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Don’t expect a flexible work revolution

Human beings are around three million years old, in one form or another. Sophisticated as we like to think we are, much of our behaviour follows patterns that have evolved over those three million years. Some of it is even older than that.

This is the root of my scepticism about the long-term changes that will result from the lockdown, particularly where the future of work is concerned. Big change takes time, especially when that change is to long-adopted behaviours.

The happy home worker hypothesis

The hypothesis I hear from flexible work advocates goes something like this:

“Now that everyone has tried flexible working, they will all realise how wonderful it is. So will their employers. Even the Luddites will be forced to accept that the technology is easy to use. So, everyone can now work remotely. Hoorah!”

I take issue with every part of this pitch.

First, the technology. While many have learned that it is both cheap and simple, there are issues that remain. Learning to use a new tool well takes a lot longer than just getting up and running. There are issues of etiquette and behaviour. When do we have video calls? How long should they last? Who should be muted and when? Watching a meeting organiser spend the first ten minutes telling everyone to mute their microphones because they haven’t worked out the administrator controls is just excruciating.

Some people love the office

A large proportion of the workforce does not want to work from home very often for a host of good reasons. This is my second issue with the ‘happy home worker’ hypothesis.

Some thrive on the workplace environment. They need the energy and camaraderie of the office to fire them up. For others still, the office really is an escape from a difficult home life.

For junior members of staff, the office is where they learn. By being around more experienced colleagues, they will pick up important lessons about workplace behaviour: phone etiquette, dress, and time management. Forcing them to work remotely stunts their learning and quite possibly isolates them in a small or shared flat from which work was a welcome escape.

The most enthusiastic cheerleaders for remote working seem to generally be more senior professionals with a nice house to work from. Offering remote working to them, let alone requiring it, may well disadvantage others.

Companies aren’t equipped for remote work

My last issue is with the company, and particularly its management culture. We like to think that we are sophisticated in the way we brief work and measure results. But the reality is that a lot of the time we are working on a sixth sense based on proximity to our charges. Do they look like they are working hard? Can we see them sweating?

Putting distance between worker and manager defeats this sixth sense. And without training and a change in culture, managers tend to try to replicate it through digital means: constant prompts on Slack, or endless video calls.

These things are terrible for productivity. What we need instead is a culture where people are focused on outcomes not effort. If they deliver best in two frantic hours at 10pm after rising at midday and spending the afternoon watching boxsets on the sofa, then – pastoral responsibility notwithstanding – that is what we should encourage them do.

But changing culture takes time. Because it is about behaviour. Changing it requires training and coaching, and adaptation. It’s not as simple as switching meetings to zoom.

So, while the shift to more flexible working practices will undoubtedly be accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, we shouldn’t expect an overnight revolution.

Tom Cheesewright is a futurist speaker and writer