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Jan Gooding: We shouldn’t all work from home

20 May 2020  |  Jan Gooding 
Jan Gooding: We shouldn’t all work from home

Our lives have become highly curated and formalised, writes Jan Gooding - and for marketeers this not only inhibits innovation and productivity, it creates a very small world in which our brands can operate

The inevitable has happened. Having got millions of people working from home, doing jobs that were previously thought impossible to do away from an office, CEOs are starting to ask themselves if this is the new normal.

Desperate to cut costs and plan for the constraints of the era of living with Coronavirus the line that reads rent or property leaps out of any expenses page as a relatively big item. At a time when ‘thinking the unthinkable’ has become a way of life, it is understandable that questions are going to be asked about what the new model of working will be, and what office facilities still need to be provided?

A voyage of discovery

The imperative to keep operating in the face of the national instruction to stay at home has forced companies to accept home working on an unprecedented scale. Workforces have not only had to be equipped with the right laptops and printers, systems have had to be adapted to ensure data security, and new tools have been introduced: Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and Zoom. Words I had not heard of before, but new and invaluable ways to try and replicate physical meetings rather than relying on conference calls.

The politics of virtual meetings

I have had to learn how to participate, whether as the chair or an attendee, without being able to catch anyone’s eye or read the mood of the room. New etiquette has had to be navigated on the use of mute buttons, voting icons and the chat function for comment and questions. Decisions made on whether to use the video allowing people to wander around your home and bookshelves, or playfully insert the backdrop of a tropical beach we are unlikely to visit for some time.

Have we changed our attitude to unwell people staying at home?

It is worth celebrating the huge challenge to ‘presenteeism’ that has taken place. This is the syndrome whereby people felt compelled to turn up to work even if they were ill, injured or suffering from mental health issues because of a sense of insecurity about their job. The emphatic instruction that workers must stay at home for a week if they have symptoms must surely have a positive long term impact on our attitude to people electing to work from home?

I am sure there will have been mutterings about whether people were always being honest. Those who still turned up to work, carrying the load and risks for those who did not, can certainly be forgiven for feeling a little resentful. In every workforce there are those who abuse the trust that is given. However, I believe that overall we have appreciated and accepted that it is preferable if germs are not spread.

An increase in kindness

I have been struck by the enormous effort and attention that has been given by business leaders to our mental health and well-being during Lockdown. The impact on productivity if people try to hide their mental health struggles has been publicised for years. But suddenly the whole nation has been unified with feelings of anxiety and isolation.

Simon Blake, CEO of Mental Health First Aiders, observed, "It seems we have had a crash course in emotional literacy, with more and more people genuinely looking out for each other, government emphasising the importance of exercise for our mental health during the pandemic, and employers working hard to ensure employees have the advice they need to protect their wellbeing in these extraordinary times."

CEOs are likely to have a positive experience

It has to be imagined that many CEOs have enjoyed even more benefits than the rest of us. Yes, they have been operating under extraordinarily stressful circumstances, and will continue to carry the burden of the challenging decisions that lie ahead. But on the whole their experience of working from home may have been a more positive voyage of discovery.

Many have found themselves no longer having to travel, tend to live in larger homes than their employees, often with older more self-sufficient children, usually with the executive level support service of their IT department, and dare I say it, possibly with at home gym equipment to exercise on.

Their staff are not necessarily as well set up

People working from home for the first time discover the limits of coping with poor internet or mobile connectivity, and struggle when their equipment fails to work. Many have nowhere suitable to work, and have had to retreat to their bedrooms, literally sitting all day on their bed.

There are those who have young families demanding attention and acting as a constant distraction. People cannot necessarily afford to have their heating on all day and have been cold as they try to work. Often the location of people’s home doesn’t provide easy access to gyms or green spaces.

Work and home life unseparated

The negative impact of an ‘always on’ world leading to people overworking has already been well documented. What is yet to be explored is the impact of people finding their home has been forcibly converted into a workplace. During this national Lockdown working from home has not been a choice.

People have been compelled to allow their employer to effectively turn their home into an office annex. This won’t suit everyone. I noticed at university that there were people who had to go to the library to work. A change in location was fundamental to changing mode and being able to concentrate on their work. It’s quite a big demand to remove that option from people.

The principle of choice and consent is important

On 12 May Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that they ‘will allow their employees to work from home ‘forever’. Twitter is a company with a culture which already puts emphasis on decentralization and supporting a distributed workforce capable of working from anywhere. But the key point here is that, dependant on their role and situation the choice is left in the hands of their employees.

We also know that the offices of Twitter are described as ‘stunning’ and attractive places to work which beckon their staff to come and join their colleagues. Perhaps there is a big incentive now to rethink workplace spaces to encourage people to come in?

Living in a bubble

The extent to which people have switched to working from home has been possible in the short term as a minimum viable option. But it is a model which makes our worlds very narrow. Limited to what is possible to engage with on screen, in a book or a local walk. It has removed the majority of our usual daily sensory experience. Over time this must affect our creativity.

Very little happens that is unexpected when your work and private life is confined to the same space. Our lives have become highly curated and formalised. No longer bumping into people, advertising, sounds, sights, new things to try. For anyone who works in marketing, this will not only inhibit our own innovation and productivity, it creates a very small world in which our brands would have to operate.

No ‘water cooler’ chat

I doubt there is any data to support the value of social interaction at work. This is the positive side of being present and connected. Building relationships with colleagues that encourages a sense of belonging and participation. The access to senior leaders without having to book a meeting. The conversations ‘overheard’ where connections can be made, and ideas built.

The gossip and small talk that help create work culture. The customs and rituals that make people feel included and valued. The ability to quickly gather people together to share news or work on a problem. Not being together automatically by definition means most interactions have to be arranged or are unlikely to take place face to face.

We are entering a world where the default is to work from home as much as possible. I am sure we are going to find creativity will be reduced, trust eroded, productivity affected and mental health distress on the rise. At the moment we have no choice.

But before companies put a line through their property costs on the expenses spreadsheet and hardwire homeworking as the new normal, we should think very carefully about the invisible costs of doing so. And focus instead on making our offices somewhere people want to go because their work and productivity will be better than if they stay at home.

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Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of PAMCo, Given (London), and the president of the Market Research Society. She writes for Mediatel News each month.

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08 Jul 2020 

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