Making business sense of WFH

3 Nov 2020 by Steven Giannoulis

Working from home v3

Many of our clients and suppliers are working from home a day or two a week and that’s creating demand from our team to follow suit. We’re a small business looking to get back on track after the significant impact of lockdown and, for me right now, that means everyone in the office focused on delivering results together.

I hear the call for more working from home (WFH) and understand the wellbeing benefits for individuals such as reduced commute stress and more time for family. I want these too but I’m struggling to balance these benefits with a business ROI. I know it makes sense for some other businesses but, at this point, the business case for increased WFH just doesn’t stack up for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy working from home, especially when I need quiet uninterrupted headspace to nut out something important. We’ve had a WFH policy as part of our wider wellbeing programme for over four years now. It allows for occasional and planned WFH to get specific things done and to help balance home obligations.

While most of the team are happy with, and are increasingly taking advantage of, the current policy, a number would like to see a more permanent, fixed days, arrangement. The argument for increased WFH is largely about happier staff who are more productive and loyal. I support this in theory. However, I just can’t see how this is achieved in practice.

My experience and readings tell me that for short periods working from home can be very rewarding and productive. But over the longer term, it has more distractions, often means working on inferior equipment, having less collaboration opportunities, and missing out on the benefit of ambient information. Research indicates that these factors lead to individuals feeling less connected with their team and the company as a whole – not more productive or loyal.

Lockdown showed us there are ways to manage many of these challenges when you have to. We worked really hard to make sure everyone was as productive as they could be and felt engaged and connected with the company. Along with perfecting Zoom and Teams we introduced TED style talks, virtual drinks and ‘quiz nights’ and more cross-team projects. This focus takes effort which is easier to sustain when everyone, including your clients, are in the same boat and you know it’s temporary. 

Being in the office is much less hard work. Everything everyone needs to do their job is right there. The emotional connection with the work, each other and with clients forms more naturally. 

When someone works from home, everyone else assumes they have a pending deadline, a home situation to deal with, or they are feeling unwell and don’t want to spread germs. The natural tendency is therefore not to contact them and to defer work until they are back. This has a direct impact on productivity. With many working from home, important tasks and issues can get deferred for days until everyone is back in the office. Addressing this requires a cultural shift to ensure people understand that WFH means you are still working and available to engage. But if we achieve this shift, constant interruptions will quickly erode the real benefit of WFH. 

And then there’s the impact on those at work. There are some people who can’t or just don’t want to WFH. It’s these people, always in the office, who have to pick up the slack when unexpected work comes in, when there are urgent situations, or where compromise is required. This builds feelings of inequity, with potentially negative impacts on their wellbeing, loyalty and productivity. We are seeing some of this already with our current arrangements.

Our business thrives on ideas and delivering successful team projects. To me that equates to working together, sharing ideas and supporting each other to achieve the results. I dislike how the office feels when a significant number of people are out. The space lacks a dynamic energy and that sense of a creative team working together. This doesn’t inspire my best work and surely reflects negatively when clients visit.  

Of course there is the health and safety aspect that must be considered. We can’t contract out of our responsibilities for the team’s wellbeing but we definitely don’t want to ‘baby proof’ each individual’s home work space. Ours is desk and screen based work, where poor practices leave people open to RSI and eye issues. For ad hoc WFH, taking your laptop home and working on the dining table is fine. For anything more permanent, we’d need to invest in home desks, chairs, screens and other equipment and that has a significant cost. 

These additional costs may be ok if you can reduce your office space requirements and associated rent but for many of us, locked in long-term leases, this isn’t an option.

The biggest WFH challenge for me is building and maintaining culture. We already run two offices which has its own cultural challenges. We’ve worked hard to build a shared team-based culture driven by our values. I’d like to think we’re a family, there for each other. It’s so much harder to maintain this when you limit your ability to interact, bond or even have everyone in the same room at the same time. Teams, Zoom, and email are great functional tools but they don’t foster the same personal connection that regular and informal face-to-face allows.

I know these are challenges many of our clients are also grappling with. We’re working with a number of them to revisit their internal communication platforms and policies in order to build more engagement, interaction, and connection. Fostering both real and digital social connections becomes a big focus in their new communication approach.

For those who aren’t considering it already, think about how your next staff engagement survey can be adapted to measure the impact of staff having less direct engagement with the business. Having only 50% or so of staff in the office at any one time may require a significant cultural shift, moving to something more aligned with a remote workforce.

For now, we’re sticking with our current WFH approach but being increasingly more flexible and open with how we apply it. I have no doubt that we will move further down the WFH spectrum so I’m not fighting it, just actively looking for ways to make the argument more favourable for the business. In preparation for when we get there, we’re starting to rethink culture and team communications to support the new way of being that WFH brings.