This article was written at the outset of COVID-19.
Having gone through the set-up of home offices, and the adoption of new business practices, processes, and tools, many now can’t wait to get back into the office. Why is this?
It is because the choice to do so was taken away.
According to recent research by Forbes, millennials in particular have struggled to adapt to working from home, which is hardly surprising given that they had no choice in the matter. What is absolutely critical here, though, is that this is not a struggle to adapt to remote working, it is a struggle to adapt to isolation. The opportunity to go to the gym, see friends, eat out, visit family, or indulge in any of the escape mechanisms that life usually affords us has been curtailed, and this is a struggle that I’d guess most of us are feeling.
Despite running a creative agency specifically set up to work remotely, I too am desperate for a change of environment, and that is because this is not really remote working. However, there has been a shift in working practices which is unlikely to be completely undone even upon the return to the office, so how can we make the most of this moving forward?
If the role of the office is likely to change, along with greater flexibility and working practices what is the key to remote working success?
The difference between those organisations that have been forced into adopting new working practices and those already set up to operate remotely is choice. Do not underestimate how important a factor this is, and it works on two levels. Recently, the Harvard Business Review investigated the link between levels of motivation and working location, finding working from home to generally be less motivating. Critically, though, they also determined that this suffered a huge plunge when the option to choose the environment is taken away; being forced to work from home is the worst possible option. Human beings react negatively when their freedom to make a choice is removed, and this ‘psychological reactance’ generates such negative feeling that it’s unsurprising motivation dwindles as a consequence.
This leads me into the second branch of why choice is so important. As I mentioned previously, being forced to work from home is not true remote working. The effect on all of our lives has been drastic, and our psychological reaction has been one of stress and anxiety. But let me be clear, we must break the cognitive link that has been formed between forced isolation and remote working, because it is false. However unintentionally, we now associate it with this sense of cabin fever and lowered productivity that we are feeling, and this damages the true potential of authentic remote working.
98% want to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.
Source: Buffer – State of remote report.
For many that have chosen to forge their own path away from permanent employment and the office, the choice to do so has been made accessible to them as a consequence of their level of experience and expertise. Their years within industry enable them to both perform their roles with a greater degree of autonomy, and fit this around other aspects of their lives; family, exercise, hobbies, personal projects etc. The difference here is that, whilst traditional agencies may well be ‘pivoting’ (sorry I know that word belongs in a box with ‘Agile’) away from the office, they do not benefit from the intrinsic culture of an organization comprised of people that have chosen to work this way. Well before the Covid-19 crisis, which has confused the reality of remote working with forced home working, the majority of companies had flexible working policies in place, and an investigation by Vodafone back in 2016 found that 61% of respondents reported increased profits, and 83% reported increased productivity.
Setting up Sparro House Creative, flexibility and wellbeing have been at the forefront of my mind, and it’s clear to me that these are inextricably linked not only with each other, but with improved output and increased value. With the level of experience in my teams, it benefits neither myself nor them to impose a work routine that fails to take into consideration both the other important things in their life, and the fact that they may well do their best and most creative work at 5am, perhaps before their children have woken up (hopefully!), or at their local coffee shop, in our clients offices or collaborating in shared spaces. This is true remote working – the option to choose how the work thread weaves into the rest of your life. It’s important this message is clear, this freedom reduces workplace stress and increases productivity.
Of course, this structure is dependent on trust between team members, including myself, that the work will be completed efficiently and to the highest standard. In turn, this trust is reliant on industry experience. It is the senior team members who have the expertise that allows them to work in this way and make effective and timely decisions. With the acceleration of decision-making caused by the current crisis, this is vital.
Talisman Sparro is a brand and marketing consultancy for high-growth businesses.