The advent of a coronavirus vaccine should restore many rights: to travel freely, to hug, to crowd together.
Control of the pandemic should also free employers and employees to choose where and how certain tasks are done. That could be the difference between inefficient rigidity and productive flexibility.
Companies need to exercise these choices carefully. For all the words spent on the pros and cons of working from home (WFH) by homeworking analysts, economists and journalists, the majority of workers are still, to a greater or lesser extent, NWFH: not working from home.
A new report from McKinsey Global Institute finds most workers in the six advanced and three emerging economies studied could work less than one day a week away from their physical workplace. In the UK, workers could spend a theoretical maximum of 46 per cent of their time working remotely, in the US 39 per cent, and in India, only 16 per cent. But reaching that upper limit means losing productivity. When MGI assessed the potential for effective remote working, the proportion of time workers could spend outside the workplace shrank to 33, 29 and 12 per cent in the UK, US and India respectively.
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Some NWFH staff will currently be on short hours, furlough, or some awkward, temporary version of remote work, if they haven’t lost their jobs altogether. But many such roles — freight handler, plumber, firefighter, vaccine researcher — cannot be done remotely. The longed for exit from the tunnel of lockdown is an opportunity to end casual assumptions that our job title determines where and even how we carry out the role.
Writing in the Financial Times last week, Theo Nicolaou, who runs a security services company, brought home the human cost of some NWFH jobs. He said 40 per cent of the UK’s licensed security guards had shown symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, even before their front-line role exposed them disproportionately to Covid-19.
Some jobs are NWFH by nature: the traffic cop, the barber; some are location-specific, such as the security guard; some are tied to particular technology, be it an X-ray machine or an industrial kitchen. Emerging economies, and rural areas, are less amenable to remote work. But categories can mislead. The MGI report points out that “data and information analysis” covers statisticians and murder-scene investigators. The first are almost all WFH, the second are definitely NWFH.
Lockdown has given NWFH staff the chance to build some useful WFH skills. I took my mother for her first in-person hospital consultation since March last week. Certain tests could only be carried out on site, but one nurse joined us by video link from home, where she could concentrate on analysing my mother’s records, while the consultant carried out the vital face-to-face interview.
When the Institute for the Future of Work talked to people about remote work, it interviewed one specialist nurse who had learnt how to “make explicit” her intuitive, implicit knowledge. Lockdown had “enabled her to break down what she was doing”, articulating and recording important information she had built up over years of in-person practice, says Anna Thomas, Ifow’s co-founder.
The pandemic makes such “splintering and rebundling of tasks” more likely, according to MGI’s Anu Madgavkar. Just as economists have been reassessing the tasks most susceptible to automation, it should be possible to work out the optimum mix of WFH and NWFH, based on the knowledge that at least some part of most tasks can be handled remotely.
This could have profound implications for job design. Some jobs could be dismantled so that one group of specialists perform the in-person tasks, while another group takes on the elements that can be carried out from home, on a flexible schedule. That may suit some workers with, say, childcare responsibilities.
On the other hand, a clever business could reorganise WFH and NWFH tasks into new bundles, possibly tailored to individuals’ needs. Such an approach could alleviate security guards’ always-on stress by offering them a few tasks to carry out remotely. Similarly, white-collar home-workers hope to mitigate the monotony of WFH with in-person meetings where we can discuss ideas with colleagues.
Some companies will claim they do not have the luxury of choice, given the commercial pressures they now face. The temptation is strong to revert to old job descriptions or, in advanced economies, simply to outsource or automate some WFH tasks. But businesses that let staff take advantage of the flexibility they will soon regain will thrive. Those that revert to the old rigid job boundaries will not.