Working from home will get ugly, but don’t blame the workers

Working from home has been a relative success story of these Covid-19 times, but from here on in it’s going to get ugly.

Working from home isn’t for everyone, but that’s often because people haven’t tried it. Covid-19 has given a proverbial leg-up to those still wary of the fence. There are technology hurdles to overcome, as well as social ones. People who worked in offices and relied on pinging IT support as soon as a key started sticking, or grabbed a coffee as an excuse to chat with co-workers around the bean-grinder would inevitably face hurdles.

But surprise, surprise, turns out there are advantages of working from home, that those of us who already did it had worked out some time ago. Now the rest of the workforce is catching on. A survey in the UK (by a nursery provider, so you could argue it’s not exactly in their interest to promote this) has found that only 13% of those 1,500 surveyed ” want to go back to pre-pandemic ways of working, with most people saying they would prefer to spend a maximum of three days in the office”, according to the Guardian.

Nearly two thirds of those believe their employers would be up for it. And well over half believe it would increase their loyalty to the company.

Of course the survey shoehorns in some other stuff, which arguably strengthens their business model: parents say they have had trouble coping with younger kids (and presumably could do with a nursery should this work from home lark continue beyond Covid-19. As you can see below, employers don’t like kids.)

But I think it’s good that more people are realising that, the stresses and isolation notwithstanding, working from home has its merits. If nothing else, it wakes people up to how unproductive the workplace can be. Meetings, people dropping by to chat, open plan offices, sick buildings: all are a big distraction, a threat to health and a time-suck.

And the pandemic is bringing home another reality: most of this office stuff can be done from home. A survey by Deakin University in Australia has found that 41% of full-time and 35% of part-time jobs can be done from home. The study uses a similar methodology from a U.S. study, which reaches similar conclusions. My tuppennies’ worth: that number is extraordinarily high, if you think about the different kinds of work people do. But as countries dispense with production and move to services, and the Internet of Things improves the remote (and automated) control and monitoring of physical objects, this proportion will grow further. I’ve rarely come across someone in the services sector who couldn’t do what they do out of a Starbucks. Even, sadly, the Starbucks employees themselves.

It’s not the workers, it’s the managers who are the problem

But this isn’t where the problem lies. The problem is going to lie in managing these people. Managing a remote work force is quite different to managing a physical office. It’s about faith: do you trust the people you hired to do a good job? If so, let them do it. I had a boss at my last employer who was upset if we were in the office, quite rightly saying the way to get stories was to go out and talk to people. His successor was the opposite, what I call “managing by line of sight.” She liked to be able to see everyone at their desk and was suspicious if someone wasn’t.

This is where things are going to get problematical. You need much better bosses with a broader range of EQ to be able to support and get the best out of your crew if they’re all dispersed. If you start at the point of thinking they can’t be trusted to be working, then you’ve already lost. On June 26 Florida State University told employees working remotely that it “will no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely.” Allowing this was in any case a ‘temporary exception to policy’ and approval for the Temporary Remote Work agreement “may be rescinded at any time if an employee:

– is unable to remotely perform the essential functions of their position; or

– is not adhering to the requirements outlined in the Temporary Remote Work Agreement; or

– remote work no longer meets the business needs of the department.1

It’s not hard to see where this is going. Companies — and particularly places like universities — that are largely agglomerations of buildings and people are going to find it hard to shift permanently to a more virtual arrangement. Universities, of course, are going to find it doubly hard because their hefty fees are largely based on the agglomeration factor. But big companies, too, are obsessed with the bricks and mortar of their self-image, and those managers who have risen through the ranks in such environments are going to be ill-disposed, and ill-equipped, to shift to anything virtual.

So expect to see some ugliness creep in. There will be less talk of ‘keeping our workers safe’ and of workplace flexibility and more like the above, as in “we’ve been extraordinarily kind and generous to our employees, but this nonsense can’t go on forever; if you want to continue play hooky you need to start filling out forms.”

Teleworkers have long been used to that kind of passive aggressive intimidation and discrimination. I would expect to see more. Workplace surveillance, possibly in the form of ensuring social distancing. And tools to monitor the user’s computer — something whose heritage I’ll argue in a future post is closely wedded to the world of spam and hacking.

  1. This announcement was ‘clarified’ on June 29 said that these terms applied only to those “whose job duties require them to be on campus full-time during normal business hours (8:00 am to 5:00 pm) and is intended to create flexible work arrangements that serve both the needs of the employee and their work unit.” It does not apply to those who were already telecommuting. ↩︎

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