Out to lunch: At first working from home was good; then it wasn’t. Why?

via Flickr ©  shixart1985 (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © shixart1985 (CC BY 2.0)

  • A couple of months ago the move to ‘Working From Home’ in response to the pandemic was seen as a potential silver lining to a particularly nasty cloud for DSPs - it even won an  industry-standard TLA (Three Letter Acronym).
  • But now the reaction to WFH has already set in as those with an interest in maintaining the  status quo warn of drawbacks and unintended consequences, and, in perhaps his most farcical statement yet, UK prime minister Boris Johnson has implied that people working from home are withholding their lunch money and helping tip the UK into recession 
  • So how might this latest attempt to change the mood affect what service providers and analysts were heralding as a potentially lucrative booster for communications and collaboration services?

To set the scene it’s important to note that the burst of WFH enthusiasm didn’t happen straight away when the pandemic struck, at least in the UK. At the outset of the national lockdown and in response to the pleas to work from home, observers pointed out that for many employees, WFH would not be an optimum solution. 

Yes of course, they said, people would grudgingly WFH if they could and if their jobs were compatible with such an arrangement  - after all, there was a chain of infection to break - but it was widely thought that once the lockdown was over and the virus was ‘under control’ workers who could work from home would be more than happy to get back to the old routines. Having been incarcerated in their homes for weeks at a time they’d want to be back in their office environment with their friends and colleagues. 

But as the weeks sped by, a noticeable change of mood seemed to set in. Opinions, at least by some, appeared to be on the turn. It wasn’t just a case of the media commentariat (who habitually work from home anyway) extolling what they saw as its benefits - the end of an expensive commute, extra time with the family, being able to concentrate without distractions and so on. 

Arguments in favour of long-term benefits were being harnessed: more people working from home would reduce pollution and car journeys. Extensive WFH would relieve pressure on the big cities where competition for houses and office space had pushed prices and rents through the roof. And with the virtue signaling came the notion that the pandemic (for many office workers) would stimulate a hard reset mentally. Many argued that their enforced house arrest had given them time to think about - you know - life and everything. Why are we here? Why do I normally spend three hours a day on the train?

That  mood was quickly picked up by ever-alert industry analysts and service and equipment providers who could see an opportunity for a sustained spend on WFH. 

They often started off with some research; the challenge being to work out how serious people were about working from home more and being in the office less. If WFH was in fact a  flash in the pan better to find out now.

In July, Lenovo had completed a report on ‘the evolving change in attitudes and how businesses “could thrive in the work-from-home era.”  (WFH was already being cast as an era!)

It found many employees felt more connected and more productive than ever before as they worked from home, but the data also showed some financial, physical and emotional downsides for the global workforce.

Importantly, findings that were supported in other studies included:

  • Nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of the global workforce surveyed felt more productive working from home than when they were in the office.

  • Fifty-two per cent of respondents believe they will continue to WFH more than they did pre-COVID-19 – even after social distancing measures are lifted.

In the negative column WFH employees also reported concerns around things like back pain, lack of training, data breaches (that they may get blamed for), IT support and so on. 

Lenovo also found that employees around the world reported funding their WFH equipment themselves, an outlay that tended to average between $200 to $400. Lenovo clearly sees an opportunity to convince corporates of the wisdom of funding and specifying WFH equipment themselves, considering that one of the downsides of enabling WFH from the corporate perspective might be network and system security.

If WFH was pre-pandemic and being treated as a perk, then it appeared more understandable that the employees would fund themselves. If, however, it became a corporate requirement that employees should be at least be prepared to work more flexibly if the occasion demanded it, then the responsibility for the specification and investment  would likely more often fall on the employer. Big juicy contracts that might clearly benefit a Lenovo and, indeed, a service partner like a telco anxious to develop differentiated business applications for 5G

Business agility

So it fast became apparent that it wasn’t just office workers who were rethinking. The pandemic had caused management (who of course were also office workers) to give serious thought to the increased likelihood of periodic disruptions due to virus resurgence and climate change. They weighed strategies for coping and concluded that they needed to become agile enough to quickly redeploy people and equipment, Flexible working would pave the way and bring with it other benefits including lower office rents and better staff retention. Other reports came to similar conclusions 

Meanwhile Digital Service Providers (DSPs) have found that they can win plaudits for offering services and pricing that can alleviate the pandemic and at the same time provide service and revenue growth for them. 

They were also enjoying unaccustomed praise for managing to keep the lights on and the wheels (or many of them) turning through the lockdown. There were disruptions but in the main, telco managements were actually quite surprised at how the networks and the new cloud-based services, such as the conferencing application Zoom, had held up under pressure. That performance validated the option of organisations spending money on new technology and  security to advance flexible working. In other words ‘going digital’ had worked.

Now we’re seeing new service options which recognise WFH as an essential  part of ‘the new normal’. Tech giants such as Google and Facebook have extended a sort of qualified ‘right’ for their employees to continue WFH post pandemic if they wanted to. Clearly these kings of data collection and analysis found that productivity, company loyalty and so on stayed high through WFH. Although this is an admittedly highly unrepresentative sample of global employees. 

Like Lenovo, telcos have been researching and looking forward to the extra data and services demand that WFH looks sure to bring. 

O2’s research revealed that nearly half the workforce expected  permanent change to their company’s approach to flexible working after lockdown, but also saw the lack of social interaction with colleagues as a potential problem. 

Vodafone in the UK asked what employees thought they’d miss most when locked down and over half said office jokes and ‘light hearted banter’. Vodafone is responding to WFH needs with a ‘Work and Play’ package that offers a second residential broadband line to both new and existing customers, with prices  from £23 a month. It claims such an offer will enable residential customers to dedicate one broadband line to their home office and another for their family’s entertainment and homework needs, although an ability to joke and exchange banter over a free line with colleagues was undoubtedly an extra factor here. 

BT is also tapping the WFH requirement with a ‘Dedicated Connection’ service which provides extra business-style bells and whistles to what it explains is essentially a ‘leased line’ connection featuring symmetric speeds to 10 Gbps; low latency, Wi-Fi and an SLA. 

But now: don’t stay home, go to work!

Now comes the inevitable pushback from powerful interests. Just weeks ago WFH was being promoted as a virtuous act, but now there are attempts to frame it as something  tantamount to economic sabotage.  Leading that charge is the UK’s bumbling Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who has said the lack of lunchers munching their way through UK high streets and city centres threatens the existence of its highly evolved lunchtime establishments. Clearly he maintained, people should go back to work and spend freely at lunch time. 

The upmarket sandwich shop, which essentially exists as a culinary compensation for its customers having to commute several hours a day, is now being used as a reason for them continuing to do so.

The word has gone out and Johnson’s media allies have spent a week or so campaigning against home working for a host of reasons, including the accusation that it’s contributing to ill-health or that it will depress the office rental market. (Good!)

The overall message is that working at home was a nice little holiday but now society demands that you get ‘back’ to work. The worst part of this message is the dog whistle that the ‘work from home’ weren’t actually working... or at least not as much. 

Now the pushback against the pushback

The response has been swift. Vodafone, for instance, has sprung into action this very day with some pertinent research. There may be a drop in coffee consumption in the big cities, it claims, but it has numbers to show that lunch spend is actually moving to the ‘local’ economy. It finds: 

  • 25% of homeworkers are contributing to their local economy by visiting coffee shops and cafés each day
  • Commuting time has been swapped for work time as homeworkers notch up almost a month in overtime
  • 40% say they’ve been more productive since the start of working from home in March

Whether the barrage of anti-WFH talk acts as a brake on workplace change will be worth tracking over the coming months.

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