Working From Home: The New Normal

For millions of office workers in the UK, working from home has become the new normal, rather than an exceptional break from the norm.

And while many have made the most of it (see Jaffa Cakes), home working isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But we remind ourselves that we’re fortunate to have a job and that we’re not on the front line in hospitals, care homes, supermarkets, or driving buses.

Working from home isn’t a new concept. In 2019, before the coronavirus crisis, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) conducted a survey which established that 4 million people had worked from home in the week prior to interview (about 12% of the working population). For those in a service industry – like us at BBL and all property managers reading this blog – modern technology means our office-based tasks can usually be performed from home.

working from home
Source: Office for National Statistics – Annual Population Survey

Many of us, including me, might have thought that the lockdown meant only a subtle shift from a desk in the office to one in the spare room, given that working from home is such a normal pursuit these days.

How is this unplanned experiment going?

We don’t have the resources of the ONS, so our ‘evidence’ is anecdotal. We’ve noticed that the companies we work with have gone through a period of adaptation – a steep learning curve as they’ve gotten to grips with the basics of online technology and self-discipline. Now we are seeing more flexibility, more interaction and more confidence, so the bedding-in process appears to be complete. That seems to be mirrored across the industry; I’ve been surprised by how even bricks and mortar businesses have adapted to offering their services online to support property managers.

Some have adapted better than others. One property manager admitted to me that working in the spare room has been the best transition ever. For someone who feels sleepy after lunch, the bed is right there, ready for refreshing and recharging!

All of this got me thinking about how we got here in the first place and why we persist in working from the office when we can work from home just as productively. I did some Googling (I’ve had more time to do this than normal) and came across the work of Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics of Stanford University in California. He has researched home working extensively and concluded that requiring employees to be in the office is “an outdated work tradition, set up during the Industrial Revolution”. And that makes perfect sense when you consider how this inflexibility ignores how well we are set up technology wise and the lengthy commutes that companies put their employees through.

A Chinese Science Experiment (nothing to do with the source of the virus)

Seven years ago, Professor Bloom ran an experiment at a huge Chinese travel agency called CTrip whose motivation was unsurprisingly to save money as office rents in Shanghai were sky high. Ctrip employed about 16,000 people at the time and is worth billions of dollars today. 500 of those employees were asked to volunteer to work from home – for nine months – and the results surprised everyone.

Home working delivered a 13% boost in performance against a control group. The home workers worked harder (e.g. longer hours, fewer sick days) and were able to make more calls (mainly due to working in a quieter environment). They were 50% less likely to quit their job too, due in large part to the improvement in their work-life balance. A win-win for the Chinese company and its employees. The experiment was a success and the option to work from home was rolled out to the whole company. Who wouldn’t want a choice of working from home or working from the office?

Well, it turns out that 60% of the experimental homeworkers were very keen to get back to the office! Many felt isolated, lonely, depressed even. And that was at a time when children were in school – unlike now when most are at home (see the hilarious experience of another Professor here). I should add that as a father of twins, my office is a place of sanctuary.

During this lockdown situation, we are forced to work 5 days a week from home and no option of returning to the office any time soon. And at the moment, we have no social time to offset our work, unless you call playing Triominoes ‘social time’.

Especially those living on their own, working from home at the moment can be very isolating so understandably office camaraderie is sorely missed. I reckon many property managers will say they do their best work AT work, with quiet time at home being ideal for typing out minutes or writing a new business proposal. Working only from home, for many, is a step too far.

So with Professor Bloom’s science experiment in mind, how well are we likely to come out of this lockdown?

Bloom admitted that those working from home in his experiment could work well from home, because they only qualified for the experiment if they had guaranteed use of a quiet working environment. Many of us aren’t blessed with an home office, zero interruptions, a fast laptop and two screens, so perhaps only half of our time at home could be truly counted as ‘productive’. I suspect this may mean a backlog of work when return to normality.

Those innovative ideas that we come up with together in the office have been shelved (for now) so finding the energy to get those going again might be a struggle. For us in recruitment, many roles have been put on hold and I suspect some of them won’t materialise at all with the bosses focusing on the day-to-day struggle rather than on creating new roles for fresh ideas. I would urge those pushing ahead with innovative changes and investments (e.g. in new property management technologies) to proceed with them when we get back to business. Everyone wants to see new initiatives in property management.

I spoke to another property manager last week who has been working from home for a few weeks now. We’ll call her Anna. She’s a hard-working senior property manager, lives alone in a quiet mansion block that has nice thick walls and ceilings. I would call her an extrovert as she thrives on the hustle and bustle of the office environment. Her usual tube commute can be unpleasant especially in the summer, she explained.

For Anna, working from home for an extended period has, however, taken its toll. She knows even now – with further weeks of lockdown ahead – that she’ll appreciate the office environment even more. I asked her what she misses about the office and the first thing that came to mind was taking it in turns to make tea! She also missed her dual monitor set-up and more importantly, interacting with colleagues at work – and after work too. Unfortunately, Anna has started to develop shoulder and neck pain from being hunched over her laptop on the kitchen table (she should have read our top home-working tips, especially no. 3).

Anna was serious when she said the lockdown has permanently turned her against working from home, and now she thinks stuffy and cramped tube rides weren’t so bad after all, partly as it kept her much more active (walking to the tube, striding up escalators etc). Anna reminded me that there are benefits to working from the office that we may have never thought of as ‘benefits’.

Although her line manager was very attentive at the start in making sure everyone was happy and settled working from home, Anna now feels largely forgotten and she misses the face-to-face interactions she had with her head of department. I think she called me in desperation and whilst I may be able to find her a better role, she may feel differently about her currently workplace when she returns to the office. We shall see.

If Anna’s experience is anything to go by, there is a chance that the country will have a widespread mental health problem on its hands due to the prolonged and forced period of time working from home. Sustained homeworking may be unsuitable for the majority of us. Cabin fever may have turned many of us off working from home, however Professor Bloom’s doom and gloom conclusions will not, I suspect, deter our clients (your employers) from experimenting with more flexibility and even considering home working as the new normal. After all, some of the larger managing agents already do this successfully.

A final note

We weren’t prepared for this lockdown. We were not equipped mentally for full time, forced home working. Although I have seen evidence that plenty of property managers are getting into a productive routine and loving the short commute from their bed to the kitchen table, the novelty has worn off for Anna and others who find the situation lonely and isolating. For those with very busy roles AND now young children to look after, the situation is very stressful.

Each managing agent will have its own anecdotal data and I hope that many directors of property management are willing to share what they have learned and how they may change their operations as a consequence. Striking the right balance will be the key to making home working an actual win-win scenario, not just a successful science experiment.

Senior Block Management Recruitment Consultant
Rhys heads up our block management team having come to BBL from the hospitality sector where he managed a number of high profile venues across the South East.

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