The Future of Work is a ClickBait Headline

I’m a big fan of flexible working and felt positive that the highly successful experiment of months of working from home was finally going to change the world of work. But perhaps not surprisingly, change isn’t always as easy as proving something can be done.

The evidence from any significant reputable source is pretty clear. Overall working from home has been a success. We are more productive and happier. For me, one of the major reputable sources of scale is Leesman, which has surveyed over 150,000 people working from home and reports an overall satisfaction level higher than the office. There are also some people who do still want to work from the office all the time too. Study after study reports that more workers are more satisfied and more productive working from home but, and this is important, most people still want to spend some time each week working in an office.

So I was quite surprised last month to come across this article headlined “The evidence is in: working from home is a failed experiment”. Huh? Really? At least The Guardian labelled it as an opinion piece. Just like the articles of the past that complained about the open and noise and claimed to show “evidence” of the failure of open plan, this article is going to make all the non believers feel better. The author reassures readers not to worry about being “old school” – at heart everyone else feels just like you and is just to nervous to admit it. To prove it – apparently two thirds of worker are craving time with colleagues. I would point out though “More time” doesn’t mean full time. If you actually click thru to read the referenced Microsoft study – under the first heading Flexible work is here to stay “Employees want the best of both worlds: over 70 percent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams. ” That’s not saying working from home is a failed experiment!!!

Even the author admits pretty quickly the headline is wrong “But this point of view is shared by more than a few clients of mine. Mostly, they fit a similar demographic: older, set in their ways, long time in business, family-owned companies. It’s obvious that most companies will need to offer work from home options in the future.” Again that fits with other research which suggests men in middle management struggle the most in seeing benefits working from home or working from home themselves. (Workplace beyond 2020 research by HASSELL, a small sample size but certainly something which is being anecdotally recognised and this gender bias could be a great topic to see more research into)

So a few grumpy middle aged men don’t want to have their staff work from home. But generally the world accepts this is going to be the future? That’s evidence of a failed experiment? This is pretty lazy journalism. Do we need to continue? But this is so much fun let’s do some fact checking on the rest of the “proof”. 

Issues of being stressed, anxious and over worked are not necessarily about working from home but more likely related to other aspects of the pandemic – working from home whilst in lockdown and homeschooling children does not compare to working from home by choice a few days a week.  This last year has not been the norm that working from home could become.  Feelings of too many meetings and too many emails existed long before the pandemic.  The idea of creating ‘meeting free’ Fridays (or any other block of time) makes sense regardless of if you work from home or from an office and if your meetings are in Zoom or in person.  This is clearly acknowledged in the article about LinkedIn giving its staff a week off to cope with burnout – its not about working from home, its about the overall stress of living thru a panedemic.  If you read through to the end of the article, LinkedIn are in fact planning a hybrid working future – with all staff able to work from home up to 50% of the time.  Again, what is the ‘failed experiment’?

As seems to be frequently the case big finance makes an appearance. JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs are determined to get back to the old normal! Does anyone really want to reflect Goldman Sachs culture?  If you missed it, the company was recently in the news after some graduate employees created a powerpoint criticising ‘inhumane working conditions’ and demanding a better work culture and work life balance.  I honestly laughed out loud that the author choses this company as one you would want to aspire to.

It’s clear to me that this author doesn’t get the employee side  “there’s this illusion of more independence, flexibility and control over one’s life”.  It is only an illusion if you are working for the wrong boss.   If more people are happier and more companies are making money, I’m not quite sure why its a problem to change the status quo?  What exactly is the point of keeping the old normal of commuting to an office 5 days a week?  From the perspective this article seems to be aimed at – the small business owner – it is really a business decision you are making.  Do you want happy engaged satisfied employees who are more productive?  Do you want to be able to draw from the largest talent pools – both in terms of locations and workstyles? Or is it more important to you to have all your staff in front of you? 

If you own the business – it is still your choice.  Although it is possible, in the future it won’t be – flexibility and options to work from home could well become legal rights for workers.  But as someone who has experience part time working within cultures where its only allowed because it had to be – if I was looking for a forward thinking flexible culture, I know I wouldn’t be choosing the company who were working more flexibly because they had to but the one who valued it.

According to the author of this article, study after study proves it all – it seems Leesman with its database of  over 150,000 responses must have got it wrong.  Instead lets rely on a survey of 2000 Americans, which again proves that working thru home in isolation during a pandemic is stressful, not that remote working is a failed experiment.  The other study refers to data from a 2017 study, which also isn’t a true reflection of what the future could hold.  Before the pandemic, working from home was not normalised in the way it is now.  Whilst some companies worked that way, it was the exception rather than the rule and those working remotely were isolated from those physically present.  The idea that we could achieve an equality of experience between the two and create a truly hybrid working culture was certainly not mainstream.

Whilst in many countries, remote working is still a requirement, here in Australia (and hopefully soon many more able to follow) it’s optional – offices have been gradually opening up again over some months and the “new normal” is now here.  This  kind of headline attracts the people who fit this demographic “older and set in their ways” –  who might be feeling  a bit defensive right now.  I’m really interested to try and understand these opinions.  I think its important to recognise that there are 2 groups here – some are employers and some are employees. The way I see it, for employees, this new normal  becomes another factor to take into account when choosing a new job, or if we stay in the old one.  For some people flexibility and the choice to work from home will be important, and for others it won’t be.

For employers, who are running the company, you can make your own choice so why is this discussion seeming to be such a defensive one? Perhaps again, it is not so much about the realities of working from home and remote teams, but about the stress of running a business during a pandemic and anxiety over lack of control and a lack of knowledge of just how to manage this new world of work. It is also true that many of the studies are focused on the outcome for employees and small businesses are less likely to have been as aware of research and understanding of employee satisfaction and engagement and also want to see the evidence of how this new way of working relates to their industry and their business. This research from Bastion Insights and Pitcher and Partners (although a small Australian sample size) is a really great starting point for comparing and understanding the viewpoints of employers as well as employees.

Finally, lets talk about innovation. The author claims “The model has proven to create more disruption, less productivity and diminished innovation.”  The one point I won’t dispute is the potential impacts of working from home on long term innovation.  However again, we have to consider than extended lock downs with no face to face contact, doesn’t reflect the more realistic new normal of hybrid working where teams connect in person on a more regular basis.  At this point, we don’t really have the data to know what the long term impacts on innovation might be – however I notice that most of the companies which had all / heavily remote cultures pre pandemic were tech companies – so maybe this is all the proof you need…

But either way I’d question if a company run by someone who proudly claimed to be “old school” was innovating anyway.

The biggest point is – it’s not either work from home or work from the office – the benefits are going to come from being able to offer a mix of both. And if you are an employer and you don’t think it works, you don’t have to do it – but maybe it is worth researching a little bit more widely and setting up your own experiment of hybrid – and you can see what might be possible. There is certainly plenty to read out there!

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. I know I haven’t mentioned learning by osmosis – I think that could be the topic of a whole blog itself!

Image: Windows on Unsplash