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Remote Working Part 1: Is working from home really this simple?

Gerry Sweeney -
Remote Working Part 1: Is working from home really this simple?

On March 23rd 2020, I put out a general company communication that *all* staff should work from home with immediate effect, and until further notice – a communication I never envisaged I would ever put out at Hornbill.

Of course, I was not alone; everyone experienced a near-instantaneous overnight shift in the way the world had to be because COVID-19 had arrived.

As soon as the dust settled though, my thoughts immediately turned from the practicality of ensuring the company was operational to - what must I think about now everyone is at home, and the office facilities are closed.

For Hornbill, the transition was both seamless and near-instantaneous, this was because of several things we had already done as a business, but I won’t cover this in any more detail for now. Still, to say, Hornbill did have a very positive first day with no lost productivity and full business continuity, a great outcome, and a testament to the fantastic team at Hornbill.

What I want to write about is what the New Normal might actually look like, mainly because over the last eight weeks, I have spent a lot of time thinking about exactly that and having thought through what this would mean to my organization.

I believe some issues will surface over time that people are not thinking about today, and I expect these issues will be common to most organizations.

I would hope that eight weeks of thinking about this has culminated in something more than a single 750-word blog article, so I am going to make this a short blog series and talk about some of the specifics I have to think about and highlight elements which I expect would be relevant in your own journey.

I am going to wrap this introduction up by saying this blog series is really just my thoughts, and I am learning along with 99% of the office-based business population. I am sharing my thoughts in the hope that this might be useful to other people thinking about this New Normal and how it might apply to them.

Is working from home really that simple?

On the 23rd March, the government ramped up a national lockdown, essentially stalling the movement and gathering of citizens in all public places, shut down the transport systems, bars, restaurants, shops, and anything else that was likely to encourage people to come out of their homes. It was an unprecedented move that left businesses shell-shocked and in a world of fear and uncertainty. Within just a few short days, some companies that could have people working from home switched quickly, while for others, it was a total shutdown.

The first thing I would suggest you need to do is to recognize the “type” of business your organization is. You especially need to understand the nature of the work your people do and group them into information workers and others.

It should be self-evident that if you are a high street store worker, a health worker, factory worker, etc., these jobs are impossible to do from home, you need to be in your place of work, and for these people, and business who depend on these people to operate, the change was clearly dramatic and impactful.

However, if your employees spend the majority of their time at a desk with a phone and a computer; and attend face-to-face meetings with internal or external people, then you likely had a very speedy and successful transition to homeworking.

Hornbill is a software company, and for us, 100% of our staff fall into this category, so our change to homeworking and a total shutdown of our physical locations was instantaneous and happened overnight. Productivity continued at previous levels, and we showed no material disruption to our day-to-day work or productivity.

We are very fortunate as all of the major industry analysts have highlighted our technology stack with cloud automation, service management and collaboration as the key digital technologies which organisations must invest in support their own journey from resilience to recovery.

It is critically important that you consider the type of work your people do, it’s not just a simple case of can we work at home or not, each business will be unique and will have individual needs. If your business is the type of company that could in theory transition, then I believe you may have the opportunity of a lifetime to transform your business.

Soon after the transition occurred, I started to think about what had just happened and what the business looks like now. It will be of little surprise that one of the very first questions I asked myself was, hmm, could we work like this permanently, and what might that New Normal look like? 

From a financial perspective alone, this was an intriguing thought I have to admit. There is a significant cost associated with operating physical premises; a company like Hornbill could easily add a substantial six-figure sum to its bottom line, all other things being equal – and that itself is quite a motivating thought!

There are other considerations too. If we insist people must travel into work every day to sit in front of a computer and phone; we are contributing to the global carbon footprint, congestion chaos, forcing people to be in unnecessarily close proximity to other people in confined spaces twice daily. Commuting can easily remove 2-3 hours a day to a persons working day, lowering their overall quality of life too.  

There is a lot to like about the idea of changing the business model, it is a real and very justifiable opportunity for some organizational engineering, and a chance to pioneer and innovate new ways of working.

The ease at which we (Hornbill) transitioned into a homeworking team, which I hailed (to myself) as a great success, was notable, but actually, is likely giving my team a false sense of possibility. There are some very real issues that if ignored, the company will likely suffer in the long term, because a workable strategy would require very different behaviours from our people, our management, and our leadership.

In Part 2, I will document some of the pitfalls I can foresee, and why I am concerned that one of the biggest business transformation opportunities we will see in our lifetime will likely wither away as most organizations' “New Normal” will very quickly turn into getting back to the “Old Normal” as swiftly as possible.

Please subscribe to our blog if you like this content, and look out for Part 2. I would love to hear your  comments…

Hornbill ESM

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