Are business leaders really thinking of the long-term business and emotional consequences of their staff permanently working from home? It may have been a delight for some people not to have to commute and to spend time at home but for others it has been lonely and isolating. We have had an exceptional spring and summer: how will it feel once the English winter of grey clouds, cold and rain arrives, I wonder?
Many years ago I was on the Committee of the Work-Life Balance Trust. Our aim was to get work-life balance, flexible working, job shares and home-working on the agenda of Government and business. We did a pretty good job and since that time, back in 2002, work life has transformed in many ways and working options are far more readily accessible than they were then.
But the point of the changes we were lobbying for was to enable people to have autonomy over their lives and flexibility to manage family, work and life in a more manageable way. We were not suggesting that companies enforce home-working on their staff and whilst I accept and understand that we needed to do this during lockdown I am concerned at the tendency for organisations to now demand that all or most of their staff continue to work from home.
Home-working suits some people more than others. Those at the top of businesses and therefore making these decisions are no doubt living in pleasant houses in nice surroundings and are likely to be – though not always – in settled relationships with children either at home or who have left home. They are also at the top of their game whereas those they manage are on a career ladder, which is far harder to climb without access to the hubbub of an office or shared space.
I’d like these leaders to give a little thought to those who are living in cramped apartments without much personal space, or having to stay with their parents longer than they might otherwise have done, or are in a flat-share where the other person is also home-working and potentially talking too loudly on their phones, or interrupting.
They may have young children, toddlers, babies, making a noise and demanding their time. I know quite a few stressed parents who have had to work well into the early hours of the morning after having to supervise their young children during the day. People can do this for a short time but a loss of sleep does little for cognitive capacity or the immune system in the long term.
There are those who are extravert who love to spend time with people and can’t, so have to make more of an effort to create their social life outside the office. Or an introvert who too easily becomes a hermit. Or someone living with an abusive partner who used to get some relief and support from going to an office and now is stuck in hell.
Some people can manage the discipline of a home-working day, others get distracted and pet the cat or fill the washing-machine. The environment of an office gives people structure, routine, a sense of purpose and contribution, whether this is in the public or private sector, a doctor’s surgery or factory.
Many of my generation and our children met their spouses at work – you spent time together, had much in common and ended up falling in love. Much harder to do that from the isolation of a flat, Tinder or no Tinder. So how easy will it be for young people to forge new relationships and meet their future spouse? These young are sitting at home behind a screen all day with hormones raging and no place to go – not surprising we are having all these illegal raves!
Then there is all that you are missing that can enhance your career – watching how your bosses comport themselves in the office with their fellow senior managers, with their direct reports, with clients. One can learn so much from just watching people walk about an office, or hearing how they discuss a business project on the telephone.
How will a boss ‘spot’ the person who has talent beyond what they are currently doing? It is so often that one perceives the hidden talent in others through a chance remark, or in observing how well they manage a particular situation. So much harder to do this when all you receive is emails or online output, only seeing the person physically via Zoom.
The creativity of a group of diverse people or diverse thinkers come to more innovative solutions than any one person on their own. Someone you bump into in the corridor or chat a problem over with on the other side of the desk can often have the answer to a challenge, or the information you require. They can share with you what has worked or not worked, inform of best practice whatever kind of organisation you work in.
There are meetings – often thoroughly tedious and unproductive, perhaps, but one does learn how to chair, how to speak up with an idea, how to listen, and can gain the cross-fertilization of information from other departments. And the banter that lightens the discussion can often bring a negotiation to a close more easily than plodding through a process in the sterile world of online meetings. Plus the fact that many deals are done at the coffee break, and that you forge social and business relationships with colleagues who can remain an important part of your networking circle for the rest of your life.
Yes, I know all this can be done on Zoom or Microsoft Teams or whatever but it is just not the same. I remember some of our clients discussing flexible working many years ago and remarking that one had to be careful that people didn’t go ‘native’ – that meant that they almost forgot who they were working for, lost that sense of pride or belonging. The solution was to make sure they came into the office frequently enough to bond and remember the organisation, product or service they were representing.
Of course, people can save themselves from the ordeal of commuting. I remember some of my clients leaving home regularly at 4.30am and not returning until after 8pm. Too long a day. But now the trains and tubes are empty and all those small businesses that relied on the working population for their income will go bust. And if the economy goes bust we all suffer – and not just us, people all over the world who may supply the goods from India, South America or the Far East, could face poverty. People suggest that the provincial cities may revive as a result of these changes but if everyone is stuck away on their computers all day there is no great reason for this to happen. We have to get out and about.
And what does all that sedentary computer time do to our bodies and brains, I wonder? Our brains are plastic. They alter literally every day as we think or adapt to new tasks or ways of working or living. Habituating to seeing people through a screen rather than in real life is bound to change our perceptions, limit our social and emotional intelligence, potentially also our empathy. We are detached, possibly less able to pick up those intuitive messages that you gain from a tiny cue of body language, tone of voice, eye movement, that gives away how the other person is feeling or what they are planning. So much harder to do this through a screen. And as for our physical health, many people had gyms within their office space and would use them before or after work or in their lunch break. This could possibly be harder to find, and more expensive, where they live.
Wonderful to have flexible working, to be able to work from home for part of the week. But it needs to be a choice and something that is negotiated by a manager and their team individually. This blanket decision that some organisations are making that everyone should now work from home does not make financial sense as far as the nation’s economy is concerned. It does not make social or emotional sense and it cannot make sense with regards to personal growth, team development and the nurturing of individual and organisational enterprise. For the majority of people this virus is not deadly but certainly those who are vulnerable can choose to shield at home, or wear masks, gloves, visors, but for the rest of us reasonably healthy folk let’s get back to the fray and try to reboot our economy, otherwise we shall all suffer.