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Jun 9, 2020

Working From Home and the Eternal Triangle


are we only seeing part of the picture?

Covid-19 has unleashed a great deal of interest in remote working, now known to all and sundry by the snappier three-letter acronym, WFH. What I find particularly fascinating is that the mainstream press has now latched on to the phenomenon and there has been a great deal of discourse surrounding the topic. However, it does lead me to think – are we only seeing part of the picture?

Coping with the lockdown requirements prompted by Covid-19 has thrown a bright spotlight on what was once a backwater topic. Looking at some headlines, across the world and across all media platforms, one could be forgiven for thinking that this shift to working from home at scale and with such reliability is revolutionary – at last the world of work has stumbled on a great ‘eureka’ moment!

Personally, I see it as an increasing awareness into what has been a hidden paradigm shift in terms of the way we can do office work in the third decade of the 21st-century. The ‘workplace family’ comprising agile working, flexible work, activity-based working, hot-desking, has now acquired a new sibling – WFH

Given the potent power of this new addition, I wonder if it will accelerate the movement away from the rigid 20th century Taylorist approach to office work, inspired by customs and practices harking back to the Industrial Revolution.

The vast majority are still operating using 20th-century mindsets when it comes to work, the workforce and the workplace; and yet it has been some time since we have moved on from the era of paper pushing office drones to the age of the flexible knowledge worker. The issue that change must happen in the workplace to accommodate the fact that we can work differently has been of little interest to the mainstream press and the public at large. Barring the odd article debating the merits or otherwise of open plan offices or pros and cons of hot-desking. Overall up till now, scant regard has been shown into the way we work and its relationship to the workforce itself, as well as the actual uses of the physical workplace. Does anyone really question what is the purpose of the office or the workplace?

Covid-19 has catapulted this obscure topic into the full glare of the news with articles headlining “The Rise and Fall of the Office” (The Financial Times, May 15th The Economist has published a slew of reports on the subject in the last 3 months, social media has turned WFH into an overnight hashtag and the acronym has found its way into common parlance. The key point being that both employers and employees are united in recognising that working from home at scale and on a continuous basis is viable and sustainable – this is not a ‘flash-in-the-pan’ occurrence.  It remains to be seen how things are going to pan out as we contemplate a tentative return to the office.

This realisation has been underlined by recent highly publicised pronouncements by big hitters, such as Barclay’s CEO Jes Staley, plus other major business leaders, who are starting to question the need for large corporate headquarters. Their statements have certainly fuelled speculation about the death of the office; however in my opinion there is little substance to that particular view – that is not to say that there won’t be great changes ahead for the office and the way people work.

As I mentioned before, we are only seeing part of the picture and that there is much more to the debate into how we move forward. At the moment, we are viewing things as a binary proposition – it’s either about working in the office versus working from home. There have been hours of airtime and countless column inches focusing on this bipolar ‘either/or’ option of office or home. Yet it seems to me that the whole proposition is much bigger and broader than simply being about where one works.

We must begin to see the wider picture and take a more holistic approach because there are so many other considerations in the mix. We need to see, what I describe as, the workplace’s Eternal Triangle – one that defines the interplay between the changing nature of office-type work. This means acknowledging the changing dynamics of the people who carry out the work (the workforce) and the changing nature of the actual workplace (office), where this work happens.

For too long each of the fields of workforce and workplace have been considered pretty much in isolation and rarely as an interdependent whole. Traditionally, work and the workforce have been an organisation’s ‘happily married couple’ and the preserve of the HR community.  Yet since the turn-of-the-century there has been an interloper in the work and workforce union; in the shape of the actual physical office. The workplace has tried to win the heart of the workforce by wooing them with glitzy office designs offering great amenities and in recent years greater attention has been placed in the experience and well-being factors within office buildings. 

This has come about as businesses have realised that it is no longer just a matter of optimising occupancy costs, but one of providing attractive and comfortable workplaces to recruit and retain talent.  Workers choice has come to the fore in how businesses think about their consumption of real estate. So much so that, in my opinion, we are in the midst of a seismic shift in thinking, which I describe as going from Fixed to Fluid.

This encompasses the fixed traditional leased-based model, flowing through the various flexi and co-working options extending to the fluidity of remote and distributed work.  In other words an occupier has real choice over and  above leasing or buying space.

The time has come for a more considered, joined-up appreciation of the interplay between all three areas – workforce, work and workplace. It might also better inform us about the options for a post-normal working life after Covid-19 – that there needs to be a shift from fixed to fluid.

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