Wednesday, July 22, 2020

My case to remain working from home.

It's been a strange time for the past four or five months. I have been tempted many times to write a blog about my feelings on it all, but that would just turn into a foul mouthed rant, screaming about my frustrations at those who just don't seem to get it. So instead I have saved myself for a more grounded entry, full of deep thoughts and considerations to the Work From Home world that we rapidly morphed into in March 2020.

Since March, I like many many other people in the UK, and indeed around the world, have been working from home. Blessed with an office based job, and a flexible (within reason) company, once the word Covid became common place, a massive effort was made to get everyone who could work from home, set up at home and working as smoothly as possible. I played my little part in the early efforts, getting the machines in our office compliant and set up, spending evenings searching for Wi-Fi dongles for everyone to use, and helping trouble shoot for other teams getting up and running.

From the moment I got set up at home, it was a whole new world for me, for a number of reasons. Setting myself up at home meant I could use other equipment I already had at home, so a two screen set up instead of one, better keyboard and mouse, and dare I say a much better internet connection. But there are other benefits too, some people will already know some of them, so lets get into it, and run through the pros and cons of WFH.

Firstly, no commuting. For someone who once commuted by train, I know the misery of it. Bad weather, delays, crowded carriages, not to mention interactions with a 1,001 annoying, rude, miserable, arrogant people. And yes, I am sure I fit into some of those categories for some too. In the summer, it's hot and stuffy, not to mention over crowded, and a guaranteed face full of armpit on any busy train. In the winter, it's cold, wet and miserable, not to mention even more crowded, with the increase in numbers due to most not wanting to walk or cycle.
Add to that mix a healthy dose of anxiety, and on some days, it's a simple non starter. The idea of being tightly packed into a train, with people looking at you, some wanting to speak to you, send shivers down my spine just thinking about it to write this, brrrr!!

Of course you can drive! Simple solution, no weather effects, run to your own timetable so long as you plan for delays on the road, sorted! But... There are a few downsides to this too. Parking for starters, not everyone has good parking near their place of work, and the residents near large businesses suffer badly from mass parking on their residential streets. Then there is theft from your vehicle. Parked away from home, out of sight, I have fallen victim to theft from my car twice now. Of course that can happen anywhere, but if it puts your car out of use, you are stuck back with the train or bus.
But lets touch on the real one here, environment! If the lockdown as taught us anything, it is that without commuters on the road, and a heavily reduced school run, the roads are empty, the air is cleaner, and the world is a happier place, well, so to speak!

Having cycled in town for the past few weeks, even with numbers of vehicles on the road starting to climb again, the roads are a much happier place. When walking or cycling, if you take a moment, you notice a serious lack of irritated and stressed people. The sound of a car horn is a rare thing right now, as people are not stuck in long traffic jams, no-one is taking the piss cutting in, and the number of serious carseholes (see what I did there!) is rock bottom. Surely that is a good status quo, and one we want to keep?

I know it isn't practical for everyone who is working from home to stay working from home, but even if those who could, and want to, were able to, that would cut down on the number of people on the move in the rush-hour. That's a good thing, right? Reducing the number of vehicles on the roads, and passenger numbers on public transport, is a massive improvement for those who HAVE to use these methods. There has long been a push to reduce car journeys, increase bicycle usage, make public transport more bearable for those using it. But we never had a way, or should I say there was never a way that most companies would consider.

Six months ago, if most office based employees had approached their companies, either their line manager, or a senior director, the idea of allowing people to work from home would have been sneered at, and written off as too expensive, not viable, and a million and one other stonewall reasons. Yet here we are.
When Covid popped up, it forced the hand of many major companies, as well as a lot of smaller ones, to find ways to continue operating, but also to follow government guidelines on safe work environments, and social distancing. Suddenly, WFH was a reality, and who'd a thunk it, not as bad as most companies and employees had thought it might be. Amazing what can be done when it benefits a business!

Since that time, systems like Teams and Zoom have become common place, acronyms like WFH, VPN have become second nature, and a whole new world has been born. The phrase, "the new normal" gets used a lot now, and for me, personally, WFH is the new norm. Or at least I hope and pray it can be.

But before I carry on pleading to remain working from home, let me continue to delve into the mystical world of working from home, and share some of my reasons it's a positive thing, sometimes on a purely selfish and personal level.

Imagine for a moment, if we DON'T go back to normal. If say even 25% of the traffic never returns to the rush-hour. If 25% less people are crammed into train carriages and buses during peak times. If some of those, even maybe a larger number choose to use bicycles to get to work, using the less congested, less dangerous roads, and some of the wonderful cycling infrastructure which is appearing. Those who can work from home do so, while those who NEED to go to their place of work, have the space to arrive fresher, calmer, and ready to work. Rather than stressed, and needing 10 mins to compose themselves, before shutting down mentally 30 mins before the end of the day, as they begin to contemplate the nightmare journey home.

Add to this, the environmental impact, and the green credentials for businesses. Lets be honest here, we are becoming more and more environmentally aware these days, and businesses want to be able to proudly boast about how they have reduced their carbon footprint. You don't have to be a transport company, or a heavy industry to be responsible for your carbon footprint. Any business, especially one which requires large volumes of people to travel daily to a common office space to work as an individual. Call centres for example, that requirement, as a business demands hundreds if not thousands of people to travel daily, by all means. Each one, another footprint in the sand.
If your record as a company was recorded as footprints in the sand, would you want your image to be a beach in Marbella in the middle of the school holidays, or a Caribbean paradise, with a few solitary footprints disappearing into the sunset? OK that was a bit weird I know, but you get my gist.
Every movement of employees counts, even if you as a company do not use vehicles for business .

School holidays
The peak time for people to book time off work. Lots of families using almost all their annual leave to make sure there is someone home for the kids during school holidays. With a school year being about 39-40 weeks a year, that means some families struggle to make sure there is care for their children for 12 weeks of the year. Imagine being able to be home, working, but able to be sure the kids are safe. Being able to book a few days off during the school term so you can recharge, and have some time to yourselves while the kids are safely at school. Wouldn't that be nice.
It is something that most families will never have been able to consider, a break from the mad school run, then dash to work, then rush home to make sure you are home when they get back from after school club. Heck, what if they didn't need after school club, and could come straight home. Save another few quid a day right there.

Sickness / Attendance
Next up is attendance, and of course this is something which directly affects and benefits the companies. I don't know about the teams you work in, but the bigger the team, the more frequent it is that there is a sickness, or short notice absence due to home matters. Be it a sickness which just makes travel and being in a social space un-viable, or a burst water pipe, and having to wait home for an emergency plumber. Oh or childcare, mustn't forget childcare emergencies!
Whatever the case, absence of any sort is disruptive on a number of levels. Increased workload on the team, unable to participate in group meetings to name a couple. With work from home, most emergencies or cases of sickness still allow the employee to participate, even at a slightly lesser level, rather than be out of the business.
For me personally, the team I work in, has had ONE sickness since March, and that was the employee who was still choosing to work from a company office and not home. And of course, not to mention timekeeping. No more "the train was late" or "my car broke down", you wake up at work!

Then of course there is flexibility. A good example for me in my role is, the other night, after I had finished work there was a problem. Under normal circumstances I would be at home with no access to company systems, but with the PC at home I was able to log in and help resolve the matter, hours after I would usually have been able to help. I am sure this sort of thing could apply to others too. Also under the banner of flexibility, is being able to change working hours, attend online team meetings, and work later if required. All things I am happy to do now, and continue to keep doing moving forward. If this was an office based environment, my decisions on being able to be this flexible would depend on travel, prior arrangements at home etc.
I for one, if at home out of work hours, and asked to perform a task, help with a matter or do something else work related, would be more than happy to do what I needed to, if the situation permitted it. Which lets face it, if you are home, the chances are you can.

Mental Health
There are two sides to every coin, and mental health is no different. For some like myself, we struggle on a daily basis with issues like anxiety of the environment we work in, being around too many people, interactions with others in a busy work environment. This isn't to say its impossible, but the past few months for me, even with the added uncertainty of everyday life, have been far easier mentally. Once of course I got out of the routine of being housebound. As an avid cyclist, being cooped up indoors for weeks on end finally took its toll on me. However now I am getting out for my fix of air daily, in the form of rides and walks, all is well. In fact, all is amazing!
And again, in a more generalised view, people with mental health conditions are commonly adverse to getting public transport as I mentioned earlier. Enclosed, uncertainty etc. Either way, mental health deserves a look in here for sure, especially as over recent months there has been a sharp inline in people struggling.

It would be ignorant of me at this point not to mention that the other side of the coin is those who have struggled without the social interactions of the work place environment. This group also needs careful consideration, and how both groups can achieve their highest working output, while being taken care of on a mental level. It is all well and good for me to bang the drum of isolation and WFH, but I totally get that some want and need the complete opposite. I am sure with some careful consideration a happy compromise can be reached, while the company benefits also financially from the changes.

It is hard to write a piece on the benefits of WFH and not mention it in its own right. Covid-19 at this point in time is still the enemy, no known treatment or vaccine for it, and still not much known about transmission of it. With that in mind, some people in society, a shrinking number at a worrying rate, as considerate of contracting and passing on the virus. So with this in mind, the responsible among us are still observing social distancing, minimising interactions with others, and keeping a heightened sense of personal hygiene. Of course, companies also have a responsibility to be "Covid compliant" and make adaptations to working environments to protect against transmission, which costs money. The bigger the company, the bigger the outlay, so obviously it would make sense to allow people to remain working in their own bubbles.
In time we will get a handle on Covid I am sure, be it vaccine or a herd immunity, but the road map that it has set out for businesses and how we work will remain deeply embossed in the work environment.

Just like they say a war drives the greatest leaps and advancements in technology, so Covid, a global pandemic will go down in history in changing the way some people work, and businesses operate forever. A genuinely momentous time for many I am sure.

So as a quick overview and to add a few more points into the mix, let me summarise my thoughts so far.

So long as those working from home are as productive as they are at work, if not more so, are willing to attend the workplace when requested to do so, for a meeting, a day at the office, or other work related matters, and behave in a way that is fitting with the requirements of their employer, there is initially no immediate reason from a productivity standpoint that WFH should not be viable moving forward.
There is an element of "hands off" for managers, which I would expect is a concern for some places. When the boss is away and all that. However, as grown-ups, we as employees should be respectful of the length of rope we have been given, and not try to take more, but instead appreciate the freedoms it allows us. Not abuse them to a point that it will all be reconsidered and taken away again. For some roles there will never be a spare moment to try and take liberties, for others, they will no doubt find a way to make it work to their advantage.

I would completely expect any company to exercise the right to check up on staff, be it home visits, check calls, or video calls to ensure you are present and correct. Any violation of that, in my opinion should be treated as gross misconduct. I would not expect any permanent WFH scheme to come without terms, and am pretty much onboard with anything I can imagine those terms might be.

I hear from a few friends now that some of the large businesses they work for are taking huge strides towards changing in the long term to WFH. Global companies with large swathes of  their workforce being offered WFH permanently, or simply told there will be no offices to return to when the pandemic subsides, instead their roles are now WFH.

Some people I know have questioned the cost of working from home. Who pays for the electricity, are there insurance implications, what about equipment for use at home. For me, I have the space, an office already set up, and a good broadband connection, so I am good to go. I would happily pay for some of my own equipment for my home office if the role were to change to a work from home role for sure. Standing desk for starters! I don't expect this is the situation for everyone, and would not for a second expect everyone to be of the same mindset as me, but would encourage careful consideration of how life changing working from home is.
Sickness reduced, no commuting, ability to deal with unforeseen circumstances, always home for deliveries, closer to your health care providers for appointments, control of your preferred working environment including temperate, background noise, lighting etc. Whats not to love!

OK for some it is probably the perfect storm, stuck at home with family all day, constant interruptions, no space or alone time. All things that some strive for daily. Something for both employers and employees to consider. Either way, the past four months have been both a trial period, and a snapshot and sneak peek into the future, hopefully!

Can you tell I am pro Work From Home yet?

I will leave it there for now.
I am sure I have left loads out, but having thought about writing this for a long time now, I thought I would at least make a start on it, I am sure there is more to follow soon.

Good for businesses, saves running costs on buildings, reduces the sick leave, improves timekeeping and flexibility to name a few highlights.
Bad for business of course could be not being able to keep an eye on tricky staff members (simple solution for that). Raises questions over work space management, and wellbeing.

Good for workers, no commuting, reduced travel time/costs, ability to work when not feeling great, more free time, own work environment.
Bad for workers, questions over expenses, not everyone has space long term, losing "away" time from home.

So what is YOUR take on work from home? Would you if you were offered it long term (only where applicable to your job), do you have concerns over costs, and long term effect? What percentage of the working week would you want to split between office and home?

Here's to all the companies who can accommodate this new way of working, doing so, and may it work to the advantage of everyone involved, not just a few.

Once I have read this through again, I am sure I will find things I missed, and write another blog to cover that too. Sorry in advance.

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