Remote Working – Thoughts on what the future may hold?

BrightBox's Michael Gent discusses how working from home (WFH) is the new normal, and what the future may hold in a post-Covid-19 working world.

Working from home - previously a perk or a pain? I guess this depends on your perspective as either employee or employer. But regardless of positive or negative connotations, with the current Covid-19 global pandemic, as of April 2020 an estimated 50% of the UK workforce is currently working from home. Considering the pre Covid-19 figure sat at between 4 - 5%, how has this massive change affected our approach to working from home….or ”WFH”?

Right now, I’m in my office where I hot desk with my fellow workers. I have my two screens, a mug of coffee and up until the washing machine starts to rattle on a spin cycle, a pretty quiet and harmonious working environment. I, like many other workers across the UK, am starting week eight of working from home. My desk doubles up as the kitchen table after 5:30pm and the two screens get relegated to the floor till the next day. My co-workers consist of my flat mate & girlfriend. It’s a bit of a tight squeeze fitting three of us around a kitchen of a Manchester flat, but we’ve been doing our best to make things work, like much of the rest of the world. Apart from occasionally having to run into the bedroom to answer calls, we have been quite a successful WFH trio.

So, things seem to be going ok for me, but what about the rest of the nation? Well, global consumer goods company, Unilever, reported worldwide sales of personal grooming products such as shampoo have fallen significantly since early April. However, sales of household cleaning products have shot up. It seems we are not looking after our personal hygiene and instead making sure our homes are spotless. We all know cleanliness is close to godliness, but what about happiness? On a different tangent, a 2017 study from UWE Bristol on commuting found a link between a longer commute and lower levels of both job and leisure time satisfaction. The average commute in the UK is about one hour a day, so ten hours a week of extra downtime seems pretty good to me, but could I better use that time, more than likely. However, on the flip side, last year, a study of 2,500 remote workers by online brand development agency Buffer found that loneliness was the second-most reported challenge, one experienced by 19% of respondents. Loneliness can make people feel less motivated and less productive.

As for the employer’s perspective, I got on a zoom call with Stu Houghton – our CEO of BrightBox Group, leading provider of technology & consultancy services.

Stu, prior to Covid-19 what was the general managerial perception of WFH & how have you found the switch?

A lot of us had a little bit more of an old school perspective on working from home. From a general market perspective, the implicit trust that needs to be there, wasn’t there. In hindsight it was us, management, thinking the individual couldn’t do the same work from home. But that has been turned on its head very quickly with this rapidly evolving change to working practices. Everything to do with WFH was previously a choice. Now Covid-19 has forced everyone over night to rethink this. It happened so fast. The movement from office to home working would have taken weeks to plan and implement. People have shown their ability to adapt quickly and simply to get on with it. As long as the technology could support it, there almost wasn’t a glitch with the switch. This surprised a lot of people and WFH has been embraced a whole lot better than we thought.

What about after? How do you see the future of WFH?

A big question is how do we learn from this? It has shone a light on a different way of working, across many sectors. We never overly embraced WFH but circumstance has forced the need to question large spaces of work and their necessity. There are some issues we need to work on. Remote working is successful if there is structure, regime and touch points. Currently every call is purposeful, and we need to bring ‘unstructured interactions’ into play. The 2-minute watercooler conversation is gone. These are useful for both sharing ideas and maintaining general morale. One way around this could be encouraging leaders to give a short point of view or update on every call to hopefully help encourage staff to do the same.

With regard to the end game? No more large office spaces? We could share a communal space to get that ‘human element’ once or twice a week, but the rest of the time we could achieve what we need to from home. Which also helps balance personal life and work. New workspace models are going to be necessary. I firmly believe that some element of structured get together is important for morale, the soul and wellbeing of the team.

Long term there will be a change - we hear this from our clients we are talking to as well. But it does raise questions. How does the office work with social distancing? Logistically, it can be very difficult, and there is a high chance that if we aren’t careful this could become much less effective. Just simple tasks like trying to get a coffee but keeping two meters apart need to be thought through.

Finally, the news is dealing us doom and gloom by the cart load at the moment. What are some of the silver linings you’ve found from WFH?

Reengaging with the family is a great by-product. More sleep and dinner with the family have had a very positive impact on me. Having the ability to manage my time better is also good. I’m loving the release of the travel time too. I’m saving an hour and a half a day!

I also spoke to Neville Roberts – CEO of Planixs – a fintech company that specialise in intraday liquidity software for the financial sector. A charming Scouser, Nev is always happy to share an opinion. Especially if it’s in any way football related. (Let’s just not mention how this season might finish).

Nev, working from home, has your perspective changed in light of recent events?

WFH in general – years ago, no one did this at all! However, efficiency and effectiveness are the most important things in our sector. If you can show me we are as efficient, or more, then I’d work from home! The problem is, it’s not tested, there’s no data at this scale, no benchmarks. As a software business we are used to service levels and KPIs, our clients manage us against these on a daily basis, so we are looking at the same against our internal processes and practices. Ultimately, if we are all working to the same targets, then we are ok. The only thing we can do is trust the numbers. In the past we may have seen efficiencies go down, but NOW in the last six weeks, we’ve seen a change. Our people are there when we need them.

Has this affected your thoughts on alternative delivery models?

We have had a blended nearshore/onshore delivery model for some time, and so the team as a whole, are used to team members being remote. I always thought it was as efficient and now that is getting reinforced. The model in the last 6 – 8 weeks has proven that an entire business working remotely works. It’s about skills and what you can give to a virtual team. Visibility is important. It helps communication. Sometimes in tech you benefit from being in the office. But the big question I get asked is, nearshore is cheaper but what do you lose? Wage arbitration means I can do a piece of work for half the price and as we are now seeing, remote working works.

How has your work been affected personally?

Discipline is a big thing. I’m working harder now. I can start at 7:30 and not finish till after 9pm. It all just merges. That may be more lockdown though. I can see things being different if I were able to go out. My home discipline has gone out the window. I enjoy putting in a shift but you need working patterns. The Planixs folks are accessible when you call them. We need to work harder to create demarcation lines between work and non-work.

On a broader note, what does the business look like for Planixs?

It should be good news. In times of crisis, liquidity becomes more important and we specialise in selling liquidity software to financial institutions. Customers want to have visibility of cashflow under normal market conditions and create contingency plans to reduce risk in times of crisis. Our software suite gives real time visibility and analysis of this data. So, in theory a lot of banks and large corporates should be looking at this thinking this is fundamental to their business. We’ve had some of that feedback from prospects. Some are in crisis mode right now but recognise they need to get around to having this capability.

So, these are the thoughts of both employee and employer based on what we know today. There are both pros and cons to home working. It’s certainly made life different. Times have changed very quickly in the last two months. With Google saying they expect their staff to stay at home till 2021 and the general specter of uncertainty that seems to be hanging over the globe at the moment, I will be returning to this topic in another few months to see how things have played out.

At BrightBox we are constantly onboarding individuals and teams in this new remote working environment, so if you want to chat through how you could approach it in your business then get in touch, we would be happy to spend half an hour or so talking it through. We also work with a partner who helps implement remote working technologies across small and large organisations…again, if this would be of use then drop us a line.

In the meantime, one final thought: we may be using less personal hygiene products, but always remember to wear trousers for a Zoom Meeting!

WFH