Since it seems everyone is sharing thoughts on working from home, I thought I would jump on the bandwagon (“in these uncertain times”). My claim to fame is that I’ve been doing it for thirty years as both an employer and an employee.
My first experience was in 1991 when I was a trainee Systems Engineer at IBM, and was issued with a then state of the art IBM PS/2 L40. It weighed a ton (4Kg to be precise), and I don’t remember the battery being a usable power source as it always had to be plugged in.
But it was a revelation. My alarm would go off at 8:45am and I would roll over to the side of the bed, turn it on, and log in via the modem. IBM had a sophisticated mainframe office system, PROFS, which promptly wrote an automated activity note in my public diary announcing to all and sundry “Tim Hampson logged in at 08:58”. I then rolled back under the duvet.
My manager was not daft and knew full well the likely use case. But he also knew from experience the work always got done, and I was always available out of hours if required. He did not assess me by watching me hunch over a keyboard in the office. His view of me was conditioned by what he’d heard from my customers and co-workers, and from staff work I’d done directly for him. He didn’t need to “trust” me, he knew for a fact.
It is this central point – assessment based on results, outputs not inputs – that seems to be missing in so many companies today.
My company, SalesSeek, is a CRM to help sales people amongst others. Too many sales managers ask me how they can monitor the number of calls and emails that their reps send. This makes no sense to me. Is a call the same as an email? Does one 10 minute call count the same as two 5 minute calls? How do you evaluate an email that was ignored versus one that lead to an order? Surely a call to the CEO has more value than one to the receptionist? The irony is sales is the easiest job in the world to measure. One number is all you need.
I wince when people tell me they can’t trust their staff to work from home. Presumably the solution is new staff? But in honesty the real issue is the inability to measure their results. This can happen for two reasons – neither good.
Sometimes, managers are unable to evaluate the results as they are simply unqualified to judge. Regardless of what the MBA industry promotes, you do need your VP Engineering to be the best engineer you have and your VP Sales the best salesperson you have. Buying your staff a ping-pong table and pretending to care when their dog dies is not leadership. Only when you can make demonstrably better decisions than your staff can you be said to lead them in any meaningful sense, and that takes domain expertise. Supporting your team by getting out of the way may well be for the best, but what then, exactly, is your value-add? In too many corporations, generalists have taken over management, and unable to evaluate anything but the sound of keyboards clicking, are nervous of losing the one pulse check they understand. In this case you need new management rather than new staff.
Other times, there simply are no results to measure. This can be because the person is useless, but typically the problem is more that the role is unnecessary. And “role” can sometime stretch to include entire departments. If you can’t see the effect of an activity in your revenue line then you best cut it, as you will definitely see it in your cost line.
The trophy office, or indeed any office, also falls into this category. I was impressed and appalled in equal measure visiting Sage’s gorgeous offices in the Shard, but that could not change the fact SageLive was ridiculous and Xero (UK HQ: Milton Keynes) ate their lunch. If only they showed as much pride in their product. IBM did not give everyone a laptop in response to complaints about commuting and employee child care issues. Their concern was motivated by a simple question – why pay so much rent in central London when our staff are are on client sites leaving the office deserted?
Working from home is not for every role. Neither does it suit every person, although for much office work and most people the benefits of flexibility and avoiding the commute outweigh the issues of trying to avoid domestic chaos and solitude. But nothing has to be black or white. For many, a model of working from home 4 days a week, coming together once a week is a good compromise. For employers, the challenge is finding office share arrangements where they can support this “surge” capacity for team meetings without the cost and waste of an office 100% of the time. Smarter co-working companies might seize on this opportunity because relying on a return to business as usual isn’t going to work.
For business the choice is stark. You waste money at your peril because if your competitors don’t they will put you out of business as surely as Netflix killed Blockbuster. Real Estate costs. If it does not contribute to revenue, then it’s gotta go. The pandemic has changed nothing, merely accelerated the inevitable.