How long will working from home deliver value?

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Written by Ed Bernacki on 16 August 2021 in Opinion
Opinion

Ed Bernacki wonders how long we'll all be staying at home.

Covid19 was a sudden fierce earthquake that shook and then demolished our understanding of 'business as usual'. Professional workers suddenly stayed home to be safe. Media reports showed people setting up offices in bedrooms and learning how to avoid Zoom embarrassment.

It was a position of luxury as millions of others had to battle through Covid workplace challenges. Shopping online helped some stay home while others paid the price to deliver these goods.

The question of working from home or heading back to work is often framed on the ease of doing work from home. We have the technology. We also have unproven promises of efficiency from people working from home. While this sounds good, we needed a deeper look at the consequences of working from home.

You can argue that today’s job descriptions and strategies to create value at home were actually defined in planning meetings and brainstorming sessions at work, perhaps years ago. The question is – will our organisations create tomorrow’s policies and strategies with people working from home?

You can now read various experts say the cost of working from home is the loss of organisational innovation and productivity. If true, that is a problem. We need small solutions; hallway conversations to solve problems fast.

Will our organisations create tomorrow’s policies and strategies with people working from home?

We need big solutions for complicated challenges, such as tackling Covid or designing tomorrow’s strategies. There is still too little evidence to show if we can do this virtually. Basic administrative work is easy to do from home, yet what about jobs that involve creating new initiatives? 

Research from Stanford’s Nicholas Bloom found some interesting situations.

  • Video calls are useful for one-on-one situations. The more people involved, the less effective calls become.
  • Having some people in a meeting room (with a camera) and others appearing online from home is poor.
  • Zoom is best if you already have a connection with people.
  • The concern is meeting new people. Will building new relationships with new staff or customers prove to be a problem?

I joined a board of a non-profit during Covid. I didn’t know the people. We met online for a planning session. It fizzled without the energy that comes from working in-person. I wrote books on collaboration and innovation. Yet, I failed to get the results I wanted. It was not satisfying. 

Many speak of the ease of online conferences or training being such a benefit. I spoke at 250 conferences, yet I found online conferences almost painful to sit through. I saw some good speakers but the conference industry did not create enough value for people to be willing to pay much for events. 

 

Only time will tell if training efforts really will deliver value. The experience of learning is as valuable as the content.

I’ve worked in organisations and on my own for 25 years. Brainstorming with yourself is hard. I sat in hundreds of cafes, and worked from hotels and my bedroom office brainstorming ideas for articles, books, presentations, and consulting projects. Many times, I wished I had people around. You feel the energy when people are in the same room; they see how solutions are conceived, developed, and started.

This reminds me of a story in the book, 'The Revenge of Analog'. Long before Covid, David Sax noticed Silicon Valley tech companies dumping co-creation software and buying a different technology: whiteboards. These were scattered in hallways for people to use. Online collaboration is hard.

For some organisations and some jobs, the future may involve a combination of working at home on some days and heading to work on others. These days must be carefully scheduled to allow time for collaboration, problem solving, networking, and building relationships. To do this well will take new skills:

  • Collaboration – understanding cognitive style (or cognitive diversity) is the most useful insight you can have. Knowing your cognitive style means you can work with people who think like you and people who do not – both are useful. I still believe one of the best team tools to apply is Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats to speed collaboration.
  • Problem solving – We solve problems. Refine your skills for finding problems, defining problems, and solving problems. 
  • Idea generation – There are books written on techniques to create new ideas. The reality is that we tend to copy our ideas from experience or Google rather than create original ideas. There are many books on tools to generate original ideas to solve challenges.
  • Idea management – Rarely will you find an idea that is ready for action. Good ideas must be managed over time. Stepping back from a problem for a day to reflect can help you define the true problem. Stepping back from a solution for a day is a research-proven technique that leads to stronger solutions. You also need to manage numerous ideas for various work challenges. We need a system to manage ideas as we have a system to manage time.

Advanced digital tools are useful to connect people. We still benefit from using an idea journal. This translates notes from live meetings into ideas, plans, and solutions. You are in the business of managing ideas, regardless of where they are conceived, developed, or judged.  

Business as usual, will not be usual for a long time. The novelty of working from home felt refreshing at the beginning of Covid. It will only last if we deliver innovation and productivity to match the challenges of the future.

 

About the author

Ed Bernacki founded the Idea Factory to help people and organisations build and use a capacity to innovate. He is based in Canada.

 

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