted, from major companies you will know.
Item: A large IT company has an expensive central London office but on Fridays desk usage, despite a drop-in policy, falls to below 15 per cent as workers decide to wind down the week with a spot of WFH. Understandably this is causing some concerns among management who see Friday afternoon as a good time to hold open meetings and discuss non-essential items. It’s a time for recaps, celebrating success and assuaging doubts and concerns, almost a bonding session… or it would be if anybody showed up.
Item: A consulting company has a huge new glass block, rented at enormous cost as an iconic example of modern thinking, replete with booths for ad hoc meetings, the best coffee pods you can get and even a gym with pool. But a study of staff pass key usage and VPN logons showed that since the building was opened there has actually been a falling off in attendance after an initial surge. Puzzled, the company polled staff and found that high levels of traffic and issues with public transport were deterring workers from coming in.
Item: A large communications company runs satellite offices all over the world. In one small sales unit it discovered that nobody had entered the building, excepting security staff, for over a month. The reason was that sales execs saw no value in going there and because this had become a common perception, others had taken the same view.
Nobody seriously can challenge the notion that exchanging ideas, swapping notes, creating a sense of urgency, purpose and passion aren’t Good Things To Do but the modern tendency is to say that all these things are no longer tied to visceral face-to-face meetings. The fact is that when it comes to replacing human interaction, technology is the god that failed. It’s still often pointlessly hard to get a colleague you know has good language skills to check over an email you’ve composed via remote tools. For conferences, the technology is often sub-par (think of dreadful conference calls mangled by cellular, WiFi or VoIP) and when it works it is often hobbled by human frailties (wrong call details, arriving late). Meeting physically makes it easier to address some of these shortcomings.
Working from home can be great but organisations need better processes, controls, tools and training to deal with a changing workforce. It’s time to question this new myth and to say that, sometimes, you have to haul your backside to a place of work or come up with a good reason for not being there.
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Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond