All the fuss about work from home

With the recent outbreak of the coronavirus, many companies are implementing “work from home” (WFH) policy. As with anything in life, some work and some don’t. Whilst there is a lot of discussions on this topic recently, I think some points deserve more attention.

First, when we talk about the office, even the coolest offices like those modern money-losing co-working spaces, we have a fairly good idea of what they are. But when we talk about home, it varies drastically, especially here in Asia. Most of us live in very small spaces and often with others as well. So by definition, I don’t even know if WFH actually means anything consistent given home is so different. Or perhaps it is more about “not being in the office” (what the bosses worry about) than “being at home” (what employees want the bosses to think that’s where they are)?

How about distraction? People talk about being at home means there are more distractions. Really? Like what? TV? I thought no one watches them anymore? Also, most people find ways to watch their favourite shows, at least short YouTube clips, browsing the Internet and social media very often in the office anyway, so what’s the difference? There are people at home? I mean you don’t have people in your office? The fact is, we all slack off/ get distracted at times during office hours, no matter where we are. If this is about the extent of it, then everyone is different in the first place anyway, how do we even measure that?

What about all the video conferencing tools people are raving about? Stop it. People don’t talk to each other in the office anyway. My colleagues slack/IM each other even when we are all physically in the office!! Most of all, please tell me how effective a meeting is with more than 3 people, regardless of face-to-face or using conferencing technologies. It’s a complete waste of time. One of my bosses used to be able to play Mahjong as he attended one of those US timezone calls. Well, it could be his skills at multi-tasking (yes, he does turn off his mute every now and then to make random comments) but most of it is because these conference calls are never that demanding mentally. Mahjong is by the way.

So why are most employers/managers so wary about WFH or general remote work? Well, partly it is about trust (or mistrust). But trusting employees is a broader and bigger issue. If one doesn’t trust his employees, every sick leave, every toilet break, every chat to the co-workers, every sneak peek at the phones, and every reimbursement form is possibly a complete scam anyway. Of course, we don’t trust people just for the sake of it. That’s why we all learn management at universities and figure out how companies should be run based on the industrial revolution. Oh by the way, if universities only teach teenagers how to manage, who will have the skills at being managed – which is what they face at least in the first few years of their careers??

More seriously, the whole issue lies in our inability to measure our outputs and work efficiency. If you read the book on OKR and fell in love with it (and start saying how KPIs are outdated and useless), I am pretty sure you have never managed a large enough group of people for an extended period of time. All these management books fail to appreciate how smart human beings are. When there is a rule/system, there is a way to break/hack it (without anyone noticing it). In today’s modern workforce (judging by people who can stare at a computer and call that work for the whole day), it is simply impossible to measure employee’s productivity. For example, to come up with a beautiful design, or a well-written blog post, should it be 2 hours? 5 hours? or a week? It’s different from making a chair in a factory. Our inability to understand this fundamental change in our workforce is causing some of these misconceptions around work from home and other similar topics.

Solution? Apart from more academic research, I think two things are key in this new work environment. First, it is important to keep the team small. The only way to monitor employees is through both quantitative and qualitative measures and qualitative measures will simply vanish in big numbers. Second, it’s about making sure people are motivated and work on things that are purposeful. If they are, most, if not all, human beings will work to the best of their abilities, whether they are at home or in the office.

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