Let them work from home – if they want to?

In Association with:

Frovi logo black

Thanks to everyone who took part:

Kristoff DuBose, Cirkularis8 | Lee Day, 360 Workplace | Natalie Spraggon, BuckleyGrayYeoman | Nic Pryke, Oktra | Laurie Chetwood, Chetwoods Architects | Sally Marshall, Turner & Townsend | Simon Jackson, sjjdc | Steffan Williams, Scott Brownrigg

In the modern era, IBM were one of the pioneers of ‘working from home’. Then, in March last year, the company announced that thousands of workers were required to come back into the physical office environment. In 2013, Marissa Meyer – in one of her first tasks as CEO of Yahoo! – recalled all the company’s home workers. This picture is in sharp contrast to the entirely common site of an office worker functioning in a café, bar or sat beside the Thames. How does the conflicting evidence help business leaders plan in deciding the best option?

Ironically, we’re in the grips of the ‘Beast from the East’ as we gather at Frovi’s fantastic Clerkenwell showroom. It’s the perfect day to work from home, however, our gallant panel of experts has all made it through the snow to offer us their personal and professional take on this emotive subject. We begin by asking whether any of our panel regularly works from home?

Steffan: Personally, I deplore working from home. I just find it incredibly lonely – so even when I don’t go to the office to work, I’ll go to a coffee shop or a café, where there are people around me. A lot of the work my wife does, who works in the technology industry and reports into San Francisco, involves conference calls and video conferences, so even if she went to work she would spend a lot of time stuck in a room ‘on her own’. She loves working from home. I want the social connections – and my role is quite collaborative anyway. That aside, I’d still crave those social interactions.

Laurie: I work at home when I need to do quite a lot of design work. If I’m in the office, my time is taken up with admin and meetings. It’s very social but it’s very difficult to concentrate. Similar to Steffan, however, if I’m ‘working from home’, I’d prefer to be in a busy environment, so I’ll go and sit in a hotel lobby to actually design – because I find it easier to have some kind of buzz around me, rather than just sitting there feeling as though I’ve got to get on with some work! If I sit in the office, though, I won’t get any design work done.

Lee: You are only going to get disturbed in the office. In a hotel lobby or café you are anonymous and yet not isolated – and you have access to good coffee! I can choose – and I predominantly do go into the office. However, that is not the right environment if I want to get my head down and be productive. I go to the office to catch up with people – to collaborate. It can be difficult to be creative though.

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Sally: I work from home one day a week – and I’d like to know how many of the people around this table are in quite senior positions and therefore can pretty much make up their own rules. I’m guessing most of you are. I just wonder if your teams feel that they can work from home?

Nic: Funnily enough, we offered it to our lot. We asked them how they wanted to work – anything they liked. Not a lot of people took up the option of home working.

Sally: I used to work for an architects’ firm and now I work for a consultancy firm – and I’d say it’s quite different. Designers – especially when you’re designing on big projects – need to be together to get those ideas flowing. We find that a lot of our clients don’t always need to be together and they’re quite often working in silos on separate things. So, I think this is probably different for us as a group compared to a lot of our clients.

Simon: I think that’s true. Depending upon the type of business you’re in, you might well be able to justify working from home. If you’re in a collaborative environment, you really should be with the team. That personal interaction is important. I think this is about the motivation of why people feel they should work from home.

Nic: We don’t really have a culture of working from home. The design team might sometimes work from home, but that tends to be extra-curricular work, in the evenings or at weekends – but that’s not something we drive necessarily, it’s the nature of their job and they like to do that. Occasionally, I’ll tell people to go and work from home for the afternoon – but that tends to be lifestyle-driven, because they’ve got something going on outside of work. We might talk to clients about working from home being one option when it comes to agile working. But we don’t get a lot of feedback around people wanting to do that – and, if we do, it tends to be in consultancy businesses, such as legal practices, who actively encourage people to work one day a week from home because it reduces their desk requirements by a fifth! But I don’t generally find myself having a lot of conversations with clients about working from home.

Nick tells us that he did a little research before our session and discovered that 18% of people work from home in the South East. Furthermore, it is anticipated that will almost double by 2022. This is driven by a number of things – including technology, millennials’ approach to work and task-based working.

Simon: I do think that the 9-5 knowledge worker will be extinct in the not too distant future. There still needs to be those core hours where people are in the office together, so there is an overlap, but it might allow people to work from home or take the kids to school in the morning and then work until seven o’clock. I also think that leisure will also be more a part of the working day as well. People will have more flex to be able to go to the cinema or go to an art gallery – and then go back to the office.

Natalie: I think it’s a really interesting point about seniority. In our office we only have two senior people who work from home on a Friday. Everyone else works from the office. It’s not really offered – although if something comes up then there are facilities for you to be able to work from home. They will accommodate you. But, on all other levels, we really need to be together in the office at the same time – we need to be able to talk and to collaborate.

Kristoff: There are a couple of fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves about how we monitor productivity. We basically come from a kind of manufacturing economy background, where a bum on a seat means productive – everybody needs to turn up at the factory, at the same time. The knowledge or intelligence economy is slightly different. It’s about solving problems and it’s about how you relate to the issues put in front of you. If you’ve got creative people who can’t think properly first thing in the morning and ‘need’ to be at their desks at 8.30am, you’re not going to get any productivity out of them. We’ve now got the technology where we can be smarter about how people contribute. There are moments when everybody needs to come together at the same time, sure, but we don’t need to still think of that as the default.

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My Mac at home is exactly the same as my Mac in the office because it’s all linked up to the Cloud. I can be at my desk at 4.30am to talk to clients in San Francisco – and then be at a completely different desk at 4.30pm to talk to clients on the other side of the planet.

Lee: It’s personal to you and to the business. For example, it depends on whether you’re a start-up, scale-up or corporate. If you’re a start-up, you want everyone to be together because you’ve got that connective emphasis of growing something. If you’re a scale-up you might have a little more freedom in the way you work – and if you’re a corporate it might be different again.

Laurie: Most processes in most industries are going to have a collaborative bit and then a focused bit.

Lee: Absolutely. I think our industry is really bad at settings these kinds of trends – thinking that everything needs to be collaborative. If your office is not providing you with a place to go and focus, then that’s why you’re going to want to go and work from home – to get your head down. It used to be that your IT was better in the office – but this is no longer necessarily the case.

Nic: I’m not actually that technical but, if I was an IT manager, my aspiration for that business would be that anyone could work from anywhere as long as there’s a wireless network. That should be quite easy for a start-up.

Sally: Lots of companies aren’t there yet!

Nic: If you are a start-up you wouldn’t rent yourself an office and a load of desks anymore – you’d go to WeWork or somewhere like that and you’d be an incredibly flexible little business. You can work wherever you’re like – from the train, a café or from your clients’ offices – but it’s not working from home. It’s incredibly difficult for a big, corporate business to behave like that.

Lee: If you’re relatively new to the office environment you almost need an apprenticeship to learn how to be in that space. It can be quite exciting – you’re going into the world of work and you’re able to learn from your new colleagues and you bump into other departments and are exposed to new opportunities – which you lose if you’re not there.

Simon: It’s about those chance encounters.

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Sally: One of our occupier clients says that his business doesn’t refer to ‘working from home’ – they talk about ‘homing from work’. So they are actually try to make the workplace quite homely – and they still have 1:1 desk ratios and no agile working. He wants the most relaxed, homely atmosphere for people to come together. I don’t think this is particularly scientific – it’s more about ensuring your workforce is happy.

Natalie: There has been lots of research into the psychological benefits of being in the team – as opposed to being isolated at home (and not in a café or a pub). You’re more likely to find it more difficult to de-stress at the end of the day if you’re associating you’re home with your work. You’re not switching off in the same way.

Kristoff: People are now starting to take jobs that they are passionate about – they’re going after what they want to do rather than going after the paycheck – so the whole work/life balance is incredibly blurred. Even if you’re in the pub at 11pm, you’re not totally switching off from what you do. It defines what you do – which is a little bit of a problem.

Steffan: It feels as though I spend half of my time protecting people who want to work alone in the office and concentrate and focus – and that’s when people should be working remotely. The important point to make here is that it’s much more expensive for a business to provide a meeting room or a private booth for somebody who wants to concentrate than it is to provide a space where people collaborate.

Sally: I think what is really important – and something clients don’t put enough emphasis on – is change management. That process is so important – it’s so important to teach people how to use the space, and on top of that, to create a community where there is trust. This trust should be led from the top. If this is done well, it will work – and that includes working from home.

Conclusion

This is clearly an emotive subject – and therefore incredibly subjective. Our panel is a perfect example of this, with like-minded individuals having opposite thoughts and feelings when it comes to working from home.

Home working is no longer something we should see as sector specific – instead we should regard it as a task-specific option, especially for businesses who are unable to provide people with quiet, focused workspace.

Maybe the key word here is ‘option’. Giving people the opportunity, should they wish, to do focused work from home, might not only help the bottom line, but also productivity and wellbeing.