The mass work-from-home experiment imposed on us by coronavirus could finally force companies to embrace remote working, says Tom Ravenscroft.
Like many companies around the world, Dezeen has closed its offices and all of our staff are now working from home. We made the decision at the end of the week before last, as the coronavirus outbreak in the UK worsened. In the absence of government guidance, we decided we were not comfortable asking people to come into the office.
At a company meeting to explain the move to the team, there was unanimous agreement that sending everyone home was the right choice. Twelve days later, social distancing is now part of our collective vocabulary and working from home has become the new normal.
The Dezeen staff are part of the world's largest-ever work-from-home experiment. The coronavirus outbreak is the most dramatic disruption to office working culture in our lifetimes. Companies across the world are being forced to embrace remote working and the digital technology that supports it.
The dawn of the internet threatened to revolutionise the traditional office, as near-instant communication promised to free large numbers of people to work from wherever they wanted – by now I definitely should be editing Dezeen from a beachside location. By 2020, slogging to a physical office and back was meant to be a thing of the past; instead, everyone would be "telecottaging", as we quaintly called it in the noughties.
The coronavirus outbreaks have now forced many companies to stress-test working from home at its most extreme
But despite leaps in technology, the office has stubbornly refused to retire. Twenty years after the internet became ubiquitous, while many companies (including Dezeen) have introduced degrees of flexibility, few office workers telecommute on a daily basis. Disrupting long-held working patterns has been limited by both technology and corporate inertia. There has been a fear of the disruption that working from home might cause, effectively slowing its adoption.
The coronavirus outbreaks have now forced many companies to stress-test working from home at its most extreme. Where some businesses were resistant to a single team member telecommuting for a single day, they are now coming to terms with having the entire team working from home indefinitely.
And as many of us are learning, working full-time from home is possible. Of course, at least in these early weeks, it is far from ideal. At Dezeen, a largely online company that is seemingly perfect for a digital transition, the move has been expectably strained.
We have lost the immediacy of face-to-face communications. Conversations that should take seconds have been stretched out over minutes on Slack, ideas and instructions are being lost in translation within emails and we are all talking over each other in Google Hangouts. My own productivity is definitely suffering. The relative, calm of the office has disappeared. Concentrating amid constant cat and baby distractions is tough. Like many, I am now rotating between working in bed, at the kitchen table or in my garden shed-cum-office, which doesn't have WiFi. While all good options, none is ideal.
We are finding ways to make working remotely work
However, as a team, we are learning. And next week will be easier, as we begin to develop personal and company-wide systems to understand how to work most efficiently in this unprecedented environment. We are finding ways to make working remotely work.
Certainly, there will be hiccups and barriers to smooth remote working and technology is not quite up to the task. Internet speeds and variability make downloading large files troublesome, remote server access is a pain, and teleconferences often have a frozen person. There is the constant worry that, with everyone else working from home too, internet services will become overloaded.
But the experiment will force innovation, driving investment and improvement. It will force teams to better understand distance working and try things that were previously thought to be impossible. Joining a meeting remotely used to be a novelty; this week our 15-person editorial meeting happened in a Google Hangout without any major issues. Next week's full-team meeting will be even more efficient.
Once the world returns to normality, remote working will no longer be unusual
After the coronavirus outbreak recedes and the many of us return to work-from-office, bosses will no longer be able to say that working from home will not work, that it's too complex, or that employees will take advantage of the lack of oversight and do less work. Once the world returns to normality, remote working will no longer be unusual. The undoubted benefits of flexible working will have been clearly laid out.
For one, I am going to enjoy saving an hour and a half a day on my commute and already being at home bang on six o'clock every day for the foreseeable future. Also, a major personal bonus, I'm getting to see my new-born baby far more regularly than the majority of young fathers.
This wide adoption of remote working also has the potential to fulfil some of the internet's promise of democratising working. The demystification of remote and flexible working will hopefully be a huge help to those for whom it is not possible to work traditional hours in a traditional office.
The enforced work-from-home experiment will not signal the death of the office
Although some companies may have well-meaning "flexible working" policies in place for parents, carers and less-able bodied people, these are often not fully understood or embraced. All will benefit from the lifting of suspicion and confusion that has surrounded flexible working since people first started disappearing from their desks and had to be trusted to work remotely.
Although enforced by unprecedented circumstances, the global shift away from office-based environments could have a far-reaching positive impact on our office culture.
For many, myself included, returning to work-from-office will be tough. I will miss the extra hour of sleep, lunch at home, hanging with children or pets. However, there will be many, myself included, who want to get back into the routine, want to see people in an office and have face-to-face meetings.
The enforced work-from-home experiment will not signal the death of the office – it will just highlight the many benefits of remote working and lead to true flexibility for the greater good of business and individuals alike. Hopefully, it will lead many companies to develop a healthier relationship with flexible working and all of the digital technologies that support it. This will positively impact numerous people's daily working practices and make office-style jobs more inclusive.