A mere two years ago the acronym WFH was probably less well known than WTF. Now it is, once again, a dominant feature of the lives of millions of people. Mind you, two years ago, if I had been asked what a PCR Test was, I might have bluffed and then guessed that it was something to do with driving a lorry and if pressed on what a Lateral Flow Test was might have mused that it was linked to a winter sport of some kind. As late as the end of November if the issue had been what is Omicron, the best that I would have come up with is a shadowy organisation associated with Vladimir Putin. The extraordinary times in which we have lived for 20 months have even transformed language.
Yet, just when business as a whole had started to adapt to reopening the office and thinking exactly how a hybrid system of activity might operate in practice for them, it is a case of Goodbye Plan A, Hello Plan B, and the fear that there could be a Plan C lurking not that far off (although to lessen the political embarrassment it might well be marketed as Plan B2 to make it a little less depressing). The strong suspicion has to be that it will be WFH at least until the middle of January and possibly longer still if the level of hospital admissions increases to anything akin to the heights of the beginning of this year. WFH is, for many people, becoming TNN (The New Normal).
Let’s be honest. A large percentage of us will quite like it that way. There are many virtues to WFH especially if, fingers crossed, it continues to be combined with a situation in which all the shops are open, pubs and restaurants are accessible and with households able to mix with one another. WFH can involve less distraction than a large office setting and avoids the time and cost of commuting. It also has its disadvantages in that humans are naturally sociable creatures who do not like isolation.
There are, though, other aspects, to WFH that might be worth further contemplation as it resumes.
The first is that in a sense we have been lucky with the timing of this pandemic. That might appear to be a strange sentiment to express and indeed in the best of all circumstances COVID-19 would never have existed, but if it had to happen at all at least we are in a position technologically to adapt to it.
Consider this. The closest experience we have come to a real pandemic in recent times was SARS in 2002-2003. It too started in China, was a form of coronavirus, and broke out to nearly 30 nations. It was more dangerous than the current virus in that the death rate was about one in ten infected. The crucial difference is that it was comparatively hard to catch and the symptoms emerged very quickly. A policy of identifying contacts of those who had caught it was much easier to implement effectively.
Suppose, however, that had not been true and SARS had been a similar sort of menace to COVID-19. Imagine that in 2002-2003 the order had come on high (from Tony Blair) that we should all seek to WFH if possible. We would have some of the basics of what we now consider mainstream life such as email, the Internet and mobile phones but other elements would have been missing. There would have been no Zoom or Teams. Social media was not even in its infancy. Supermarkets would not have been in a position to scale up for the sorts of home deliveries they have managed this time. Conducting education via the laptop either for children or university students would have been hard. WFH would have largely consisted of participation in telephone conference calls. There would not even have been the option of Skype (that did not arrive in a rudimentary form until August 2003). It would not have been as efficient as WFH is today and it certainly would not have felt like much fun. The sense of being cut off from the outside world, from friends and family, would have been intense.
The second is that while there has been, perfectly correctly, a debate about the extent to which the WFH regime has been toughest for many of the youngest members of the workforce, there has been far less of a conversation about the extent to which it has another, sharply focused , societal dimension to it.
For WFH is, by and large, an option which the office based professional is most likely to be best placed to exercise. You cannot really WFH if you are employed by a supermarket. It is difficult to see how you can WFH if you drive a bus. Not much flexibility to WFH if you are part of a factory assembly line. Not many cows will be milked or crops picked on a remote basis. GPs can conduct surgeries by Zoom or Teams but the NHS would really collapse without nurses and porters who are on site at hospitals. The line “work from home if you can, go to work if you must” is not one that applies equally in society. There are very distinct features to who falls into “if you can” and who ends up being part of “if you must”. Those of us who can WFH should appreciate that we can only do so because other people cannot.
Finally, the longer that WFH continues the more likely it is that it will be, for those who can, either in part or in full, a permanent change in their lives. The implications of, for instance, even a third of us spending at least some of the working week at a place other than the office setting are enormous. There are whole industries that have come into being and until recently thrived on the rationale that very large numbers of people would travel very considerable distances to be employed. Even before the latest episode in the virus had occurred, central London, especially across the City, had the sad spectacle of streets with sandwich shops, hairdressers and dry cleaners destined never to reopen. Much of the hospitality industry is clinging on by its finger-tips. If WFH were to mutate again to SAH (stay at home) it is hard to see how it could recover. WFH means RIP for very many small businesses. This is disproportionately true for the UK as the service sector – which contains most of those who can WFH – is significantly larger here than is true for most other countries in the developed world.
So, after we have had our Christmas cheer (hopefully), our collective New Year’s Resolution should be to have a proper deep think about the world of work that we really want and what we might get. We should be asking ourselves whether the management skills that we will need at senior levels will need to be different in the conditions in which we might be about to find ourselves in. How do you spot talent in circumstances where you cannot see what people are doing in the fashion as before? Has external advice and expertise on this suddenly become even more important? How do we avoid widening a social divide between those who have the realistic opportunity to WFH and a huge swathe of the population for whom that is NCM (No Chance Mate). COVID-19 really has a lot to answer for.