The emergency home office: Catastrophe or the future of work?

There seems to be no question that catastrophes can change the course of humanity. The impacts and effects have been studied for centuries. But one thing remains a constant. While the human race is not so good at being proactive, we have become pretty good at reacting. While it does not appear that we have placed much value on the lessons learned from the Spanish Flu, the past year provides evidential proof of our resilient ability to react. Real estate developers, infrastructure planning, government entities, and the business world itself were all on the fast track to maximize congestion. The goal: To fit more people into smaller spaces to maximize profit and tax revenue. There is no need to point out the disastrous result.

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, enterprise operations around the globe responded by, wherever possible, sending employees home to muster whatever tools and furniture we could to very quickly become productive remote workers. The results exceeded the predictions of even the most positive among us. While there are indeed complaints that we need to address, productivity was not reduced. In some cases, a substantial productivity increase has been noted. As we start to consider the possibility that we may one day be allowed to return to the office en masse, CXO’s are huddled up to determine what this will look like. And it won’t be the same.

working from home
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Expense reduction vs. increased revenue

Net profit equals revenue minus expenses. It’s a simple formula that many are intimately familiar with. It dictates that to increase net profit, we have two choices. We can increase revenue or we can reduce our expenses. Let’s face it — North American businesses are not great at reducing expenses. We subscribe to the theory that we must spend our budget no matter what. Otherwise, the budget will be reduced for the next fiscal period. Instead, when asked to reduce expenses, we terminate employees while not working to increase efficiencies, stop providing coffee, and micro-manage arrival and departure times. When we work to increase revenue received from our clientele, we tend to reduce the value that we provide to those same clients. Enter COVID-19, the transition to remote work, and the realization that expensive office space may be a thing of the past. Now that is a nice reduction in expenses while at the same time we can continue to provide top value to our customers.

Will the emergency home office become the corporate standard?

As employees realized that remote work would last for longer than the original two weeks that we were told, many chose to relocate to more suburban locations to avoid the congestion of the cities and the potential for infection. What if they don’t come back? The reality is that for those who want to come back, there may not be an office to come back to.

Imagine a world in which the responsibility for the work environment rests with the employee rather than the employer. This may seem nirvana to some, but a recent and very informal survey on the home office environment conducted using a random sampling of colleagues has divulged the following:

  • The majority of remote workers are using their kitchen tables as a desk.
  • A few have taken over the living room sofa and coffee table.
  • Several had seconded a spare bedroom.
  • One hid in their bedroom with a laptop in an attempt to shut out the sound of their kids who are both engaged in remote schooling.
  • I was the only person with a formal office in my home. That said, it is overrun with foster puppies.

The truth is, the home office needs some work, and it’s time to stop thinking of it as a temporary emergency solution. This does not relieve the enterprise of the obligation to provide a safe and workable environment and now is the time for organizations to formulate a plan. The reality is that we have been thinking about this transition for a while now, even pre-COVID. We just never thought the opportunity would be real.

Considerations for the employee

Cisco Webex

While it is important for the enterprise to own and manage cybersecurity and promote employee satisfaction related to the home office, employees need to take on some of the responsibility to remain engaged and productive. Nicholas Rubright, digital marketing specialist at Cisco Webex, suggests that the best location for a home office is a quiet location, preferably with a door, as a peaceful environment is a huge advantage when trying to focus. Nicholas also stresses the importance of investing in a good chair. Perhaps the enterprise can consider a one-time incentive to help remote workers set up a comfortable and productive environment by adding an ergonomically-friendly chair and an external monitor. Nicholas and I agree that a wired connection is a must. With the reliance on video conferencing, lag can be horribly irritating.

Cisco Webex

Temporary is a relative term

The emergency remote office has turned out to be not so temporary. Many remote workers have set up their own personal temporary solution, but it’s time to be thinking of something more long-term. Enterprising organizations are leading the way to prepare for the seemingly inevitable longevity of the home office. This means a shared responsibility between employee and employer. It also means that I need a door to keep the foster puppies out.

home office

Featured image: Shutterstock

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