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Working from home: stifling or liberating?

December 7, 2020

Productivity is up. Innovation is down. Transactional activities work fine. Strategic initiatives do not.

Home working is not for everyone

As 2020 draws to a close, these comments appear to reflect the emerging business sentiment about work from home. But are they universal, or does it depend on how well organizations – and individuals – have adapted?

In the early stages of lockdown, World Commerce and Contracting undertook regular spot surveys among its worldwide membership. We found that most organizations moved rapidly to support working from home. Within a few weeks, 92% of survey respondents reported that they had they necessary tools and equipment. Over time, sentiment also changed – in the early days, a majority couldn’t wait to get back to the office. By July, very few wanted to return, at least not on a full-time basis. They had adjusted to new patterns of work and new ways of communicating and meeting with colleagues, customers and suppliers.

Overall, although for some individuals home-working has proved challenging, it does seem likely that productivity has increased – less travel time, less interruptions, shorter meetings. Although gaining access to information has sometimes been more difficult, transactional tasks have mostly been unaffected.

What about innovation?

When it comes to innovation or strategic activities, the argument is that these depend much more on teamwork and collaboration, which are difficult to achieve on-line. However, is this argument valid, or is it just that they require more thought and adaptability? In fields like science, remote collaboration has provided break-throughs for decades. Many businesses have multi-locational teams working on new products or services, often taking advantage of time zones to accelerate development. Indeed, it could well be argued that focusing activities on people who happen to be based in the same office is constraining.

We live in an age where diversity and inclusion are encouraged, to break down narrow and constrained thinking. It is certainly true that for many large organizations, highly inclusive and collaborative behavior is an alien concept. Past research by World Commerce and Contracting revealed the extent to which employees outside the corporate headquarters – and especially those from other cultures – felt excluded from providing ideas or engaging in innovative or strategic projects. Now, we have the opportunity for such exclusion to be a thing of the past. And who knows what ideas and enthusiasm this may unleash.

So my vote is definitely for liberating! What about yours?

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