We’ve just witnessed the single biggest change in working practices in the history of modern business. It happened overnight. Millions shifted from working in soulless city centre offices to earning their crust from a desk in their bedroom, kitchen or garage.
There has been a lot of self-congratulation. Many have been amazed that they have been able to maintain a semblance of their working lives without the need for that dreaded, exhausting and painful commute. But now the honest truth is suddenly dawning – remote working isn’t working, very well.
All we have done is digitise old rituals. What we haven’t done is realise the power and potential of the remote worker by creating new habits that are truly engaging, efficient and productive.
At first, the daily hangouts, Zooms and Skypes were novel. Now the savvy realise these e-meetings need re-thought to become more effective forums of communication and collaboration.
Executives are all at sea over how to balance oversight with empowerment for teams who are now out of sight and out of mind. They’re struggling with how to maintain cohesion of purpose and team working in this new environment.
There are concerns around the duty of care. How can you spot the tell-tale signs of someone who needs help or nurturing in the virtual world?
How can you work to mould culture and values when there are such physical barriers between leaders and their people? What does it mean for team dynamics and office politics? How do we deliver effective learning and development and foster esprit de corps?
The wi-fi issues are also frustrating – creaking on an overloaded network and turning the simplest of corporate exchanges into water torture.
But it’s not the technology that’s the real issue. It’s the people. If there was ever a need for a true coaching culture in our corporate world, it is now. It is that combination of coaching and technology which will make remote working a true gamechanger.
Let’s also accept this new way of working discriminates against those who live in dysfunctional homes. It favours those who can afford to create more pleasant and inspiring spaces in their flats and houses. It will widen the social divide in corporate Britain
Most obviously, it blurs the lines between home and work – confusing when you are out of office and when is family time. It brings children, dogs and grandparents into the corporate environment in a way which can be endearing but also needs careful managing.
There’s also the issues of isolation and loneliness. Add to that the potentially costly reputational and financial risks of corporate security.
There is an assumption that many of the people who have recently moved to home working may never return to the office. That has its own implications for commercial real estate and for the micro-economies of our business districts.
Homeworking has the potential to be truly transformational but not the way we’re doing it today. We need to act now to solve the dilemmas it creates. No matter the colossal challenges we face in British business, there will never be a better chance to create a new world of work.
Atholl Duncan is Chair of the leadership development business, Black Isle Group.
Published in City AM newspaper website in May 2020