Home-working may not be all it seems

By Phillip Cooke

There can be little doubt that COVID-19 has changed the workplace, as well as enhancing the fortunes of Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype.  Few would argue that the potential efficiency, environmental and lifestyle benefits of the new-found enthusiasm for home-working are real.

As I write, finance directors across the globe are counting the cost savings: less mileage and flights (and this is a big benefit for the environmental lobby), reduced office space and running costs, reduced salaries due to less commuting. The costs are real and long term to the P&L account, despite some short-term balance sheet items, such as providing all staff with computer capability and support. As a result, we are seeing many companies now concluding that homeworking will become the norm for many of its employees, with decisions being made this Autumn on the who and the how.

But wait! Is this not all a bit hasty? After all, those homeworking enthusiasts have only experienced its unexpected novelty over a Spring and Summer, when the rest of the world was locked down; little else to do but spend time working and then enjoying the family and garden. How, I wonder, will those same enthusiasts feel after a long, dark winter of homeworking? The other question that keeps coming back to me is whether, over a mere nine months, human nature has changed. The way some talk, you would be tempted to believe that it has. Humans are social animals who need contact, teamwork and purpose, and this isn’t easily achieved in groups of people who seldom meet.

Those who say that they will never go to the office again may also be wise to be careful about what they wish for. The homeworking response to COVID-19 was only possible because of the interconnectivity of IT. So, how long before organisations conclude that it is cheaper to employ someone in India than the southern counties of England: after all, if they are connected and you never see them, who cares? Also, how will we manage the resentments between those on production lines that offer no choice of homeworking; how will they feel about office colleagues who work from home, without commuting and the same work-life challenges? And how do you build teamwork and collaboration there?

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has changed the working world. We are unlikely to go back to the daily grind of commuting to the office; instead the hybrid-solution will probably make sense. But it is early days and the patterns will be clearer after a long winter when enthusiasms have matured and the real implications of COVID-19 and the work place are clearer.