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How is the world’s mass homeworking experiment going?

Homeworking experiment

Kevin Sneader, global managing partner of McKinsey, did not expect to spend part of this year on the consulting firm’s “Dog Blog” forum, where staff are alleviating the stress of enforced remote working by showing off their pets online. Mr Sneader, riding out the pandemic at his in-laws’ house in Florida, is a cat-lover (online, he has inevitably been dubbed the managing “purr-tner”). Other colleagues have brought their dogs, chickens, geese, and, one day, he says, “someone showed up with their horse”.

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered an experiment in mass remote working that is putting strain on resources, human and technological. It is taxing the physical and mental wellbeing of staff, and perhaps changing the way people work permanently. But it is also prompting ingenious solutions and workarounds to the difficulties of doing business at a distance and the more personal challenges of isolation, boredom and forced integration of home and work life.

In Germany, clusters of parents working for Unilever, the consumer products group, have set up a virtual childcare system, where one of the group tends to the others’ children online while the rest get on with their work.

TED, the organiser of conferences and webcasts, has set up a virtual space where staff can work “alongside” each other — “separately, but not alone” — in an effort to replicate working in a coffee shop or a shared office. TED suggests breaking for five minutes every hour for activities such as “jumping jacks or push-ups” or “1-minute pep talks”. Some McKinsey consultants have used remote factory-floor cameras to carry out virtual site visits, where participants tune in via Zoom videoconferencing to critique plans to bring the facility back to full production after the crisis.

Following India’s decision to send its citizens home last week, it is estimated as much as a quarter of the world’s population is now living under some form of coronavirus lockdown. Not all are able to work from home, but many companies have been caught out by the scale of the demand for equipment and support for remote workers.

Contingency plans can only get employers so far, says Gemma Dale, an HR consultant. “A lot of organisations have been very resistant to flexible working in general. Although there’s huge evidence that it works, there’s real resistance.” Their objection to flexibility will come “home to roost”, she says.

Some 65,000 of Unilever’s 155,000-strong workforce are now operating remotely. Leena Nair, chief human resources officer, says the company “had to buy 1,000 laptops overnight” as well as dongles that allow 4G internet access, so that more of its 4,000 Indian staff could work from home.

In tandem, companies have had to activate new channels of communication and support for remote workers. Slack’s chief executive Stewart Butterfield said on Twitter that by the middle of last week the online collaboration tool had signed up 9,000 net new paid customers for its first quarter, compared with 5,000 in each of the previous two quarters.

Communication overdrive

One risk is that as companies grapple with the operational impact of the pandemic, workers stuck at home are tempted to work nonstop. Managers, meanwhile, go into communication overdrive, using multiple videoconferencing and messaging tools.

Amanda Arrowsmith, an interim HR director, says: “I’ve worked from home since the 2000s but the last two weeks have been hell. My diary every morning is packed [with] calls. Everything has to be a meeting, everyone has to be involved in every call. At [the office], you see people and have a quick chat.” Now everyone is called into a video-meeting to avoid leaving anyone out.

There is a divide among managers, says Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research at Gartner, between those who trust their employees to get on with their work and micromanagers. “There’s a significant number who are tracking and measuring [their team] by holding meetings. But the reality is that those meetings are stopping them from doing work.”

The coronavirus crisis is highlighting that many managers are ill-equipped to judge good work. Instead, they use presenteeism and visibility as a proxy. Helen Beedham, director of Cityparents, a professional network, says that traditionally, “even where flexible working policies exist there is still a culture of presenteeism in the City [of London]. You are judged by face-time rather than what you do. There’s a lack of confidence with managers about how to assess [work]. Parents who have done remote working have felt they are ‘out of sight out of mind’.”

She suspects that the person who is available for every video conference and responds swiftly to emails will continue to be valued more highly than those who do not. Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School, says this reveals how management is still driven by ideology. Strict guidelines for online work reflect that managers “think people are going to goof off. They forget that people can goof off in the office too”.

Ali Kazmi, a partner in EY’s UK financial services team, recognises the problem. He lives with his mother, who has underlying health conditions, and his eight-year-old son, while his wife, a doctor, works nights on the NHS’s 111 helpline. Now in week three of working from home, he says it has taken him some time to adjust: “It’s very easy to end up with a longer day. I’ve personally started to put mechanisms in place to socially distance myself from my laptop.” Unless it is an emergency, he is not responding to emails overnight or at the weekend.

Other companies are starting to put in place measures to ensure that staff can switch off. Brendan McCafferty, chief executive of Brightside, a UK insurance broker, says he noticed after a few days that “I wasn’t taking a break; I was enjoying the temptation of being on the phone constantly”. Brightside now plans to set out some “call-free zones” at lunchtime and after 7pm, when only urgent business matters justify contacting colleagues.

Childcare juggle

Combining working at home while also looking after children is putting employees under greater strain. Some mothers have been told by employers that women are being furloughed, or asked to take unpaid parental leave, while their male peers are not. Mubeen Bhutta, head of policy at Working Families, a work-life balance charity, says such behaviour is discriminatory and calls for “employers to have sensible conversations about how [employees with caring responsibilities] can flex their hours, what they can continue to accommodate.”

Many working parents combining childcare with multiple online meetings complain that they are unable to get meaningful work done until later in the day.

Responsibility for childcare is playing out differently across the workforce. While some will split it equally, Ms Beedham, says she has received complaints from women having “to accommodate [their partner’s] work calls and diaries, step up and be more available during the day but it’s new territory for the couples. It’s forcing more questions and more communication.”

A lot of Cityparents’ members were already struggling to balance work and home life. “The biggest concern is staying sane,” says Ms Beedham. “You are at home with kids, without childcare, you have to manage every meal with your normal workload. It’s such a daunting prospect. The more that individuals find their morale dropping, [the more] they will struggle with the work, on top of fears about job security.”

In the early stages of lockdown, these domestic strains are manageable. Unilever staff in Egypt have made light of the pressure by devising a “fight-o-meter” to log how often they fall out with partners or children. But as the crisis drags on, such issues are bound to become more serious. For some, office work is a refuge. In the UK, there are already reports of domestic violence rates increasing.

One solution is for managers to accommodate home and work needs, by asking their teams to be available at fixed hours on certain days. “Some managers are saying, we’re going to have office hours from 10-12, Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” says Mr Kropp. “During those office hour blocks the expectation is that you’ll be there. Outside those blocks, your hours are your own as long as you get the work done. It’s a middle ground.”

Some groups, such as EY, are extending their special paid leave offer to allow people to take time off to attend to caring responsibilities. Others, like Headspace, the mindfulness app, recognise that normal outputs will have to be altered. Rich Pierson, the CEO, says, “if you’ve suddenly got children at home with you all day, it’s going to be extremely difficult to maintain the same level of productivity as you had going into the office all day . . . [we’ve adjusted] our expectations around productivity”.

The lockdown has made some types of interaction more efficient. The HR director at a law firm says annual pay conversations have been easier as everyone can assemble on a call, rather than having to accommodate different work patterns.

Regional divide

The crisis also highlights regional differences. One human resources head at a global bank said the group knew that moving the workforce to home working was possible after Hong Kong and China did it. “We’ve been leaning on them a little bit for guidance and support.” There was a slight sense among the Asian workforce that the rest of the world only sat up and noticed when the virus landed on their own doorstep. “There’s a definite east and west divide.”

Other companies with global reach are learning from staff in nations that have already been affected by Covid-19. Last week, Unilever invited country leaders in China and Italy to talk to other leaders about their experience, including how the China team had redeployed facilities and catering staff to manufacturing and delivery roles when their offices closed.

For guidance about how to handle this crisis, BP has revisited how it handled the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded its US headquarters in Houston in 2017, obliging 5,000 staff to work remotely, some for many months. Richard Heron, the energy group’s chief medical officer, says he is already thinking about how to deal with the longer range impact of isolation, particularly on those workers whose roles — — in organising business travel, meetings, or site visits, say — seem temporarily redundant. “We’re providing guidance to line managers on how to manage more effectively remotely,” he says, and BP has accelerated the rollout of Headspace, going “from concept to contract” in five days, a process that would normally take three months.

Rocío Bonet of IE Business School in Madrid Research into remote working by Rocío Bonet of IE Business School in Madrid suggested that teams micromanaged by inexperienced leaders benefited from the distance from their boss. Those companies whose line managers were suspicious of remote working may emerge from the crisis “realising that this can be done”, she says.

On the other hand, the fact so many people are compelled to work remotely is likely to impose great strain on less prepared small and medium-sized businesses and those staff who are less suited to being out of the office. Other research led by Nick Bloom of Stanford suggests that the greatest productivity benefit from flexible working comes when staff are given a choice of where to locate.

Matt Dean, co-founder of Byrne Dean, a workplace consultancy that works with financial services and law firms, says this is a big opportunity for leaders to show their human side. “Everyone is facing the same foe, there is something obvious and pressing that we can connect on and be human with each other about.” He suspects, however, that some of the more “emotionally repressed” partners at law firms might struggle to step up.

Such a quick shift from the office to home raises concerns about where an employer’s responsibility to its workers becomes intrusive, says Phoebe Moore, associate professor of political economy and technology at Leicester University. Technology is a “great avenue for surveillance. In the home working environment it starts at the beginning when you open your laptop. As you’re managed remotely, the employer can work out when you start. Once these enter the home, the private-public workspace collapses”.

Ms Dale says the key is flexibility. “Almost every part of the usual working from home best practice doesn’t apply. There’s no one-size fits all. It’s about [managers] flexing their approach and having a virtual door open. Recognising that there’s going to be no rules at the moment as people work it out. They need empathy and trust. We don’t know how long it will go on for. People just need to cut themselves some slack.”

Road ahead

The long-term consequences of obligatory remote working are hard to predict.

The crisis is certainly already making many managers and workers realise what is possible. “We have learnt that we’re capable of doing colossally challenging things in a short time,” says Brightside’s Mr McCafferty. Some of the emergency investment will also stick. Nick Ulycz, chief operating officer of appliance warranty provider Domestic & General, says the 900 laptops it had to buy to allow its call centre staff to work remotely should allow them to continue to work more flexibly in future. “Not only should [flexible working] have an obvious retention benefit, and avoid costly overheads, we could switch on demand when needed . . . difficult to imagine going back,” he says. McKinsey’s Mr Sneader says the Covid-19 emergency has accelerated the firm “to the next generation of online tools that we’ve been talking about moving to for ages”.

But while the crisis persists, the feeling of alienation from colleagues is bound to increase. “I’m a big hugger,” says Unilever’s Ms Nair. “Social distancing is really hard for me because I really miss the banter and physical hugging.”

Author and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan says: “The social aspect of work and the sense of camaraderie is really important to a lot of people . . . It makes what could be a grind quite fun. A lot of people are [now] saying ‘I’m getting my work done but it’s quite hard for it to feel meaningful’.”

Judging from McKinsey’s experience in China, Mr Sneader says that around the five-week mark staff start to wonder anxiously if they will ever emerge from lockdown. “The first two or three weeks, everyone is nicely adrenalin-fuelled,” Ms Nair adds. “Everyone’s mission-driven; they’re working hard. The energy begins to dip when you’re 30 or 40 days into the journey.” It is a hint of what lies in store for remote workers in the UK, US and elsewhere as the pandemic reaches its peak.

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