Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

Working from home….management’s last bastion of control

The nature of the office workplace has changed almost beyond recognition in the last 30 years. The pace of change in terms of activity, responsibility, speed of communication, access to information and people, and complexity of the ‘transaction’ whatever the company might be engaged in, are all vastly different.

Gone are vast numbers of manual tasks and with them activities and roles in the workplace. What is required these days is the kind of innovative, problem solving approach to work where each individual has the potential to have a meaningful impact on business performance, both positive and negative.

Yet despite this enormous and disruptive change, one thing seems to have remained consistent….the apparent need for employees to gather in expensive, heated or cooled environments and work in some kind of collective, thought factory. What’s even more bizarre as you walk around these places is the complete lack of communication and perhaps collective thought that actually seems to be happening. Most occupants are ‘plugged in’ to whatever they are into, the rest are engaged in some earnest activity on the PC / laptop that they do their work on and whatever communication that exists, is conducted a kind of library style whisper so as to avoid disturbing those around them. Far from any collective endeavour, the individuals seem to be attempting to insulate themselves from those around them.

But you say, what about the meetings where important things are discussed and decisions are made? Well in my experience, the extraordinary emergence of the ‘meeting’ seems to correspond with an equally extraordinary amount of time wasted where the vast majority of the participants are playing with their phones and doing what they would normally be doing, if they weren’t in the meeting. Finding a well facilitated meeting these days is often a bit of a challenge.

So why not work from home on a regular basis, ie more than once a month!? From a productivity perspective, there is no doubt that it is beneficial…just taking the commute out would seem to add anything upwards of an hour to the average day. On top of that is the time taken to get dressed for work and the downtime that most people experience having sat on a crowded commuter train where all their senses are actively turned off! Then there is the savings in terms of travel cost, expensive coffee and sustenance whilst at the place of work. Finally, there is the ability of the individual to work at a time when they are most effective…be that after some exercise, after delivering the children to school or at 2am when they are suddenly struck with an idea. What I’ve always asked of my colleagues is that they give me that time…not the time which they feel contracted to work.

But it’s not happening…despite all the technology, ease of communication that makes the home office easy and cheap to run. And the reason: a lack of trust from the employer that the individual will actually do what they’re required to do.

And with that lack of trust goes the decision by the employee not to invest his / her discretionary time to work (that time which he can choose to dedicate to his employer but is not obliged to)…a concept Emmanuel Gobillot talks about with great passion and knowledge – worth looking up if you have a moment.

By the way, my editor in chief (aka wife) has just described a personality type for whom working from home is a complete anathema because it provides none of the feedback that they are looking for from a work experience! In other words, it’s all about human interaction.

Where do you stand on this?

Categories: human behaviour, Human Capital, Physiology, psychology

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. I think that this will become the enduring debate of the next 10+ years. Some industries will lend themselves better to adapt; others still need to see more advances in technology to replace the efficiency of face to face negotiations. The enormous amount of time saved (and uncertainty spared)  in being able accurately to see and assess body language during negotiations on, say, complex insurance contracts, which is a daily occurrence in my industry, outdoes any saving on commuting. However, there are areas where savings could undoubtedly be achieved, even in the short term. One does have to wonder, though, whether the change requires such a fundamental shift in innate human behaviour that we may find this hard to adapt to. Humans need a feeling of togetherness, team identification to thrive, arguably even just exist. How does one create a team “on line” that really gels?  From: Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultantSent: Saturday, 25 January 2014 08:46To: de.haldevang@gmail.comReply To: Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultantSubject: [New post] Working from home….management’s last bastion of control

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    bendehaldevang posted: “The nature of the office workplace has changed almost beyond recognition in the last 30 years. The pace of change in terms of activity, responsibility, speed of communication, access to information and people, and complexity of the ‘transaction’ whatever “

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    • Interesting comment Bernie…I completely agree that for certain situations, nothing can replace the one to one interaction. However it seems to me the debate is always an absolute one, ie you work from home or you work from an office. Surely the future reality has to be a mix of both.
      The other aspect of these new technological advances is going to be the reduced requirement for international travel, which has got to be a good thing.

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  2. This is a fascinating subject. Assuming that an office needs to exist, what we are debating is the efficacy of having staff working (say) two days a week from home.

    On the positive side, any company that is able to do this intelligently will be able to attract and retain staff that it might not otherwise access, particularly women with small children, but also family-people more generally and even disabled workers.

    In terms of productivity, I think honors are about even. In my experience I have found that sometimes working from home has been absurdly productive, and I’ve done a week’s work in a day, happily undistracted and able to focus. Other times I’ve done diddly-squat, entirely preoccupied with home things.

    On the negative side, I’ve found that it creates a great deal of ill-will among those who remain in the office. The sense that ‘working from home’ is a euphemism for slacking is difficult to overcome. When something crops up that is urgent, it is unlikely that the home-worker will be given the task, rather it is dumped on whoever is in the office, thereby creating a hostile us-and-them atmosphere.

    This negative problem can be overcome quite easily if a company creates some simple rules about working from home. For instance, either everyone must work from home for a certain number of days a month, or there are two clear tiers where some do and some don’t. But it shouldn’t be ad hoc.

    Those that work from home need rules about their accessibility, and need to be provided with a quality of internet connection, printer, and access to couriers such that their work is seamless with the office.

    Actually I could write about this for ever, but I expect your Burns Night head may not want to read too much on Monday morning!

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    • Hi Sam, thanks for your thoughts on this. The slowness of my response actually has nothing to do with Burns (which has been delayed for a few weeks in the de Haldevang household…my wife is thinking of a valentine Burns night which seems entirely appropriate)but more because of my relentless travel agenda which brought up the subject in the first place! I like the idea of companies imposing some rules around working from home, perhaps similarly to the rule around taking at least two weeks off sequentially a year in any trading position to expose any ‘issues’ that might exist. As I said in the blog, it’s the perception that one is slacking off that is probably the biggest barrier out there to some wholesale change happening.

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