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Working from Home – The New Normal?

The pandemic has forced many of us to set up a home office and embrace the joys of video conferencing.

For some, however, this has always been the norm, with Saddle Oak Software, authors of the market-leading SOS Inventory, being one of them. SOS was created as a virtual business from the outset.

Working from Home – The New Normal?

But, according to the news, a vaccine is not far away; indeed, some countries are now starting vaccination programs, a massive logistical exercise.

So, are we about to return to the office, and what does that mean?

The Doughnut Effect

Governments are keen to encourage us back to the office. The economics of us all working-from-home is not attractive to them. Previously thriving city centers have become ghost towns, the sandwich shops, and other support service businesses, have closed. Transportation income has plummeted with near-empty buses and trains.

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The number of operating taxis in some city centers has dropped by 60%. This is called by some the Doughnut effect, with spending reduced and what spending there is being outside the city centers.

What of the massive commercial rents being charged for the now largely empty glass towers that house so many corporate headquarters? Those incomes are at risk without a return to work, as are the tax dollars tied to that income.

The reduced and potentially reducing tax income has the full attention of our governments, who are keen to see a return to office working and office related incomes.

But what of the businesses?

Many businesses have found new opportunities because of the changes, and many have had to change business models to survive or thrive. Whilst this pandemic has brought about massive change in a very short timescale, change has always been happening.

For those of us old enough to remember life before the iPhone, it’s not so long ago that Nokia was the unassailable mobile phone leader. This Forbes cover says it all – and that was just 2007, just 13 short years

One large Japanese games company, Square Enix (think Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy), is now moving forward with a business model whereby 80% of the staff will be permanently home working. From Dec 1st this is their new norm.

They define home working as the staff who nominate to work at least 3 days a week from home. Some employees will remain office-based due to the nature of their work. In their press release, the company stated, “The Company hopes not only to create a flexible and diverse working environment but also to further bolster productivity and help employees achieve the optimal work-life balance”.

Interestingly, it goes on to say that the new modus operandi will encourage the recruitment of a more diverse workforce and create a more resilient organization capable of better handling future disasters.

Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company, with c150,000 employees around the globe, is conducting a trial in New Zealand to pay staff full salary for working 4 days a week. The trial starts in December and will run for a year. There are about 81 employees in the island country of New Zealand, off Australia. The employees will be compensated for a full five days, although they are only working for four.

Nick Bangs, the managing director of Unilever in the country, said, “We hope the trial will result in Unilever being the first global company to embrace ways of working that provide tangible benefits for staff and for business.” The company wants to alter the way work is accomplished.

Bangs won’t increase the hours to compensate for the lost day of work. He said the company will have “compressed schedules with full pay, as the University of Technology Sydney in Australia helps track their progress.”

The managing director stated, “We don’t want our team to have really long days, but to bring material change in the way they work.” After 12 months, the company will assess the situation and consider rolling it out to its over 150,000 employees around the world.

Twitter recently announced that staff will be given the option to work from home forever, and Microsoft recently confirmed that its employees will be given the opportunity to work remotely after the Covid-19 pandemic.

So, the times they are a changing as Bob Dylan sang in 1964. Well, for the business they surely are.

And what of the governments? Well, around the world many governments have amassed (and are still amassing) significant debts from COVID-19, partly to compensate workers furloughed due to the enforced lock-down rules, and to mitigate the shortage of tax revenues.

Not all governments publish figures, but the UK alone has (year to date) borrowed £394bn, which to put into perspective is 7 times higher than the £55bn they expected to borrow before the pandemic. For a further perspective, it took the UK government 60 years to pay back the £42bn it borrowed from the US in 1946 to help recover from the costs of world war 2.

What has it meant for us, the workers?

Setting up the home office within the family home has not been without challenges. Finding a quiet spot has not always been easy and managing or avoiding interruptions from kids and cats has become an art form.

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Initial fears by management that working at home was the same as not working at home, have proven unfounded with the reality showing that in practice workers are spending more time laboring away. This can be attributed, in part, to worries about losing their jobs (as sadly many have).

For many of us, getting used to the new arrangements has not been without challenges. We have discovered that non-stop Zoom meetings are tiring.

It has its humor. Do you dress for work before you start your working day? Or are you a business shirt pajama bottoms kind of person? Do you wave at the end of a Zoom meeting (why do people do that?)

For others, it is really tough, particularly when the schools have been closed and you are all at home and you have work to do to keep the roof over your head and your 2-year-old is screaming. Trying to juggle teamwork with toddlers is hard.

And what of the future?

Well, it will be different. Probably a hybrid home working/office working for many. But for most of us, the grind of the daily commute is behind us.

The winners will, I think, be those companies that manage to embrace offsite working and yet maintain staff communication, motivation, and keep up the team spirit.  Not an easy trick to pull off.

Chats around the water cooler are hard to emulate online.

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