Opinion

When will we scrap the WFH hybrid experiments and move to truly distributed work?

What is the future of work-from-home (WFH)?

This was the title of a recent online lecture by Professor Nick Bloom of Stanford University. Bloom is well known as one of the leading researchers into the effect of employees working from home. He was responsible for the famous CTrip study back in 2013 that found how working from home can actually be more productive than maintaining a traditional office presence.

Researchers like Nick Bloom have proven that working from home can work for professional employees that would typically spend all day at a desk inside an office. It can be more productive and it can eliminate the need to rent expensive office space along with the daily commute for all those employees. He wrote all this research long before Covid.

But for socially interactive tasks, that require face-to-face time, the office remains attractive to many executives. The question is how to manage the ideal mix of time spent working at home with time spent in the office. Some executives hated the enforcement of WFH during the Covid pandemic. Goldman Sachs is a good example – they now have around two thirds of all employees back in the office from Monday to Friday.

However, after the experience of Covid, this feels archaic. Even if your company wants you to attend meetings and training sessions in person, who would now be expecting employees to be back in the office every single day?

 

Maybe the government?

The Philippines government extended generous grants to companies locating their customer service operations there. They expected to see offices full of people and all the additional infrastructure that large numbers of workers require – bars, restaurants, taxis, dry cleaning etc. When the local contact centres continued with WFH, even as the pandemic was in the rear-view mirror, the government issued a threat to the BPO sector – get your people back in the office or all those tax advantages will be removed!

Back in April, the British cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg was found touring government offices leaving notes on the desks of people who were working from home – sorry I missed you… this was seen as passive aggressive behaviour for a government minister. By August, the same politician was announcing the sale of billions of pounds worth of offices – no longer needed as so many people continued to work from home. Mr Rees-Mogg is no longer a cabinet minister.

The problem is that executives can’t seem to decide how to implement WFH. During the pandemic it was simple, everyone had to work from home. Now it appears to be more complex because nobody wants to follow the Goldman Sachs example and roll back working practices to 2019, but efforts to make a hybrid of the office and WFH have led to people alone in the office sitting on Zoom calls that could have been done at home.

The former CEO of Twitter EMEA, Bruce Daisley, now hosts a podcast about work called ‘Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat’ – he has also written a couple of very interesting books about modern working practices. On a recent episode of his podcast the discussion focused on Wednesday+1 as a solution to the hybrid problem. Everyone has to attend the office on Wednesday and then individual teams can decide on the best additional day that works for them.

Although this is an interesting solution that encourages social interaction and retains some flexibility, it still doesn’t answer the central question of how to create social connectivity between employees every single day. Whether a team member is at home, in the office, or working remotely on a train or in a cafe, there should be a similar experience for all. In many cases it seems the hybrid experiments are designed by HR teams without any regard for the autonomy of individual team leaders to set their own rules on flexibility.

I think the real problem is that we still talk of WFH or the office as binary alternatives. The end goal should not be to create a hybrid of WFH and office-based work, it should be to create an entirely new form of distributed work that gives employees the freedom to choose where they work. Wherever they choose should be just as good as all the other choices, regarding social interactions, teamwork, and the ability to get work done.

Perhaps the first real use case for the Metaverse should be the virtual office, where I can be “in the office” regardless of where I am working. I don’t mean sitting in a Starbucks with a VR headset on, but using the deep experience of virtual worlds from the gaming industry to create a shared workplace experience regardless of my physical location.

Modern technology platforms now exist in the cloud. This isn’t rocket science. I should be able to be virtually present and with my team whether I am working from home, in the corporate office, in a WeWork, or just in a cafe. The discussion needs to move on from HR managers testing various experiments on hybrid working to the platforms we need to make truly distributed work a reality. We can do this.

Let me know what you think about the current state of the WFH debate. Leave a comment here on the article or get in touch via my LinkedIn.

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