Working From Home : Here come the hit pieces!

At the start of lockdown there seemed to be story after story extolling the virtues of working from home. There was the odd smattering of people concerned about the mental health of workers, but most of what I saw seemed to be talking about working from home being the new normal. I was fine with that as I like working from home, but I know it doesn’t suit everyone.

Now that we in the UK are starting to ease lockdown restrictions, I see more stories about companies who are pushing to get everyone back in the office, or telling us how bad working from home is for us.

Why?

It feels like something dodgy is going on here, and here are two possible explanations.

  • Companies never really had any intentions of making working from home the new normal, but were telling us they were to try and get us into that frame of mind, so we didn’t make any waves. Now they see the “light at the end of the tunnel”, they are starting the reverse campaign, trying to convince us being in the office is best for us.
  • Companies thought working from home would work, but found out it didn’t, and want to return to the more productive state.

I know which one I think it is! Here’s a clue. The first one! I’m sure there are some companies or roles where a face to face is better, but I’m sure much of that is due to them not embracing technology and not understanding how to address their issues.

But what do people really want?

During the initial part of lockdown I often felt like a lone dissenting voice at staff briefings when I expressed my preference to work from home. Much later we did a staff survey where the vast majority of people said they would like to work at least some of the time from home. A more flexible approach to work you might say.

I think the reality is there are some people who are desperate to get back to the office, some people who are dreading it, and some people who want a mix of the two.

My own company had a very backward attitude to flexible working. It was all over the website that flexible working was a thing, but when you tried to do it there were roadblocks. There was always a “good reason” why it was a bad idea.

Over the course of lockdown there have been waves of softening and hardening of attitudes to this, but I find myself in a position where today I’m signing a petition to encourage my employer to take flexible working seriously. Several hundred other people clearly aren’t confident the current attitudes to flexible working will remain once we are out of lockdown. This despite the results of the staff survey, and numerous reports of benefits of flexible working…

So what do you want?

I want employers to understand there is a spectrum of attitudes towards working from home, and they should accommodate that. If you want to get the best out of your people, you’ve got to put them in a position to excel. Forcing undesirable working arrangements on people will result in a long term negative. Acceptance of flexible working arrangements seems the only sensible way forward to me.

But what about X?

I see so many excuses about why working from home is bad, and to be quite honest most of them are clearly bullshit.

People will be lazy and slack off. If you have no real measure of productivity, then you are a bad manager/company. If you do have a real measure of productivity, then you will know if someone is slacking off or not, and you should deal with them accordingly. I’m guessing those same people will be slacking off in the office too! Being physically present in an office is not going to make a lazy person into a productivity fiend.

It makes meetings hard. Oh FFS, there are so many ways to make meetings more efficient, the main one being don’t have so many meetings in the first place. I can’t tell you how often I’m invited to meetings with no agenda, which result in no real action points. Most of the time they could be replaced with one email saying, “This is what we plan to do. Shout up if you think that’s a bad idea or have any questions.” There is an obsession with meeting culture. For some people, their role is 90% meetings. Maybe that’s necessary for them, but it doesn’t mean it’s the same for all of us, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t cope really easily with online meetings.

What’s going to happen?

I don’t know. What I do know is after working from home for over a year, many people have a rose coloured view of working in the office. Once they start having to commute again, wasting hours of their day, wasting lots of money, and having to deal with “that annoying prick” face to face again, some will think about how things were in the good old days of lockdown…

What’s my preference?

If someone gave me the option of 100% from home or 100% from the office, I would pick 100% home. I’m not totally sure how I feel about a mix. I think it’s a bad idea and I would like to be 100% working from home, but maybe my mind would change after a little time in the office. What I do know is if my company push hard for 100% office-based work, or even a majority of time, I am not going to be happy.

I’m happy to hear other opinions, but remember your opinion is not shared by everyone. I’m expressing my opinion. I’m not assuming the world agrees with me. You are entitled to be wrong. 🙂 That was a joke!

Cheers

Tim…

Author: Tim...

DBA, Developer, Author, Trainer.

19 thoughts on “Working From Home : Here come the hit pieces!”

  1. The very Nice article!
    Many companies are defending the return, for economic reasons, many offices will be empty forever, creating several economic problems and reducing the work, with different services. This is the main defense for the return. The other concern is that companies, with the remote office, lose part of the control of their workforce and also of their productivity and their organizational culture that allows them to shape their businesses.
    But, I agree with your opinion, for me our IT work doesn’t have to be in the office, this is pure loss of productivity.

  2. Rubens: I understand that concern, but there are counter arguments to most of them.

    Many local businesses have reported increased spending locally, where in the past the spending may have been based around a business centre. People are free to move away to cheaper locations and get a better quality of life, rather than live in overpriced and polluted city centres. This brings economic benefits to areas that were previous struggling. In many countries, including the UK, there is a big disparity between areas of the country. People have to go to London because “that’s where all the work is”. The pressure on housing and services means people need higher pay, because the cost of living there is so high. Added to that, the standard of living is lowered due to the overcrowding. What better way to even things out than by letting people live and work anywhere? You can pick a place you want to live, rather than where you have to live.

    Regarding office landlords, we should not sacrifice quality of life to keep office landlords rich. Do you think the money saved on offices is just lost? No. It is either invested in the company, or is paid to people who then spend it. If we only focus on one aspect it’s easy to see a negative, but things are not that simple. Single things don’t happen in a vacuum.

    Loss of control shows a weakness in management. I have no sympathy for bad management. 🙂

    And while we’re on the subject of impact, what about the environmental impact of less cars on the road?

    I’m sure there are many advantages and disadvantages whichever way you look at it, but having been forced to work from home for over a year and proving it works just fine, I’m not going to sit by and have someone tell me it was a disaster and we need to be in an office. 🙂

    Cheers

    Tim…

  3. There are some legitimate issues that employers need to address for WFH. Workplace safety rules meant I had to get a complying First Aid kit when I shifted, but there are wider issues when the employer doesn’t have the control over the workplace that legislation assumes would apply. Training up new people will also be more challenging, which is more of a long term issue. Some people may not have a home environment that allows the privacy and security that a job may require. As a middle-aged man with my own home, it is easier for me to manage than a 20 year old in a share house. I know there was some legislation and health orders pushed through here to support WFH and stay-at-home orders but not sure which were temporary and which were permanent.

    That said, my employer has just extended WFH until November (with some people choosing to go into the office). Apparently the desktop I currently RDP into will be replaced by some virtual appliance within the next month, so I think they are looking to stay flexible. With some of the state premiers here pulling three to five day lockdowns with just a few hours notice, the assumption that the office is available can’t be relied upon.

  4. Gary: I think those issues are overcome really quickly once a company commits to WFH. We’ve onboarded several new staff whilst being on lockdown. I do think the thing about having a suitable workplace at home is an issue, but for people that don’t the office is always available. I’m not suggesting all people are forced to work from home forever.

  5. Personally I’m wary of a 100% either way. Actually, that’s not quite right, I will probably never go back to commuting into an office 5 days a week – I hate the wasted time, energy, and resources of commuting.

    But I feel collaborative work is better when you are physically meeting and you build better relationships with people you actually meet with than only communicate with virtually. When a meeting is partly in-person and partly remote (especially if the remote people are only on speakerphone) then my experience is the remote people not there have less input to the meeting. There are a lot of non-verbal aspects to how we communicate and so the people in the room are communicating more efficiently. If everyone is remote, you are all hampered in the same way.

    Some people will struggle to work from home. They may have no adequate work space, they may have too much distraction, they may be happier surrounded by people and not be happy being alone. As I think you said, a good employer will look to support both methods of working.

    I’ve been lucky in being in the position several times where I spend a couple of days a week in the office and the rest at home (for 6 glorious months I had 2 days in the office, 2 at home, and I did not work the 5th day). I felt that worked really well. If the commute is a long one, maybe 1 day in the office might be best, unless you stay over as I sometimes did in London or when the trip to the client is several hours.

    I really think it is harder to manager a team when some of the team is away. But then I think being a good manager needs a very different skill set to being a “worker”. But most people get promoted to management based on years of experience/needed to get the next pay grade, and they are sh…. poor managers. Maybe a key part of organisations having more people work from home would be to actually train managers how to manage.

  6. Martin: I think most of the issues are easily fixed if people really want to fix them. What annoys me is people who don’t really want to solve them, and use them as an excuse not to allow WFH. As I’ve said, I’m not into forcing people to work where they don’t want to, whether they want to avoid the office or home…

  7. Hi Tim,
    I would pick 100% work from home, rather than 100% work from the office. And I haven’t been in a situation where I need to fight (go early) for my sport, but even though I can clearly see how much time we often lose in traffic, unnecessary talks, lack of concentration, etc.
    I do find though a mix of both options being the best for me – and that’s because I like interacting with people and sometimes the best way to express your thoughts and ideas is live. Maybe teams could arrange a day (or two) in the week, to go together at the office, a co-working space, etc. And that is for a small portion of people – the ones you communicate most or are involved in the same project. That way there will still be plenty of time for concentrated work, but also for keeping your relations and bond the team together. It’s still only a year since the pandemic, but I think it is already pretty hard for some people to be alone at home. And a regular meeting will bring lots of positives.

  8. Tim,

    As someone who has onboarded into several clients over lockdown, solely working from home is problematic. The lack of feel, the lack of visibility. Several places have had a culture of no cameras. I have literally not seen many colleagues I have worked with. If you’ve been at a single company for a decade and already know everyone and the company culture, that’s a very different perspective.

    But I’m an experienced old fart and I get on with this. If I was newly out of education, I’d be lost. How do you onboard new staff? How do you get them into your culture when working from home means there is no tangible culture. What about all those families who live in small overcrowded flats with no outdoor space, desperate to be in the office?

    A team I was working with recently took 6 month to successfully achieve a goal which would have been done in closer to 2 months if we had been in the office. The lack of cohesive communication and openness made the work so much harder.

    If it was a hard choice between 100% from home and 100% in the office, I’d enforce the in the office model. But it’s not. Most people want to work from home 3 days a week, and go into the office for a couple of days (according to recent survey of office staff 84% would prefer this). Best of both worlds and I expect that’s what will happen. I just hope it’s not accompanied with excessive hot-desking, otherwise you are better off at home.

  9. Neil: I don’t understand how it could not involve “excessive hot-desking”. From a company perspective, one of the advantages of working from home is the reduction in office costs. Some of those savings can be redirected to helping people with home office costs. I don;t expect a desk to be saved for me when I’m mostly working at home.

    I agree not everyone has a suitable home office space, which is why I am not pushing 100% WFH. I think it’s a personal choice.

    I’m kind-of against the idea that some tasks work better face to face. I think this is just how people handle communication and meetings. Personally I’ve found calls during lockdown to be superior. Each to their own though. It feels like the sort of excuse companies come up with because they haven’t got their shit together.

    Cheers

    Tim…

  10. “I’m kind-of against the idea that some tasks work better face to face. “

    How long you have been at your current employer is a major factor in this. You know everyone where you work as you’ve been there for years and years. You know how to approach everyone. You know how it all works there.

    Consider how you would approach working in a large org when you have been there only a short time and you can’t walk around easily interfacing with multiple teams. In my experience, face-to-face really helps. Being sat next to people really helps – not having to arrange meetings, or hope someone is there over a IM when you don’t even know who you should IM. Co-location has a lot of benefits.

  11. Neil: I understand what you are saying. I still think this comes down to how the company approaches communication and onboarding new people. If companies don’t take this seriously, what you saying? Everyone needs to come onsite for an extended period of time every time someone new starts? I’m being intentionally ridiculous I know, but I hope you can see my point. There are plenty of companies that have geographically dispersed teams who deal fine. It feels like an excuse because companies haven’t got their shit together.

  12. I can WFH and my employer has been brilliant. Productivity can be higher for things that need to be done and if you are doing things in a single stream, a project, support etc it may work.
    I work on multiple things. Previously yes they had to be compartmentalised so I could travel to places but I managed my own time. Now people think my calendar is theirs and there is no thinking time allowed. I get to the end of a day of calls and have all the actions I have agreed to do, to do. I miss the osmosis – learning from discussions. Realising that something A is doing could help C and joining the dots. I feel stale.
    And when you need to be immersed, say for a 4 day training course or bid proposal then not being together on site, means you are not dedicating 100% of your time. I did an architect training course earlier this year, previously it would have been 4 days residential. Now it is 4 hours a day, 3 days a week for 2 weeks. You have to fit the homework into your own time and you don’t have the conversations. Not at all as productive.
    So I don’t like WFH but understand the benefits, we need to find the right balance and it won’t be the same for everyone. Flexibility comes with trust and that has to be earned

  13. Debra: I think you make some important points, but I think you have to understand your role is very different to someone like me. We are not comparable, and the impact of WFH is very different for the both of us.

  14. Tim: “There are plenty of companies that have geographically dispersed teams who deal fine.”

    I agree – I have been a global development manager running teams in the UK, Singapore and multiple US locations. It’s really hard, and involves a lot of travel, and local team management as well as global management. There are some similarities, but it’s not the same as working from home.

    Everyone need to be onsite from time to time. Being around people is a very human thing. We learn from each other and interact in ways that just aren’t possible when sat in your home office, or shared kitchen table, or in the living room with screaming kids and the TV on.

    It’s like… conference talks via Zoom are 3rd rate. It’s better than nothing but I’d rather be there. In person. Chatting with everyone. Conference talks via zoom are a hollow reflection of a real conference. Being part of a team only on Teams, never having met anyone, never having to leave your house? How awful is that! I don’t like commuting but I’ll take it every day of the week compared to what we have now.

  15. Neil: Thoughts.

    – “is a very human thing” : For some people. Some people don’t want to be around other people. Some people are at their happiest not interacting in office environments. Are they not human? I’m happy for people to go back to the office if that is what they need. I find it hard to understand why they can’t understand this is not something I need.

    – “shared kitchen table, or in the living room with screaming kids and the TV on” : This is a different issue entirely. If someone does not have a suitable home environment, I don’t think it’s reasonable for them to demand working from home. It’s like me demanding to do half the work when I’m in the office. I think we have to separate that argument from the main point.

    – Comparing conferences and work conference calls : I don’t think this is a fair comparison. In a conference I will meet a bunch of people I’ve never seen before and will likely never see again. This is very different to being on the same calls with the same people every day. I agree video calls should be optional, but when people are on video calls I feel no different to being in the same room as them. Most conferences do not have video calls, so there is no visual feedback or body language. That does make communication harder, but it is different to what I experience in the vast majority of work calls.

    – “Being part of a team only on Teams, never having met anyone, never having to leave your house? How awful is that!” : For you! Your opinion does not represent the feelings of everyone. Just like mine doesn’t.

    I could understand this if I were proposing everyone in the world should work from home. I’m not. I’m saying let people do what works well for them. Just because you feel the need to be in the office and with people, doesn’t mean I do. Just because you don’t feel video calls aren’t as effective as face to face calls, doesn’t mean I do. We don’t have to have the same opinion, but many people seem to think their opinion is the only right opinion. This is very true of management types.

    Cheers

    Tim…

  16. Tell us how you really feel Tim? 🙂 Absolutely as an I.T. person (Oracle DB Developer here), I absolutely would love to WFH permanently with option to come into the office when needed. Unfortunately the company I work for (a financial institution) are dead set against this. Banking industry was great at getting us to WFH all of a sudden due to the pandemic but now want to come back.

    For certain roles like investment analyst, bankers, traders, yes they need the face-to-face mentorship, and of course if you’re on the trading floor or branch office, you NEED to be at the office location. But for I.T. staff (unless you work at a data center), can be done from home. Here in New York City, subways are going back to 24hrs/day mid-May, and by July 1st, all restrictions will be lifted.

    And if I will NOT be looking forward to the 2-hour commute from/to NYC, NY across the Hudson River to JC, NJ for work. The money I was saving on commute, eating out, dry-cleaning was immense. And not to mention wear-tear on the body.

    The only way I can make my opinion heard is on the Employee feedback survey or…I can find another job.

  17. Very cogent Tim, as usual.
    I started WFH in the mid 80s, and it was a lonely existence. I could only start it because I had a working relationship with the people, and my own PDP computer. Find bugs and work all day on it, upload at night, get email feedback.

    Around the turn of the century, I got a DBA contract with a company in another state. Most of their DBA team was Boeing in Seattle, I was an outlier in SoCal. After 9/11, the rest of the team went away. I would email weekly status reports. Eventually I had some trivial HR question, after emailing and voice mailing boss several times with no response, called and discovered he was no longer with the company and I had a new boss. No one had bothered to tell me. Never did meet him, the company went away, and I kept on working the contract under my own company for many years.

    But I really wonder about onboarding – I think today’s kids have an online culture that really helps them for remote work. My younger boy is a CS student, and he’s going to be interning at a database company, and it’s interesting to watch how they are handling it. They sent him an onboarding kit with cookies, and I think a computer.

    We live in interesting times.

  18. Joel: It’s darn sight easier now than it was then. I admit their are probably still issues, but if a company wants to solve them they can, and if a person can’t handle working from home, they shouldn’t apply for jobs where it is necessary.

    As I’ve said a few times in the comments, and this is not directed to you, I’m for choice. I don’t want to go to the office, but I’m not forcing my preference on everyone. It’s interesting that those that prefer the office seem intent on forcing their preference on me.

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