Business Unusual

Working from home or from the office, which is best?

Industrial revolutions have played a big part in moving our places of work. We tend to think working from home was a product of the Internet Age or the 3rd Industrial Revolution, but before the 1st Industrial Revolution most people worked on farms (their homes) or in shops or workshops (typically below or next to their homes).

So we actually started working from home, but the 1st and 2nd Industrial Revolutions centralised and mechanised work which, for manufacturing, occurred in newly created factories, while dealing with administrative work and early services like law and banking required staff to gather where the records were kept in offices.

With that simplified history for context; which option is best for now?

Work from work

There is no magic bullet as the needs of the business, staff and the industry will play a major role in determining the best option. It is very likely that the most suitable option will be a hybrid.

Manufacturing, mining or lab work only allows for a formal workplace as staff are working with actual products or materials.

But design, research and theoretical modelling don’t need to be office bound.

For the last 20 years there has been a growing belief that staff that could work remotely would be sufficiently effective to make the most of the significant cost savings it allows.

IBM certainly benefitted from this and has a well-established track record. Yet, it is IBM that is questioning the value of remote work as it faces increased competition and declining market share.

It points to the model used by some of the biggest start-ups of the last decade; Google and Facebook. Both know that staff can and do work remotely, but require them to be in an office in order to tackle their biggest challenges.

Start-ups typically do find a small but central space to iterate products and options, something that becomes more complex when time zones or geography separate teams.

The strongest case for work locations is that the physical presence with co-workers fosters collaboration and cooperation. It appears to favour those looking to innovate over those simply looking to create greater efficiency.

Of course, while true it also increases the chances for personality clashes and office politics. Work culture is the best tool to manage this, but that warrants its own article.

Central offices are expensive requiring significant costs that don’t actually turn into profits; transport options, dress codes and places to allow people to take breaks are needed to sustain even a modest level of work satisfaction. Again, companies like Google spend a lot on making office environments as comfortable as possible to remove any reason to not apply your full effort and potential to your job.

Central offices also have implications for the cities they are located in. What may initially be a welcome boon to attracting residents and income from rates, if not managed, will lead to expensive residential markets, transport congestion and, depending on the industry, pollution and a degradation to the city environment.

Work away from work

As more commercial activity becomes focused on services, and most work becomes digital in nature, all that is needed to work is a basic computer and an internet connection. Terms like coffice are common for those that make use of free wifi at coffee shops to set up office there, hence Coffee Office - Coffice.

It also allows for companies to recruit the best skills irrespective of where they may be located in the country or the world.

The move to more contract and freelance work, and the growth of the badly named “gig economy”, further drives non-office based work as the norm.

A new segment of freelancers and very small teams looking for central locations that are split between unrelated but similar businesses gave rise to a new definition of "co-working". They are also used as hubs for related companies to collaborate in solving problems beyond their capabilities.

It is not a binary option

Rather than you having to choose one and hope for the best, with a bit of planning you could manage both.

The City of Cape Town is experimenting with flexi-time options to ease the burden on traffic and is inviting other businesses to do the same.

Hot desking is a practice that creates generic workstations allowing any staff member to use it. Either on a shift basis or by working in the office on some days and from home on others.

The big issue for most businesses to resolve is how to define work output. The traditional method was to specify work hours and expect staff to fill those hours. With work involving customer support, or services like retail, it makes sense to define hours as the metric for output.

But roles like design or sales don’t fit that ideal so well.

The idea of ROWE or Results Only Work Environment redefines how a person is judged for having done a day’s work by defining an output or the support given to a collaborative project. It suggests that many industries may benefit from this assuming the HR function has shifted to more clearly define a person’s output rather than their role. It is not as easy as it sounds and not all businesses are suitable.

So rather than a simple option A versus option B to determine the best for your business, you are faced with a complex and changing set of options. Despite it being a hard and ongoing effort to manage, finding the correct mix will offer a business significant competitive advantages over competitors.

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