As we near the end of summer, I have been thinking more and more about what a post-COVID future will look like, and the importance of embracing work from home strategies.
By embracing work from home, where possible, organizations will be able to attract and retain top talent, access talent from outside their traditional borders, and reduce their office leases, all while increasing worker productivity.
My prediction is that within the next few years, perhaps sooner due to the accelerating effects of COVID, that unless the position demands it, there will be a complete culture change around employees’ demands for work from home capabilities.
Work From Home and the Impact on the Employee Experience
A recent article from The Verge talks about how work from home is becoming an attractive perk in the ultra-competitive hiring market for tech workers, and how competitor companies that wish to attract top talent may soon have no choice but to adopt these policies. The article goes on to quote one Google employee who said, “For renters like myself, WFH [work from home] would be a huge financial boon as I could dramatically reduce my housing costs,”.
Although this phenomenon has been constrained to the tech sector, it will not be too long before this disruption happens across the board.
When choosing a place to live people consider several factors, including what employment options are available, what does the cost of living look like, and whether the location is a fit for their family. These variables create a dilemma for the employee where the locations with the highest density of jobs, often have an unattainably high cost of housing, high cost of living, and may not always be the right fit for that particular individual and their family.
With the switch to work from home and the rapid adoption of enablement technologies, many employees may find that they now have the luxury of relocating to their dream residence. From my own experiences, this has included the most successful salesperson I know relocating to their cottage, and another highly successful manager, I know moving from the heart of Toronto to well outside the GTA.
Highly sought after, top talent, like these two individuals, will never go back to an office first environment. If another employer were ever to try to attract these high performing employees away, that employer would also require flexible policies.
Even employees who once thought they preferred the office are now telling me that they could not imagine ever going back.
There will always be that one CEO who says, “I need to see my people to know they’re working,” but that attitude is based on fear and it will damage the future of their business. These legacy executives will not be able to compete with CEOs who accept our new reality.-Phil Fasano, 2017 CIO Hall of Fame Inductee, Don’t Squander that Crisis Induced Transformation
Won’t Work From Home Hurt Productivity?
The traditional viewpoint around productivity is you need to physically see your employees, see their seats in desks, to drive productivity. Theoretically, this makes sense, by having employees in the office, we can facilitate conversation, we can easily verify that the are focused on the task at hand, and we can ensure that everyone is operating as productively as possible.
Recent research and anecdotal evidence is indicating that although the above may seem obvious, that not only may it be incorrect, but that opposite appears to be true.
In a 2019 study by Airtasker, they polled over a thousand employees. They found that the average remote worker had 27 minutes of unproductive time per day, versus 37 minutes for their in-office equivalents, equating to 1.6 days per month, or a staggering 16.8 days per year.
Tracy Keogh, CHRO, was recently interviewed by Jacob Morgan, for his The Future of Work podcast, How to Create a Great Corporate Culture for Virtual Employees. In the podcast Tracy talks about how some of their Heads of HR say that they have seen a real jump in productivity, that employees are home more, they don’t have to travel. That in certain collaborative pieces of work, it has more of an impact, but in other cases, people are just as productive, and if not more productive.
In my final example, my family and I recently returned from a cottage we rented. While there I chatted a few times with my neighbour across the cove about the eventual return to work. She was telling me that she is a department head that has over 500 people across the globe reporting into her. In her case, only 100 of those employees will probably return because it is critical for their role, the rest won’t. Her feedback to rest has been, your productivity is up, and if you keep it up, you will never need to come back.
The logical question would then be, why. Why are employees more productive at home, then at the office. As mentioned above this could be driven by a multitude of factors, less time commuting, shorter lunches, less time with idle chit chat, fewer distractions with more time to focus, and fewer reasons to take time off leading to less sick days.
Does WFH Provide Other Business Benefits?
If gaining a potential 16.8 days of productivity alone was not enough of a reason to embrace work from home, then what other benefits exist.
Like their employees, many different variables drive the decision around office location, not the least of which is access to high-quality talent. Frequently the places with the highest density of talent will also be located in the largest urban centres, with the highest real-estate costs. By embracing work from home, you will be able to expand your talent pool outside your traditional borders, and perhaps even across the globe, without the need for new office spaces.
Many businesses will be faced with a new dilemma when preparing for the return to work. With physical distancing in mind, many companies are predicting that they will need three times the space to support their new safety protocols, adding a dramatic line-level increase to the bottom line. By embracing work from home, companies will have the opportunity to reduce their office footprint and associated leasing costs.
When COVID hit everyone’s disaster planning and business continuity plans were put to the test. The businesses that had experience with flexible work policies made a quick pivot, with little impact on productivity. Although the rest have been mostly successful, there have been perhaps a few more hiccups and productivity gaps along the way.
Considerations When Implementing Work From Home
In order to successfully implement a work from home strategy there are many steps and changes that my need to occur, including adopting the right technologies, maintaining trust in employees while also recognizing that the true measure of productivity is productivity itself, encouraging collaboration and communication, encouraging boundaries and structure, importance of attitude in shaping perceptions, and most importantly creating a culture that motivates employees to want to go above and beyond every day.
With the world preparing for the full return to work, and hope of an eventual vaccine growing every day, it is looking more and more like we may soon find our new normal. With its numerous positive impacts on the employee experience, productivity, talent attraction and retention, business continuity, and office space leasing costs, there is no better time than now to start embracing work from home.
Interesting. Your assertions are well laid out. Anecdotal evidence in this case is more valid because these changes are evident in real time. Agreed that being able to adapt and pivot might be one of the most valuable skills future generations will need to cultivate. The part that hit me as maybe overstated is the quote you pulled in about fear being a layer of why CEOs would not want their people working from home. I recognize that the quote is perfect in that it succinctly stated that mentality of , ” I need to see my people to know they are working.” I just think that mentality can be based on a lot more than just fear. There is experience(good and bad), control issues, pettiness, conservative ideals, allowing others to decide your fate, diminishing quality over time as employees discover loopholes and cut corners, and less collaboration. Fear being the core of these is too simplistic and misses essential nuance. It would be like saying all exercise is based on fear, assuming that health is the foundation of that, whereas that misses the hundreds of other layers that exercise offers. As examples: Experiences, taking control of your life, desire to win, work ethic, attention to personal detail, staying sharp and just doing stuff with a team or friends.
I think that if this forced experiment fails it will add another log into the pile of reasons. Sadly because covid is hurting business that may end up being the only takeaway. I hope that your friend across the lake’s story can be an inspiration.
Steve, thanks for the comment, I appreciate your insight.
To me, the quote about fear is a catch-all for all the things you mentioned, fear of not having control, fear that employees will find productivity loopholes, and fear the collaboration will diminish.
The point of my article, more then anything is that the evidence is showing that on average productivity stays the same, perhaps even goes up. That, as technology further enables work from home and collaboration, and as it becomes increasingly more common, more and more employees will be seeking out or demanding work from home capabilities.
For now, although this phenomenon is constrained to a few industries, I don’t think it will take long for it to spread, especially with COVID as a catalyst.
My concern for business owners is that a conservative approach to work from home policies will increasingly impact their ability to attract and retain top talent. Phil summed that up perfectly with his quote, “These legacy executives will not be able to compete with CEOs who accept our new reality”.
In the end, I think work from home is just one more tool in the arsenal for companies who are focused on driving engagement and culture, along with recent trends such as unlimited vacation policies.