Working From Home: The COVID-19 New Norm
Some changes happen only when circumstances force them upon us, so that we don’t have a choice but to accept and adapt. Working from home en masse is one of them. Indeed, it is evident that working from home is now the COVID-19 new norm. If an IT Director had tried asking the board to authorize all personnel to work from home, say even 3 weeks ago, he or she would most likely have been fired. And yet, so many of us are working from home today (there’s even a trending hashtag for it #WFH), and numerous companies have been forced to allow their entire workforce to work remotely.
Allowing your employees to work from home changes a lot of things
First of all, you can’t ask them to “clock in”, so you can no longer measure them by the number of hours they put in. Finally! Thinking that in 2020, in a services oriented society, there’s still someone who measures productivity in terms of total hours worked, is absurd. And yet, it’s the sad reality of many companies when the helm is in the hands of people who have an obsolete, obtuse mentality. In this present day society, people certainly still need to be measured but by what they actually do. By what they actually produce and not by how long it takes them to do it.
So, if I gave you a task that I think will take you 3 days but you do it in 1, good for you. Go have fun. That’s the way I’ve always seen things. However, this implies a great deal of trust from the employer, and a corresponding level of maturity from the employee.
As an employee, you need to remember to get up and “go to work”, even if that just means walking to your workstation. You need to be disciplined, focused, and work, instead of doing things around the house. Oh and by the way, your family also needs to get used to you being at home so much (we mustn’t forget that the current situation brings about changes to everyone). Your children may think that daddy being home means playtime, so they’ll want you to go outside and kick ball with them. Explaining that there’s a time for play, and that that time isn’t “right now”, will be hard at first.
But you absolutely have to do it
Explaining to your SO that you’re working and can’t therefore, for instance, just put everything aside to get groceries, that too needs to be ironed out properly. I’m sure there a lot of other similar issues we could go over. But the most pressing one comes from ourselves. We, as individuals and employees, are we disciplined enough to actually check things off our To Do lists, even though no one is watching? Or are we all going to behave like reckless drivers on the highway meaning no cops around, 110mph is OK? Being like mice, coming out to play when the cat isn’t around?
Ultimately, no one can actually teach us that discipline. We need to force ourselves to “act” accordingly, to be professional. For the many of us who had already been partially working from home, this transition to full time home-bound employees could prove smoother. But let’s face it, the equally many of who have never really worked from home before, will have a hard time adjusting. And you’d better adjust fast, because work will suffer if you don’t.
As an employer, you need to learn to trust. Actually, you should already know who you can trust and who’s going to need guidance and their hands held. If you’re an employer, in theory you should know your people and, therefore, you should know who you can send home without cause for panic. But, whether you like it or not, trust will forced upon you. You’ll need to explain to all employees that they’ll be judged by what they accomplish. Even more so now than ever before. And drive home the idea that working from home is not a paid vacation, but a reason to be even more productive. Why? Well, now you’re not sitting in traffic for 2 hours a day, you’re not stressed by commuting, you’re not as physically exhausted, you’re not groggy. You’re now able to sleep longer and still get to work on time.
And get things done
My impression of all this? Now that we’ve done all the necessary work to accomplish this de-allocation of workforce, we won’t want to toss it all away. When all things are said and done, and the pandemic has receded (and that day won’t be too soon, in my opinion), much of this mindset will stick. Everyone whose had a taste of #WFH will be reluctant to go back to a workplace 20 miles from home, driving through 6 lanes that look like a 20 mile long parking lot. And once they check the numbers, employers will quickly realize they no longer need those 3000 cubicles downtown. Most of them are now empty. If you want an employee to come in once a week or so, you don’t need to allocate a full space for him. At my previous employer (and this was in 1999), we already shared cubicles. On a “first come first serve” basis, actually. If you had to be in the office for any reason (the most common one being the boss calling an all hands to deck meeting, to “see us in person” and that only occurred every once in a while), you only had to pick a booth. Dial your extension from the phone in said cubicle. And all calls would be routed to you. This was 1999. Technology today has gone far beyond that. And besides, who needs phones anyway, not when we have softphones and mobiles!
In essence, the company saves money A lot of money. Turns out having a mobile team that works from home can actually be advantageous because it saves you on real estate, which is often a large expense, especially in high valued areas like a city’s downtown area.
At my said previous employer, we had a bad habit of having meetings over meetings over meetings. Honestly, I can’t imagine how we actually ever got anything accomplished with all those meetings. I had a colleague whose “go to” response to anything that happened was “let’s call a meeting”. And there you had it, 2 hours, with at least 10 people, discussing “nothing”. You can tell I personally have a strong aversion to meetings. In fact, I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t. Well, working from home meetings can still happen (and some are necessary), don’t get me wrong. But I’ve a hunch it’ll now be easier to avoid them, and over time, we’ll get to the point where the only meetings happening are those that are truly necessary.
Now, wouldn’t that be nice
From a company’s perspective there may be other advantages. Which I’m sure we’ll all discover over time. As individuals (and as a society), we may already be discovering good things about working from home. I was looking at some satellite maps of China and Italy, and comparing them to those of pre-pandemic. The level of pollution over the North of Italy has gone down so much that it’s very clearly visible in those pictures. Turns out, our planet is pretty resilient, and can rid itself of the messes we create very quickly. It took less than a month of house arrests for the entire population for pollution to almost disappear. Where all that “stuff” went, I have no idea. I’m sure there are plenty of experts who will explain to us what happened. What’s important here is that it went away. You can now actually go for a walk and not get intoxicated.
Well, unfortunately, they can’t go for a walk because they’re not allowed to leave their homes at the moment. But who knows, maybe if we get into the habit of keeping a large percentage of the population entrenched in working from home, we’ll be able to maintain this lower level of air pollution until we can all drive electric cars. That might be wishful thinking but one’s allowed to dream, right?
And of course it’s not just the pollution
Whether the gas industry likes it or not, we’re using less gas, which means we’re consuming less. And spending less. Stores won’t be closed forever. We hope. Bars and restaurants will reopen, and we’ll return to traveling. Hey, I had plans to go to Italy this Summer so this virus had better be done soon! Jokes aside, my hope is that all those people who have lost the sense of family, who have lost touch with their families. Those who have become accustomed to burying their heads into a screen, ignoring anyone around them, will now relearn how to be social. Wouldn’t it be funny if the era of social distancing actually ends up teaching us to be social? I’ve never talked to my sister as much and for as long as I have been, over the last 2 weeks. We talk every day. Are we less busy? No, not at all. I, for one, have been so busy I can barely eat more than once a day. She’s still working. Even though she lives in Italy, she’s allowed to go to work because she works for the city government and that can’t be shut down.
Nevertheless, we’ve been able to find time to use WhatsApp’s video conferencing at least once a day. I hope that when the emergency wanes, we don’t go back to talking only once a month, with a “Hey, you ok?, yes, ok bye“.
Rekindling with family and faraway friends is a nice part of all this. Strange that in a time when technology allows us to do that so easily, we normally don’t. We’re all so busy chasing who knows what, that we forget to stop and do the little things that are more important because they really define our lives, and who we are. In many ways, we’re remembering to be ‘human’.
I am a technologist
I’m not accustomed to writing opinions that are more on the sociological side of things. I don’t know that all I’ve said here will come to fruition. Maybe a month from now, life will be back to “normal”, we’ll be road raging again. Wasting time on the highway. Chatting at the water cooler. Back to inefficiently spending hours in a glass building that collects heat and therefore requires energy to stay cool (isn’t that absurd by the way?). Losing our lives in traffic. Forgetting about our neighbors and friends and family. Again immersing ourselves in the screens of our computers. Until then, I don’t see any reason as to why working from home will not continue to be the COVID-19 new norm for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, though, this experience forced upon us by dire circumstances, will teach how life could be. And we will retain at least some of those teachings. Living a more human life. One where human contact becomes, once again, important.
And in the process, who knows, we may also be able to save the planet, our home.