Working from home

05 March 2021

The WFH Workforce

HR forums and the general press have become obsessed with how working from home (WFH) has impacted upon us both as individuals and as companies. In the UK WFH has moved from a choice that some employers offered to a legal requirement unless impossible to do so.

Companies haven’t been afforded the luxury of presenting traditional business cases and debating the issue over a prolonged decision making cycle. They’ve had no choice but to convert fast.

Those already leading the way with flexible working upped their game gleefully. Traditional organisations that had previously resisted the notion have been forced to rapidly change.

Early on in the pandemic I was in conversation with an executive from JP Morgan. He put an early adopter spin on it, referring to this enforced experiment and suggesting that he didn’t anticipate working arrangements to return to the ‘old normal’.

The already fast paced move to data driven discussions has accelerated even faster during the pandemic. Almost all sources indicate improved efficiency under remote working, not just in the elimination of previously (unalterable) infrastructure costs but also from the changes in the way people are managing themselves.

Last week Lloyds and HSBC announced that they will reduce their office footprints by 20% and 40% respectively. Many others had already announced that post pandemic they will continue with a flexible working culture.

Analysis, however, suggests that this isn’t really anything new for many of these businesses. Many if not most of them, such as Amazon, Spotify, Salesforce etc are Digital or Technology businesses andalready had a disruptive mentality embedded in their culture regarding working environments.

However, to assume a linear curve of sustainability is to forget that we are human beings. The missing factor that cannot yet be measured is the human fundamental need for physical social interaction.

This is where Digital businesses are at the advantage. The way they engaged with the Gen Y (and now Gen Z) workforce from inception was far more creative. They recognised the need for engagement and built a different workplace environment mixed with flexible working. They recognise the need for social interaction and have a blended approach to the workforce.

More traditional businesses that have been forced into remote working may have to rethink their whole remote / workplace culture if they are to retain and engage employees post Lockdown. Mobilising to remote was the easy bit. Returning to a creative, flexible and fundamentally new environment is likely to be the harder challenge for these businesses.

But let’s not forget there is an alternative view out there. David Soloman, Goldman Sachs CEO, has described wfh as an aberration. Saying it is not consistent with their culture of collaboration, innovation and apprenticeship. Whilst the pandemic had enforced 90% to wfh, he anticipates reversing that situation.

I guess it remains to be seen whether he, and others like him, will be successful in returning his workforce to the old regime. In my view, I hope he is. Most of the people in my network have made their career and fortunes in the corporate world and it is those in the corporate bubble who will mostly benefit from flexible working. However, UK economy is substantially the self-employed and hard grafting small business owners. These are the people whose businesses are likely to suffer and who will feel the most pain if our cities do not return with a highly populated workforce along with their disposable income.