Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Blended Working... less offices, commuting, hierarchies, stress, office politics, spend, dressing up, classroom training, conferences…

Peter Honey once described how, when he was working as a consultant, he felt the need to look busy. "When my partner comes in I start typing... to make it look as though I was working..." But many people work at home with no drop in productivity. Indeed the early evidence suggests that productivity may increase. In certain types of company, mainly office or call-centre bound organisations and knowledge companies working from home most, but not all of the time seems to be working. The evidence suggests, however, that this will be Blended Working, with at least some of the time touching base with your fellow workers. Let's call this Blended Working.

Stanford study

Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom, is one of the few who have conducted a research trial in this area, a 2 years study of a Travel company that took 1000 people, 500 who volunteered to work from home. The findings are fascinating:
   Productivity increased by 13.5%
   Staff turnover cut by half
   Sick days plummeted
   Savings of $1900 per employee over 9 months
   Flexibility good for recruitment
  Middle managers the problem

Bloom thinks the future is of parts of the workforce working from home for 1-4 days a week coming in where necessary. There is no fixed formula as it varies scoring to sector, types of work, distribution of employees and available infrastructure. But there are questions to be asked about social interaction, mental health and potential inequalities. What seems certain is that the needle has swung irreversibly to wards more home working, not wholly but partially. Importantly he recommends gathering data on your shift to home working on needs and productivity, working towards an optimal solution for Bothe employees and the organisation.

Technology

That needle will continue to swing as we learn to adapt to this new world of work, acceleracted by technologies such as collaborative software and 5G. We will see many professions adapt towards working with their colleagues and clients at a distance.
Zoom means rush and that’s exactly what most did when they had to work and teach from home, they rushed at it. Rather than thinking about the problem, planning and implementing an optimal use of technology, we went with the mob.
Sure Zoom is a good tool, easy to use, reasonable interface and reliable. But there was a rush to synchronous tools in realtime, when asynchronous communication may have been more sensible and efficient. This was partly the result of feeling that you have to behave as you did in the office, classroom or lecture theatre. You don’t.
Working at a distance requires tools that are sometimes the same but sometimes different from the office. This is an opportunity to look for increases in productivity through speed, collaboration and innovation through TECHNOLOGY. Bandwidth and reliability of an internet connection at home is your bedrock for optimised Blended Working. Giving people concrete advice and support when optimising their internet connection is a huge productivity issue. If you are not near your router, what are the ways this can be improved?
Many organisations use collaborative tools such as Teams or Slack. If you have an existing system, fine. If not, think about getting one. A standard collaborative platform will iron out all of those knotty problems around comms when people work in a distributed fashion.
Sharing things is different. You may use Google services which is built as a shared resources platform. Whatever system you use the sharing of documents, PowerPoints, spreadsheets and so on will be necessary.

Beyond this, those deceptively simple, but immensely powerful technologies are coming of age; AI, VR and 5G. These release further productivity increases while enabling optimal Blended Working to happen. At last the directions of travel both socially and technologically seem to be travelling in the same direction. 

Blended Working

To implement Blended Working you need some up front analysis of:
   Employees
   Jobs
   Resources
   Strategic consequences
It means literally ignoring what you have done in the past, going back to the drawing board and implementing a new system from scratch. Blended means blending an optimal mix of being at home and F2F. Note that this does not necessarily mean in the office. It may be more convenient to meet in a café, equidistant from both parties. The optimal blend has to take a number of variables as inputs, the output being your imal optBlended Working model.
A quick analysis of your employees in terms of time their taken to commute, need to drop kids off at school and their situation at home is essential. The evidence suggests that they need a room or at least a separate space to work. Their needs to be out of their homes will also be necessary.
A similar analysis of their jobs is also necessary, to see what, if any, components need F2F or physical access to things in the office. To what degree are their jobs solitary in the sense of needing just networked communications, which can also be face to face on Zoom, Teams and so on.
Resources are the things you have and need. What IT infrastructure and devices need to be bought. This may seem frightening but it can be written off over several years. Attention to furniture, such as chairs and tables may also need to be addressed.
Strategic business consequences for your customers and growth of the business allows you to do the fiscal forecasts, saving money on office space, even projected increases in productivity.

Less office space

In one company I’m involved in 80% want to continue working at home, many of the others wanted this blended model of work. Necessity has been the mother of innovation and the great pause has forced many organisations to do this experiment and find, to their surprise, that no matter how many coloured beanbags you provide, many would rather be at home.
HR and LD folk should be looking at the changing nature of work, but they’re curiously absent from this debate. The shift to working at home is, to a degree yet to be determined, permanent. Yet one wonders whether traditional HR and LD has caught on? 
Many companies now see that these grandiose offices are mostly an affectation and not needed. The cost savings can be significant, allowing business recovery and growth to happen faster. In some sectors many will continue to work at home, some entirely, some with smaller office hubs where people can meet and hot-desk.

Less commuting

It may result in permanent patterns of change. Big cities may be a lot emptier as workers can operate from ever more remote and rural locations. This may rebalance the economy away from London to the rest of the country. Let’s shift those headquarters of charities, organisations and companies out of cities. That would be wonderful. The inhumane spectacle of the mass commute into and out of cities may be reduced to a trickle and have an incalculable, positive impact on their physical and psychological health. This would reduce traffic and transport, a positive contribution to climate change.

Less hierarchy

Offices are full of hierarchical structures and behaviours – like parking spaces and who gets what office. There’s less room for negative management behaviour, as online is a sort of leveller. Managers really do need to manage and less of the over the shoulder management will be necessary or possible. It needs different management skills, as mentoring and encouragement has to be from a distance. Goal setting, encouragement, praise, data-driven management are all possible. All sorts of bad management behaviours are simply more difficult. 

Less stress

You’re not arriving at work after a stressful commute, can sleep longer, feel more autonomous, more in command of your own time. If you like a little music on, you can. You’re not in a noisy, distracted environment, picking up colds and flus. You will see your kids more as you’re not leaving early and coming back late. This is likely to make organisations much more productive. 

Less office politics

You’re not being soaked in gossip and office politics. Communications with your colleagues are online and can still be frequent online. However, social interaction can be more controlled and there will be far less physicality, so less potential for harassment. It’s not that social interaction disappears, just that much of the bad stuff will be filtered and there will be less of it.

Less spend

You may find yourself not only saving money on commuting, in some cases thousands of pounds. The average UK employee spends £146 a month commuting, totalling £135,871 over a lifetime. Workers travelling into London spend on average £305 a month, adding up to £197,377 over a lifetime. Then there’s the savings on expensive food and drink as you’re not splashing out on grabbing expensive coffees, cakes, sweets and expensive lunches. 

Less dressing up

There’s less need for office clothes; suits, ties, formal wear, heels, whatever. If you do less synchronous stuff, you will be ‘seen’ less. Even in synchronous media, no one cares what you look like below head height. You will feel more comfortable.

Less classroom training

A bonus is the acceleration of online training and the abandonment of awful classroom experiences – you know the game... where you sit at round tables, get a bad question, choose a chair, write BS on a flipchart page and that chair feeds back their views to the group. A lot of bad synchronous activity can be dumped.

Less conferences

Conferences literally stopped but the world kept going. Does it really make sense to spend £2000 plus to travel and exhibit at such events. Many have successfully swung online. I’ve spoken and attended a few – they’re often free, can cope with bigger numbers, save expensive travel and accommodation and you can fit the recorded asynchronous sessions into your working day. Many have reconsidered their future spend here. And it’s good for climate change. So get that into your social responsibility statement!

Conclusion

I’m a fan of Occam’s Razor “The minimum number of entities to reach your given goal.” It is not that offices and workplaces will disappear, only that there will be a LOT LESS. That’s fine. The future of work is the future of Blended Work, a blend of on and off-site, enabled by technology. 5G, Starlink and better devices and software will accelerate this shift, making it easier, cheaper and faster.

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