Working from home is the new cubicle farm

Working from home is the new cubicle farm. Businesses will embrace it for the same reasons they embraced cubicles. It looks like a way to foster better culture but is really about saving money. Working from home is a lot cheaper than corporate real estate and office fit outs. But there is a way to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Since the 1980s, open plan offices, aka cubicle farms, have been a feature of modern workplaces. The idea is that coworkers sitting together in small groups, probably with a small meeting table close by, would collaborate more and drive efficiency. Instead, we actually saw something completely different.

Some recent research found that worker interactions actually fell when a company shifted to an open plan. And it wasn’t a small decline – it was a a whopping 70%.

So, why embrace something that’s clearly not going to produce the result you say it’s going to produce? The answer to that probably has a few different components.

The first part is simply about money. Old school workplaces had lots of walls and doors (and doors need locks!). That meant lots of cabling work for power and communications. All those pieces of physical infrastructure are costly to install and even more expensive when you change your mind and want to change something.

Then there’s status. Open plan offices created a multi-tiered hierarchy. The most senior managers still have an office with uber-bosses scoring premium locations with views and even private bathrooms. The next level down managed to pick up smaller but roomy private offices with everyone else placed in the open plan – so they can better collaborate. Because management doesn’t need to do that!

Remote working is not all about employee flexibility

Last week, The Register’s Asia Pacific editor Simon Sharwood shared this tweet about a story he penned.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust remote working, or working from home, into the spotlight with employers around the world finally accepting what everyone has been telling them for years. You don’t need to be at work to do work. Work is a thing you do, not a place you go.

Part of Sharwood’s thesis is that the rush to working from home will create a class divide in companies. Some people are well equipped to work from home. They have the technology and tools they need. They have a workspace and are free from interruptions and distractions. For those that don’t have these luxuries, the office becomes their only option to get work done. Even something simple like a quick video call can create lots of anxiety as people wonder if they’ll be judged for having a messy background or a raucous pet.

Sharwood also says:

The collaboration tools that got us through the worst of the crisis are not fit for purpose because most were designed as either an enabler of mobile work or occasional remote collaboration, but not to replace the kind of communication and collaboration that takes place in physical workspaces

This is something many businesses haven’t really considered. We are still in the very early days of the work from home ‘revolution’. Many people tell me that they’re making this work but that they do miss face-to-face interactions – even if they continue to be at arm’s length because of physical distancing.

The clear benefit of working from home is simple for employers. It’s cheap.

If a large slab of your workforce isn’t in the office you can reduce your real estate costs, utility bills and even equipment costs. Google announced, at the start of the pandemic that it would be giving all employees a $1000 allowance to cover equipment costs. It sounds generous doesn’t it? But what if you needed a desk, new cameras and microphones for video calls, perhaps a printer and scanner, a screen to complement your laptop (which, hopefully, your employer provides)? Suddenly $1000 doesn’t seem to cut it.

But I’d bet that $1000 is cheap compared to the costs having an employee working on-site. The power to run all that gear is now an employee expense. At least the Australian Tax Office makes it easy to calculate the tax deduction value for working from home.

The other problem with working from home, and this is something I really struggled with when I first went 100% freelance and made home my primary workplace, is that it’s incredibly hard to establish effective boundaries between work and home when they are the same place.

Working from the kitchen is very common

There are many benefits of course. CO2 emissions should be reduced as fewer people commute. Strained public transport networks should also see relief for the same reason. Less commuting time means, in theory, more time with family and more time for exercise.

How can we manage the transition to remote working?

Remote working does not have to be an ‘all or nothing’ game. At the moment, there is no choice in many jurisdictions other than to embrace remote working. But savvy employers will be paying close attention to what’s going on with their teams and making adjustments to their expectations today and into the future.

In a recent episode of the How I Work podcast, guest Mia Freedman – co-founder of the Mamamia media company, said she has adopted a simple metric at the start of team meetings, asking people to simply give a score out of ten for how work is going and how life is going. No-one is ever asked to elaborate on that score. Simply by asking you can understand the impact of remote working and the pandemic on people without asking for lots of personal detail.

It’s also time to plan what your workplace will look like when people are allowed to return to the office. For example, should you have a roster system for who comes to the office on particular days? Will you rearrange meeting rooms and other communal spaces to encourage physical distancing? How will you integrate remote and on-site team members when they need to work together? What tools were you using pre-COVID that can now be scrapped?

I’ve been involved in many projects that have involved substantial change – everything from office moves to market-wide regulatory shifts. And the hallmarks of all great change programs are preparation and communication.

If you’re planning a permanent shift towards remote working, ask your people what has worked and what hasn’t worked. Look for solutions to problems and accept that not all problems may be practically solvable.

Start with the basics

If you’re expecting team members to work from home, ensure they have robust internet connections. That may mean taking up the bill to pay for faster connections or replacing home routers and other networking equipment.

Make sure they have reliable technology and spring for the onsite warranty in case something goes wrong. Don’t rush to your local office supply store and buy the cheapest computer you can get away with. Make sure the device is fit for purpose today and for the next couple of years.

For challenges you can’t solve – such as remote workers not having a dedicated workspace at their home, look for creative solutions such as temporary screens that can be neatly folded away when not needed.

We risk short-changing people as the shift towards remote working becomes permanent. We can talk up the benefits, just as the open plan office fans did three decades ago, but let’s be smart about the challenges and not gloss over them.

Talk to your people, think creatively and don’t gloss over the potential problems. By solving those problems in consultation with your people you’ll not only deliver a better result but you’ll create a more engaged and satisfied workforce.