Written by Kate Billing, Founder & Creative Director, Blacksmith
A 12 minute read (image credit: @gapingvoid on Instagram)
One of the biggest conversations going on at the moment around the world, inside homes and organisations and on social media platforms of all kinds, is about how our ways of working are evolving as a result of COVID-19.
Numerous organisations have turned their attention to gathering data about our changing personal preferences and organisational practices, including Gallup (Global/US), Perceptive (Australasia) and Otago University (New Zealand). Their strongly aligned results clearly demonstrate that this is one of the most significant shifts in how we work in a very long time.
This shift has also been the subject of reflection, discussion and decision-making here at Blacksmith HQ, both internally and with our client community. As a result, we have made the move to no longer have a single fixed office, we’ve adopted a ‘work from anywhere’ (WFA) approach, and we’re experimenting with a four-day week. We’ll admit it’s going to take a while to change the rhythm for that last one but we’re up for it, and for all the benefits it will bring us and our economy!
A WEE STRAW POLL
With all of this in mind, two weeks ago I created a post on LinkedIn with an invitation to participate in a straw poll asking people to indicate their preference of three options: WFH (100% work from home), Office (100% in the office), or Both (a mix of WFH/in office), and asked them to describe the biggest challenges they foresee in the changes to come.
Although the respondent pool is undoubtedly skewed towards professionals on LinkedIn, it aligns with the wider, deeper research by Gallup (see link above), Perceptive, and Otago University (details coming later in this piece!).
- 1002 – total votes in the poll
- 59% – people who want to have a mix of both WFH/in office time
- 37% – people who want to be 100% WFH
- 4% – people who want to return to the office 100% of the time
By way of comparison, Otago University’s study indicated 89% of New Zealanders want to continue working from home in some capacity and only 11 percent wish to return to the office full time.
Perceptive’s data told a similar story, with 64% of New Zealanders having enjoyed working from home during our time ‘in the levels’ and 46% believing they were more productive working that way. Over two-thirds of Perceptive’s New Zealand respondents also indicated they want to continue working from home or having flexible office days, and close to that amount (60%) would also prefer to fit their standard 40-hour working week into four days.
WHY WE WANT WHAT WE WANT
Along with the simple preference data of my LinkedIn three option poll, the respondents’ comments delivered great insights into why people want what they want and the challenges around and in front of us in redesigning and reintegrating our experience of work.
For those citing continued WFH or a blend of WFH and in office time, the following themes emerged about the WFH part of their experience:
- No Commute – this was the most often repeated theme, with its associated benefits of more time (for work, family or self), more money (less travel-associated expenditure, either public or private), and less stress (not having to get up super early or spend time in traffic and/or rush sleepy, reluctant kids out the door);
- More Productive – having quiet, undisturbed time to concentrate, without the usual open plan office culture of constant interruption, was seen as a huge benefit. People also valued being able to work when they were at their most productive during the day, rather than being shoe-horned into the restriction of 9-5 at the office, and dealing with the lost time of a commute. In addition, roles that previously had been thought of as office-bound were proved possible from anywhere, and with no negative impact on performance!
- Family First – being able to integrate work and family in a way that suited everyone, without any negative impact on parents, children or productivity and, mentioned by many, without guilt.
- Improved Wellbeing – positive impact on wellbeing was also a common theme, based on the ability to make healthier choices about food (also cheaper choices when eating and drinking coffee at home!), movement and exercise, reduced stress (see No Commute and Family First), and taking breaks (often around children, with the added benefit of more and better quality family time). People also reported feeling better about their increased productivity.
- Healthier Wallet – along with reduced spending on commuting, lunch, and coffee, respondents felt the shift would reduce their spending on clothes for a specific work wardrobe. They also mentioned the shift might give them the opportunity to move to a cheaper home further out of the city (thanks to the removal of their daily commute) or to move out of the city altogether (with the potential for people to be mortgage-free). Along with this line of thought came the option of a bigger house with a proper office space.
- Comfortable & Connected – one of the most surprising things for many people was that, despite working in a distributed way and only being able to communicate through a phone or a screen, people still felt really connected to each other. No, it wasn’t the same as being in the office together, but it was better and easier than most people thought it would be. There was an unexpected intimacy to being beamed into each other’s homes, everyone developed greater comfort and competence with digital tools (such as Zoom, MS Teams and Google Meet), and people got pretty creative with finding new ways of doing in a distributed way what they usually do in person.
For those that mentioned a preference for heading back to the office, or for the blended approach, these were the reasons why:
- Social Connection – this was top of the list. People said that being together physically brings energy and a level of connection that the digital tools just can’t replicate. They admitted that the downside of this is that you can have too much of a good thing, and being around people constantly can be distracting!
- Collaboration – again, although this can be done using digital tools, this was mentioned as something that many felt was better done in person, especially the ability to access diversity of thought, and the energy and ‘brain rub’ of being physically with each other around a whiteboard.
- No Proper Workspace at Home – for some, as much as they might like to continue to work away from the office some or all of the time, their home situation just isn’t set up for it. Included in this group are people in shared flats with other young professionals, those living in extended family homes, and those in small city apartments.
When I look across the challenges that people described, they fall into three principal categories – (1) Permission (2) Enablement and (3) Leadership (leading self and leading others):
- Trust was the number one challenge mentioned by people. Trust from managers that people will get on with the job AND from colleagues that everyone is ‘pulling their weight’.
- Moving from an input-based model of performance and productivity to one based on results and outputs; moving from time in the office, visible at a desk, to delivering agreed outcomes in expected time frames from anywhere.
- Identifying roles that can be done in a flexible/WFH way and on what basis.
- Considering and integrating personal preferences with those of the team, and organisational expectations with a greater degree of autonomy.
- Inconsistency from manager to manager across an organisation about what is permissible/agreed and therefore perceptions of fairness.
- The investment required by business, at a time when money may be too tight to mention, to downsize office space (including negotiating out of leases or carrying the cost of more space than is required if that can’t happen) and/or redesign the physical office to optimise this new way of working (e.g. more open, collaborative spaces, solo Zoom Rooms and meeting spaces rather than ‘desk farms’)
- Moving to 100% mobile technology and Cloud-based solutions in order to support people working from anywhere, and the financial and security issues this may bring for some.
- Establishing new organisational expectations around culture and performance.
- Ensuring people working from home have safe and effective workspaces away from the office that optimise their performance.
Leadership Challenges (self and others):
- Mindsets and beliefs about what WFH means, especially around trust, performance and nurturing culture.
- Developing leadership capability and capacity to lead distributed teams – be that WFH or blended – especially in times of ongoing complexity and change.
- Consciously creating a lexicon that works with our new ways of working. For example, what does “remote” mean to us? How does applying that label to our work and teams make us feel? Does it best describe and serve our people and organisation? What about WFH? Is “home” the only other place our people might work? Does it matter? Does this limited definition limit our thinking about what’s possible?
- Preventing burnout. Despite the fact that many people talked about having more balance and better wellbeing, that’s not the case for all and, in my experience, especially not for executives and senior leaders.
- Risk of isolation and loneliness. There may be a tendency, for various reasons of vulnerability, for some people to wish to stay reclusive as we enter this new phase of the COVID-19 experience. Or they might just prefer to work alone more. Either way, this is a new wellbeing risk for organisations to be mindful of and to support people in managing.
PAUSE FOR THOUGHT
When you pull back and widen out to examine the far-reaching implications of this emerging change in our ways of working, you’ll see it represents a tectonic shift. It’s a shift of significance which has flow-on effects not just regarding where we work but far beyond.
It will impact how we design the spaces we live and work in, as well as where we live. It will change when and how we move within urban areas and around the country. This will flow on to where we source talent from, why people stay or leave us, and what we offer people that is of value to them within this new integrated way of working and living.
And it’s not as binary a choice as “work from home or back to the office”. Along with creating a blended approach of those two options (where a general preference seems to be for three days in-office and two at home), other options suggested by responders to my poll included geo-swarming (using location-based information to bring people working on common interests or projects together), pop-up offices (using empty spaces for office work in the same way that retail has for pop-up shops in recent years), co-working spaces (many options already available in CBDs and urban hubs), and WFA (work from anywhere).
Even just beginning to explore the surface level human aspects of this shift creates questions that speak to the innate depth and complexity of what’s involved. Do organisations have a culture of safety and growth that will allow the vulnerability inducing conversations about what we want to emerge? Before we even think about ‘leading remote teams’, do leaders have the consciousness, capability and capacity to facilitate these conversations in an inclusive and co-creative way? Do they then have the wherewithal to support the human response to those conversations and the follow-on decisions, especially if people don’t get what they want?
This shift will also impact the system of businesses which supported and surrounded the traditional office model in the pre-COVID paradigm, both in the real world and in our economic system. For instance, what will be the impact on the Auckland and Wellington CBDs and our regional centres, for better or worse? This piece by Westpac on the future of office life post-COVID sets out some potential impacts, a demonstration of which is ANZ reducing their fixed office space in Auckland and Wellington by 30 percent. There will be plenty more of these stories to come!
What about the ever-widening gap between ‘essential service’ workers on the front line (especially those who work with their hands and who care for other humans) whose roles can’t be done anywhere other than where their work is and those in digitally-enabled, more adaptable, higher-earning roles? Will this exacerbate the social and economic disparity that already exists for many?
Combine all this with another BIG shift, a decisive move to a digitally-enabled, ‘contactless economy’, and you can see that things are about to get really interesting!
There is no clear path through. There is no one right way of working this out. It’s going to be a matter of deciding what we’re committed to, personally and organisationally, and then working it out as we go. Some decisions will be made ‘at the centre’ by senior leadership and others will be made out in the organisation by leaders and their teams who have been given the freedom to decide, within a framework linked to the ‘organisational commitment’.
Whatever the commitment, personally and organisationally, it’s sure to be a bumpy ride, but by all accounts we’re heading to a better place.
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