Working from home – The new normal?

By Andrew Butler-Cassar, Hottinger Private Office

So we have another three letter acronym to get used to, no not my initials but WFH, ‘working from home’. Some will wonder what all the fuss is about, as working remotely, as it is otherwise known, has been an everyday occurrence. In the blink of an eye, lockdowns ordered, we became work from homers, when once remote working was stigmatised in the office, with quips about ‘working from the sofa’ or “oh yes they are ’working from home’ today” with often exaggerated speech mark hand signals. Now I realise I need a new chair for my workspace and everyday feels like Tuesday. This article explores our new ‘acceptance’ but asks what are we actually willing to accept and will it last?

I don’t think there are many that would deny it was quite a novelty working remotely. No early morning alarm clock, no rush to the station for the commute to work and wow, the money we’ve saved from not buying the expensive coffee and a wildly over-priced sandwich from the local café at lunch. Clearly our savings, of course, have been someone else’s business crisis. The cost of the pandemic in both human terms and economic has been well documented, but I can’t help thinking that most of us have enjoyed the initial change of pace.

Without for a moment wishing to belittle the seriousness of this ongoing pandemic and how grateful we are to those on the frontline, being at home brought out many firsts for us all. Until the pandemic, I thought Zoom was Fat Larry’s greatest hit!  Virtual quizzes and curry nights, the ease with which family members or friends could be in contact with you perversely meant more contact, not less in a lockdown. In fact, I wonder if ten years ago, well maybe 5 years ago, we would have been able to adapt so easily to working from home? We have much to thank our technology for. Beyond the initial happiness connections brought via all manner of video conferencing apps, what has been the effect on a normal working day? Communication in our line of work is crucial, none more so than in times of increased volatility, and whilst some competitors used WFH as an excuse to be less communicative, we jumped at the opportunity to connect more frequently because our clients adopted the technology seamlessly. A recorded video call to discuss markets and/or review recent advice has now become an acceptable additional medium but we don’t believe it should substitute good old-fashioned face to face contact. Anecdotally, as an advisor our personal lives, or shared moments, are what strengthens a client/adviser relationship over many years. Thinking back to sharing the news of the birth of my first child with my long standing clients brings it all very much to life when that new born child you spoke of so fondly now walks into your conference call, sixteen years later asking, or should I say grunting, for money to go shopping! We both chuckled at what was clearly a moment they had endured themselves with their own children and I think it is these moments that strengthen the relationship beyond the quality of the advice given.

Although many businesses have coped well during the pandemic, there are some obvious exceptions. The leisure and tourism industry has been decimated, you can’t go on holiday via a conference call, you can’t go to the theatre, live gigs or nightclubs (thank you NT Live et al for the culture we are enjoying via YouTube but we all want our Arts back to normal as soon as possible).

However, most of us would also agree that working remotely has not meant less productivity in fact it has been quite the opposite. So, if this is the case why have we not adopted this sooner? Nicholas Bloom, a professor at Stanford University in California thinks the attitudes around working from home are finally changing[i]. In his experiment in 2013, Bloom worked with the Chinese travel company Ctrip, to study remote-work productivity. Somewhat to Bloom’s surprise, the company’s staff became notably more productive by working from home four days a week. 13% more productive. Now, six months into the global pandemic, an increasing number of companies are asking: should they work from home indefinitely? And if they do decide to make major organisational changes about remote work, could they see similar leaps in productivity?

Whilst businesses are assessing the rise or fall in productivity, are they in equal measure concerned about the effect a substantial change in working habits will have on the mental wellbeing of their staff? If working from home becomes the new normal you may never see your work colleagues again except for the virtuous circle of videoconference calls, and give it time, our faces will be replaced by Avatars. In my case the team will be delighted by that development, equally think of the money I could save on haircuts!

Whilst it is ok to look for the humour in what has been an unprecedented time (impossible to talk about the past five months without the phrase unprecedented time) at Hottinger we are taking this seriously. As with many firms, morning meetings to ensure we check in with each other to see how we are coping are important, but we are all eager to get back something we have lost, ‘office banter’. The importance of human interaction between colleagues is not to be dismissed lightly, some of our team, particularly those who are younger and living alone have been very honest about the need for an office environment. Serendipity is important: bumping into people, seeing people in the corridor. Quite a lot of the ways that we make decisions in organisations aren’t made in meetings they’re made in the corridors. Yes, the newly created “12-month Barbados Welcome Stamp,” to be free to work on the island looks very appealing, but at Hottinger we believe our type of business requires an office-based approach to working.  However, WFH is not only acceptable but encouraged when members of staff feel it will be more productive, all you need for this to work is trust, a characteristic we live by at Hottinger.

[i]Article – Remote Control BBC Website – https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200710-the-remote-work-experiment-that-made-staff-more-productive