The great WFH experiment

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about so many huge social changes, in such a short period of time, that it’s difficult to take it all in. A month ago at time of writing, I was in a pub – ah, the decadence!

Of course, these are particularly difficult times for those who are unwell, and for healthcare and other key workers. Plus, there are many who are now out of work, or temporarily furloughed. The rest of us should perhaps be grateful if our main worries only relate to the challenges of home schooling, or the acquisition of tinned tomatoes.

That said, not all of the recent changes are entirely negative. On the work front, one side effect is that many of us are now taking part in the world’s largest trial of WFH (working from home).

WFH has always had a mixed reputation. Long embraced by some (often smaller companies and freelancers), for others there remains a suspicion that home working means not really working at all. But now we’re all WFH whether we like it or not, we can finally give it a fair go.

One big benefit is the reduced environmental impact due to the reduction in travel, which means lower emissions. WFH doesn’t just save commuting time, it helps save the planet too. Cities are already seeing unprecedented improvements in air quality. It also makes space for a better work/life balance, with more time available for family, exercise, cooking, etc.

WFH also brings to light the ‘essence’ vs the ‘overhead’ of any given job. By ‘essence’ I mean the actual productive core, i.e. gathering and sharing info, making decisions, and getting stuff done. By ‘overhead’ I mean all those other things which often feel usefully busy, but aren’t necessarily adding value, i.e. the wrong kind of meetings, travel in all its forms (to the office, to meetings, to conferences), plus all the peripheral distractions of office life.

The culture shock of WFH brings to light your own personal mix of ‘essence’ vs ‘overhead’. If you normally do a lot of travel and meetings, you will suddenly have much more time for the ‘essence’ of your job (or at least, for pondering what that might be). And whether that’s a welcome or unpleasant change tells you something about how much you enjoy the job itself vs the ‘busy executive’ lifestyle.

Of course, for more collaborative roles, the lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues may make life more difficult, although you can at least try to make the most of video meetings. WFH also undoubtedly makes it more difficult to manage a team and keep everyone ‘on the same page’.

For other roles, the relative solitude of WFH will be a blissful relief from office distractions, for tasks where quiet concentration is required – and improved staff focus is a big win for employers too. Of course, whether home is less distracting than the office will depend on your personal circumstances – those with young children will know all about that.

Clearly WFH isn’t for everyone, and has its pros and cons compared to office life. But one good thing to come out of the current crisis is that so many more of us will have tried it. Why not make the most of the experiment, and pay attention to what’s better and worse about WFH, both for you personally, and for your employer too?  Then once things start to return to normal, don’t just automatically go back to how things were before, but perhaps discuss with HR how you could hang on to the best parts to establish a new, improved home/office balance.