As we move forward, organisations must look to create balanced working practices for their staff, write the London School of Economics’ Dr Will Venters and Dr Enrico Rossi.
One lesson in leadership is not to make long-term decisions based on short-term experiences – while remaining ever mindful of world events.
The past couple of months have provided amazing examples of the success of homeworking and have dispelled many criticisms. In the most part, the technology works: we can talk via Zoom and Microsoft Teams with relative ease (though we have also coined the term “Zoom-fatigue”) and most office work has continued well. But companies that see this as a tectonic shift towards a world where office space is rendered unnecessary may be disappointed. While process and transactional work seems effective, the socialising, team building, learning and networking have been drastically reduced.
Our ongoing research has been examining how a large global company’s high-level customer support staff went from being co-located in an office to all working from home. The lessons, based on numerous interviews, are stark, with some staff hoping never to return to the office (often those with caring responsibilities at home, a long commute, or extensive experience), and others desperate to get back (often those with small homes or partners also working from home, and with social or learning needs).
Learning and knowledge sharing
Two of the key changes involve learning and knowledge sharing. In offices, lots of knowledge is shared through serendipity; chance meetings in corridors or by the watercooler, on tea-breaks, or a lunchtime chat. These are crucial for generating new ideas, bringing new staff into communities of shared practice and developing their identity as team members.
Another form of informal efficient knowledge sharing is the ‘quick question’ where workers lean back in their office chair and ask the people around them for help – a reason financial traders sit so closely together. These two forms of informal knowledge sharing have proved hard to replicate online. However, they can also prove distracting or stressful for some people. The transition to homeworking, and the loss of informal knowledge sharing, was therefore perceived as a negative for some, but a liberation for others.
Companies that see this as a tectonic shift towards a world where office space is rendered unnecessary may be disappointed.
Given this, it was unsurprising that the very experienced staff we interviewed saw their productivity rise. One told us, “I do more work at home… my workload has gone up massively” because in the office people were always coming up to her asking for help. Another told us “I am hitting targets more… without the office distractions...”
With homeworking, this employee is able to choose which ‘Instant Messenger’ queries to answer, and disengage herself whenever she feels the need to focus. A consequence is that less-skilled staff must spend more time finding out answers to their questions from manuals and support tools which slows them down. As a junior person explained:
“[Homeworking has] pushed me to educate myself more on what I don’t know… search for the information rather than just going ‘do you know this’… It sinks in more if I have to find the knowledge myself.”
From a leadership perspective, this feels positive for fostering self- reliance, but the impact on new staff still needs managing. More effort is needed to help them become part of their work community and as online training has proved less productive and harder to deliver, more time is required for training. A sensible leadership response to this should involve mentoring and regular-checking.
Our research also revealed the double-edged nature of digital technologies: they encourage people to share problems with a wider community, beyond their local desks, but also allow workers to disengage and disconnect themselves from the wider social context by simply ignoring the chat, or putting it ‘on mute’ – free riding on others.
It is also harder for managers to keep track of staff – in particular, managers could not see the stress on people’s faces at home and so step in to help. And the lack of visibility increased pressure on some staff who felt the need to “prove something”, while others were relieved and “liberated” from being overseen.
Homeworking is a great leveller – everyone had the same access to each other, which proved a boon for staff who are usually located away from the main office. At the same time, not all workers enjoy the same conditions at home, and this can reintroduce disparities and injustices. According to our research, work was impacted by different family and personal conditions, quality of internet connection, and physical facilities such as space for a desk, amounts of light, and whether other family members were trying to work from home at the same time.
Leaders need to balance the disparity between equality of work for both office environments and homeworking. Consider, for example, the married couple we interviewed who are both now homeworking – the husband cooped up in the bedroom working for a bank, his wife downstairs in the open-plan living space. Neither could enter the room where the other was working and both worked long shifts.
It will almost certainly not be enough simply to replicate existing team and office structures online.
Creating a balance
In summary, when designing physical office space, architects consider balancing the need for efficient transactional work with socialised knowledge sharing and such design is linked to a wide range of factors including role and personality of the workers. For example, Silicon Valley technology companies favour innovation over transactional work and so invest in fun offices which foster interruption and informal gatherings and interaction.
By contrast, many call centres are physically organised to limit this kind of interaction and focus staff on processing transactional work. When planning homeworking arrangements, the same thought for architecture, team structures and support is needed. It will almost certainly not be enough simply to replicate existing team and office structures online.
In the long-term, leaders should think about how to build a complex home- working and office-working mix which maximises efficiency, equity and innovation. They will need to understand that this will vary considerably from individual to individual.
Originally published in Catalyst Magazine The 'Digital' Issue.