The pandemic the world has been confronted with the past year has almost no upsides. Too many people have died and more will die before we get on top of this. But there are lessons to be learned from the experiences during the pandemic. These lessons provide valuable insights into how to do work better in the future. I want to focus today on how we “do” work, in the past, now and in the future.
We used to “go to” work, with work being a physical location somewhere, where we go to do “the work”, which consists of executing our roles and responsibilities. Going to work is a tradition which dates back to the beginning of the industrial revolution. People had to go to work to be close to the source of power which allowed them to do the work. Administrative tasks happened close to where the operations occurred, because operations reported to administration. And in the Industrial Age, this made absolute sense. Entire rail infrastructure systems were developed in Flanders to ferry workers to the iron works in Wallonia and to the mines in Limburg.
But we live in the post-industrial era now, and we keep holding on to ways of working which no longer make any sense. The pré-COVID reality of office workers is that they get up, rush to the office without taking the time to talk to their family members, spend a considerable time in the car or public transportation to get to work, then arrive at work to do their job, weather the traffic again to arrive home exhausted. So much for work/life balance.
The COVID-19 crisis changed all that, and the attitude towards teleworking, which was rejected for a long time by business owners changed. In Belgium, the first lockdown was a near-total lockdown, during which teleworking became an obligation. Organisations realised that working remotely, or at least partly remotely, was as good, if not better for both the company and the employees.
And yet, the second lockdown, which asks for teleworking but does not impose it, results in a lot fewer people working from home. The net result appears that the spread of the virus is not diminishing as fast and as far as we would like it to, in order to alleviate the pressure on the hospitals.
And why? Because more than a few companies require their employees to work from the office. For people that have a requirement to be close to a power source or anything comparable, it makes sense to work at the office, if under strict sanitary conditions to limit the spread of the virus. But a lot of Belgian companies provide services rather than goods, services which can be provided remotely, as good if not better than from the office.
And there is are a number of additional advantages many businesses appear to ignore …
First, having at least a part of your workforce working remotely reduces your risk exposure to disasters. Think Twin Towers. Think contamination during the next pandemic. If you as a business believe that asking your people to spend their time together does not expose you to risks which you could be avoiding, you need to revisit your BCP/DRP.
Second, the cost of fixed office space is significant, and any reduction in that office space cost would be a welcome cost saving for businesses.
And third, as a business owner, director or manager you confirm your trust in the people you work with by letting them execute their objectives in the most optimal manner for them. If you do not trust them, you’ll want them close in order for you to monitor them. Good luck with that. If you are sure that your people are more productive at the office than working from somewhere else, you are fooling yourself. The correct way to let your people work is to give them challenging, clear objectives with related key results and let them organise themselves to achieve these.
The COVID-19 crisis brings a unique opportunity … it allows you as a business owner, director or manager to lower both your exposure to catastrophic risk and your day-to-day cost of doing business, while at the same time creating a trust relationship with your collaborators. And you do not give up any control of you manage to define clear objectives and key results.
Not using this opportunity does not qualify as due diligent behaviour. Consider that.