What this crisis tells us about the Future of Work

I first started writing about working from home over 10 years ago, at about the time I started working from home. The topic is, of course, key right now because confinement has forced an  unprecedented amount of homeworking on both employees and employers, often in circumstances that were if not entirely unplanned at least largely unprepared.

It is easy to paint homeworking only in terms of benefits, and I will address issues in more detail below, but let's start with the benefits :
- homeworking allows companies to save on real estate and employee transportation costs;
- numerous studies have shown that employees homeworking are more productive;
- homeworking lets employers draw from a broader pool of talent and enables more flexible working conditions;
- reducing commuting significantly has a huge impact on employee stress, delivers environmental benefits and would reduce the cost of transportation infrastructure to local governments ;

There is more, but these 4 I think are the most significant.

Now let's examine the drawbacks :
- Homeworking makes it harder to socialise for employees (in general, not just within the company they work for);
- It also makes it harder (or at least it requires a different kind of effort) to build team spirit and collaboration;
- It makes the line between work life and personal even more blurred than it already is (as anyone who works at home with a young kid around knows);
- It requires good quality broadband to be effective.

Again, probably more, but I'm focusing on the ones that are the most significant.

And before I develop my point further, there are some hindrances to the adoption of homeworking that need to be addressed as well :
- obviously, homeworking does not apply equally to all positions, and to all sectors of the economy. Service jobs can relatively easily be deported to home, industrial jobs cannot;
- a wide deployment of homeworking (in normal circumstances) requires a degree of trusts that employers in general lack, and managers in particular lack towards their teams. There are some cultural differences at play on this particular angle, but by and large this is true;
- conceptually, businesses are still organized in ways that date back to the industrial revolution. Work is a place as much (if not more) as an activity and showing up is often more important than performing.

The current crisis has forced businesses to embrace homeworking to try and salvage some activity and economic prospects. I suspect (and hope) that many companies, once the dust has settled will realise that this should not be the exception (or an option they offer to their employees one day a week) but something they proactively embrace. Not only because the early deconfinement strategies we are starting to see still involve a lot of people being encouraged to stay at home, but because the benefits far outweigh the issues.

And a lot of the issues are solvable. Desocialisation can be addresses through remoke work centers or part-time homeworking. Team spirit can be built remotely with the right mix of tools, communication and regular face to face interactions. Trust is a tougher one, and most likely will need to come from the top. But the top tends to be sensitive to things like "higher productivity" and "lower real estate costs".

Which leaves us with the issue of broadband quality (you knew I was gonna get there, didn't you...) That is not something that businesses can impact directly, at least not in the current market structure.

However, one aspect that comes to mind could change the game. In the same way that employers pay for their employees' mobile service because they want to be able to reach you on the move, they would probably need to pay for at least part of their employees broadband bill since it's used for work. But that might give them the power to negotiate broad contracts and get deployment to happen where they need it to happen (if the infrastructure isn't there already).

It would also give proactive operators an opportunity to gain or regain significant market share by embracing these kinds of B2B2C contracts, viewing them as anchor contracts of sorts.

And of course, it would require a much broader deployment of "good quality broadband". And we know full well that the market on its own cannot deliver that nationwide. Which ties in with the point I made yesterday : governments are going to have to review their policies for universal broadband and seriously up their game. We already knew that, the only new factor is that this elusive universal broadband network is going to be used for a whole lot more than entertainment in the coming months and years.