We recently sold our house in the heart of rural Cheshire during a challenging Covid-limiting housing market. Without doubt, the 200MB superfast fibre-to-the-property sealed the deal as, to quote our buyer:
“This made it a perfect base for home working in the future”.
The global pandemic has already resulted in a seismic shift in the way we work. Companies have had no choice but to accept the notion – and accelerate protocols – for their employees to work from home. But twenty years ago this would have been completely untenable in the UK with only 26 percent of people connected to the internet (1).
So while this pandemic has resulted in one of our most emotional and economically damaging times, one really positive outcome in 2020 is that within just 12 months businesses, brands and individuals have at been able to utilise technological advances and switch to working remotely.
I don’t in any way want to be dismissive of the devastation and turmoil this pandemic has caused; the raw situation we find ourselves in, leaving people fighting for their lives let alone their businesses, is dire. But with the introduction of three approved vaccines comes optimism and an opportunity to reinvent the way we work, while gaining a better perspective on our lives and those of our friends and family. This pandemic has been a vivid reminder of how important our people are.
Beyond the norm
Throughout my career, I’ve had a reputation for thinking way beyond the boundaries of the norm – some would refer to it as maverick tendencies – but I’ve always believed the norm is there to be challenged and not just accepted. Outcomes of challenges can lead to fresh new thinking, or prove that current practice works and to leave well alone.
Businesses, whether large or small, now have the opportunity to reinvent themselves by dispensing with inefficient, outdated practices, while retaining or developing their workforce culture. Tech giants such as Facebook have discovered their software developers agile working practices translate remotely. Such was the extent, that in May 2020 Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would make most of its US roles available for remote recruiting. This enables Facebook to hire people all over the world, not because of any location strategy, but simply because it’s where the expertise is.
Going forward it’s now been proven that tech and creative companies are able to remote access into visual teams. Take Disney. Their animators and special effects people were able to work in small groups remotely during lockdown successfully producing animated films such as Paw Patrol.
That said, for those in the creative industry, remote working can be tough. Whiteboarding online is noreplacement for the physical, interactive responses while problem solving and thrashing out new ideas. To ensure there’s a balance, organisations will still offer physical spaces to enable teams to whiteboard and be creative and, most importantly, form all the cultural ‘in-group’ bonds.
However, newer companies introducing remote working without established cultures may struggle to create one when compared to the likes of Facebook, Apple and Disney, who have already achieved this. And for their co-workers brand buy-in is crucial for success. But cultures can stagnate as people become complacent and it’s how you retain or create a positive culture with remote working that could be an issue. Mark Zuckerberg, in an interview with The Verge in May 2020 on taking Facebook remote (2), said it may be hard to change things going forward:
“I think one of the big unknowns in terms of creativity, is to what extent are we all now just drafting off of the culture and direction that we built up over the last 10 years?”
A Sense of Ownership & Belonging
Slack’s recent global survey of over 9,000 knowledge workers (3) illustrated people worldwide want more flexibility in where and how they work. The outcome, Slack suggests, is that rather than returning to the old routine, companies must radically rethink the way teams work.
One of the key takeaways was that people prefer choice with 72% opting for a mix of remote and office work. But they also found this was not for everyone; for some their sense of belonging can suffer working remotely. This would suggest that relationships do matter as they keep us engaged and productive at work.
Agile working is people-orientated; to be effective people need trust, support and the right environment to do the job. The software industry introduced agile working some years ago, whereby meatier problems were divided up and given to teams of four to six people to work together in order to resolve issues in small chunks. Why? According to Dunbar’s theory, five is the magic number for close friends. In the workplace this translates from four to six people as the maximum group size where we can all understand and hold the same information about a problem. As you add people, productivity slows and this is related to our social brain limitation (4).
This proves far more effective than assigning hundreds of people to tackling one huge problem, such as that encountered by the Government in 2013, with its ill-fated NHS records system contracted out to Fujitsu (5). As a result, the Government introduced the Government Digital Service (GDS):
“A common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”
to embrace agile vs huge contracts with single suppliers. Before Covid, these teams had to be co-located – considered a must to enable them to become an ‘in-group’- giving themselves a name, and a sense of group belonging (6).
So is remote working to become the norm of our future? Will we slowly seep back to the comfort of our office-centric approach? Or should we consider – at least in part – how we can adapt our current working methodology to that of the tech and creative giants?