Be careful about WFH

Be careful about WFH

Employers are struggling to reboot their workforce. I understand why. Many people have been working from home, found it convenient and cosy to do so and don’t want to go back to the office. Some, like the financial world, have responded by insisting on five days a week at the office. Others have compromised and allowed one, two, three or four days work at home, the rest in the building that identifies their corporate image – more commonly known as the office.

Authority has lost a lot of its clout during the pandemic. It was doing so before and will continue to do so after. But it is essential that it reestablishes as much authority as it reasonably can and in a new form that is acceptable and workable. The reasons for staying at home to work and for going to the office to do so have been widely rehearsed so I won’t repeat them here. Not so well publicised have been the arguments for bosses becoming bosses again and navigating the treacherous waters between WFH (= work from home when you like) and WOT (= work at the office and follow our timetable).

It all hinges around access and discipline. Access to so many things including, in order of importance: work mentors, colleagues, bosses, the water cooler, an atmosphere of disciplined achievement, equipment, physical files that have not yet been digitised. The easing of authority has to be accompanied by increased self-discipline on the part of those trusted to work at home. During the pandemic, understandably, little attention has been paid to measuring the output of WFH. All employers are able to tell you roughly who has maintained their volume and quality of work, or even exceeded it, and who has lagged behind the standards expected of them.

Each company has its own physical needs and they are easy to demonstrate. Each individual has his or her own needs but they are less well known to companies. Home can be a spacious, quiet area suitable for reflection. It can also be a cramped, noisy unsympathetic place to conduct thinking and communications. That implies that a significant part of the decision about home working should rest with the employee but only provided the quality and quantity of work is equal to that obtained in the office. In particular, deadlines need watching when significant numbers WFH.

The danger is that WFH will be measured in terms of volume and not in terms of quality. I know of a company where WFH has proved a real blessing to some very thoughtful employees who have mastered the ways to communicate with their colleagues, keep themselves up to date and work disciplined hours (and no more). At the same time another group of colleagues, in the same business, have treated WFH as a holiday, one even becoming quite shirty because he was interrupted by someone from work during a weekday football match he was watching.

My own experience of being relaxed with employees about their working habits, including WFH – though there was no pandemic in those days – was that from time to time I had to be very tough and even fire one or two people if they were not pulling their weight. I needed all to know that their gentle, teddy-bear boss had quite a lot of steel inside. Self discipline involves knowing what matters and I took a lot of trouble to help people understand what was at the heart of the matter when working in our business. Bravado, they discovered, is different from enterprise. But a free and easy form of management turned $10M into $825M in ten years. It must be quite good.

WFH for many people implies that they must equip themselves as though they were their own gig. This may, or may not, be suitable for your business. Bosses would do well to accept that within twenty years huge numbers of people will be running their own company. It may be small. Some will grow to Amazon size. This will happen for two reasons:  First, companies want much greater flexibility with labour. The rapid growth of consultancies demonstrates that. But the consultancies of the future will be individuals and small teams rather than the big organisations of today. These have become too money-driven with the subsequent distancing from their clients. They have forgotten that KPIs don’t drive a business, quality does.  Though KPIs can drive it mad, of course.

The second reason for this big change – that has already started – is the individual’s wish to command his or her own business. It is a natural impulse and the scope for making money by doing so is ably demonstrated by the IPOs launched every year and the M&A activity ongoing all the time. Running your own outfit is the best learning and discipline for a business person. I know that if I were starting out today I would go that route.

So WFH is no cake-walk. It is – for some companies and people – an agonising way of starting a change that will liberate the developing middle class financially and bring a new work / leisure culture to our lives. It is the dawning of the Age of Independence and it will require a lot more creativity and imagination than we currently have.

But humankind is adaptable – and will adapt.

If it thinks hard enough.

Good morning

John Bittleston

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