Pandemic, crisis, isolation, lockdown, virus, home office, stay at home, protect, wash you hands, vulnerable, social distancing, case, death toll. The most frequent words and expressions we hear, read or say recently. Unfortunately.
This period is full of adaption, compromises, sacrifice, cooperation, ambiguity, fear, worries and hope that we will somehow get over it, as soon as practicable. We learn to live according to new norms, new circumstances, new behavioural standards, new principles, and also new expectations and new possibilities.
Although it is quite early to draw general and overarching conclusions, it is time to stop for a minute and see where we are and what we have learnt so far. Because we have quite much.
Our conclusions are – naturally – stemming from our own experiences and may also vary depending on geography, industry and also time.
Home office is not a real novelty, as several companies made attempts to introduce this opportunity in those industries where seemed reasonable. Friday home office has become a kind of a routine and it was a helpful tool when e.g. a small operation due to an unfortunate skiing weekend kept us away from the office, though did not affect our intellectual capacity. Nevertheless, it has been a supplementary solution and not a real option to the office hours.
It has been considered either much more or much less efficient, depending on the circumstances. Those, who found it more efficient, usually mentioned that there was no commuting time, were less “face visits”, small talks and non-essential meeting participations, which all were considered to be a bit of a waste of time. Additionally, a strong advantage was that home obligations may had also been managed in parallel, in those short breaks, where otherwise we would have gone out of our office to the public kitchen and made the fifth coffee in a day… Those who found home office less efficient, usually mentioned different distracting factors as other family members being around, or lack of involvement to the “atmosphere” of the company, local, internal politics and also lack of observations.
Although, the personal attitude towards a home office arrangement is a question of individual character, preference and also job characteristics, one thing seems to be sure: due to the pandemic, it has become the new norm for the time being. A live experiment, which will provide all shareholders, owners and executives, such as employees themselves, with an experience. A theory tested live, not as a result of an individual strategic decision, but as a ‘must’, being the only alternative. This ‘must’ led to a very different environment: as it forced all those industries to consider this option, as well, which would otherwise not even think about it.
Being a ‘must’ without any other viable alternative, the approach changed very significantly. Formerly, the question was: is it suitable for our industry/company/department to proceed with such an arrangement? Now, the new question is: what shall I do to make – at least a part of – my activities suitable for long distance performance? What a huge difference. Consequently, the outcome has become dependent on the “hows” and “extents” to which the home office performance has become a reasonable alternative, instead of the ‘yes-or-no ‘approach, which drove certain companies to categorically opt it out.
As a general observation, we think significant amount of companies will consider not to go back to the “old” norms, but to seek ways to maintain a certain level of long-distance working arrangements, where no business hindrance may be identified. We also think that such jobs, where home office is a fundamentum, may gain more popularity among the employees, as well, due to the fact that it provides a much better work-life balance, simply because of the aforementioned possible efficiency upsides (no commuting time, better utilisation of short breaks and lack of unnecessary interactions).
We are also confident about the acceleration of development on all those areas, which are, this way or that, essential to make home office arrangements really efficient, competitive, secure and transparent.
Digitalisation is one of those elements we consider crucial. Data collection, processing, storing and utilisation, all with the highest levels of confidentiality, where necessary, security and protection. Besides all these, simple, user-friendly structures, flexible solutions and scalability in terms of capacities what makes the difference.
The trend is massively there, although, the aforementioned ‘must’, stemming form the pandemic, may speed it up, and leave the ‘yes-or-no’ question behind, replacing it with the ‘how’ and ‘when’. This is true not only for the market, but also for the authorities and public services, although the motivation may be a little bit different. Such a general change in the approach may create an environment with a common understanding and a new common sense, hopefully with lower administrative costs associated with accommodating the differences stemming from the different levels of development.
Unfortunately, the economic consequences of the protective measures against the health consequences (not to mention the employment market impacts) are expected to be considerable, and surely end up in a global recession and slowing down. However, this may generate space for acceleration of development processes and thus provide the opportunity to make a leap to the next level, to continue from there.
This seems to be a very different domain, and one may ask why to put it on a list where fundamental, almost disruptive changes are expected to be mentioned. The reason is very simple: we had to get used to the idea of not traveling at all, and most of us to not commuting at all. Beforehand, all those cost-cutting or rationalising efforts which targeted the business travel policies in the past led to only demonstrative results or completely failed. Overestimating the importance of the personal meetings and the fear from loosing visibility, and thus sales opportunities, was common. Not to mention the fact that not only the employees, but also the executives felt somehow deprived of the ‘usual’ allowances in parallel to such business travels.
Let us add the commuting expenses here, as well. Although smaller in scale, still an expense which is associated only with getting into or out of the office, and nothing more. We all know those over-emphasised examples of how efficient you can be e.g. when sitting on the train, bus, or underground, as you need only a laptop and a phone to do the same which you would otherwise do at home or in the office. Well, as most of such general statements, they might only be valid in a test environment. Did you try to use a laptop in a crowded train where half of the passengers were standing? Or have a prestige conference call when all the announcements of the forthcoming stops are overheard? We handle them with comments.
We may continue with the company car issue, which is also used – at least partly – for commuting purposes, without the possibility to do any other things than being on the phone in both the morning and the evening traffic jams. Company car possession is rather a prestige thing, and one needs an audience for it, an environment, in which it can serve its purpose. Once home-office and long-distance working arrangements are spreading, they may provide less space for such prestige related things, as a consequence. Functionality may take this space over, as it is expected to be associated with the higher, better, more performance, and consequently a higher, better and more compensation.
Our observation is that saving one month’s travel and commuting expenses may be a significant amount from the shareholder and management perspective, which is not necessarily associated with the same drop in the income figures. Less travels mean less waste of time and more focus on essential to dos. Less commuting means more time saved for the private life, as well. The result of which is a more balanced employee and a better performer. As examples. We, of course, do not mean to question the relevance and importance of personal business relationships, in general. We are aware of their role in trust building and relationship management. However, we are far from being convinced about the former scale of it…
Personal social interactions have been cut to the minimum. Minimum, in the meaning of being reduced to essentials, such as medical issues, and where we are the subject of a particular service or activity. In most of the countries it is reduced even further, below these levels, as also hairdressing, manicure, cosmetics and sports are temporarily suspended. Surely, there is a fairly good chance to survive without these services, and also to improve skills to service ourselves with most of them.
Nevertheless, human interactions have their role in the business relationships, and the quality, frequency and form of them are mostly determined by the corporate culture. What may change due to the pandemic is that metacommunication and body language becomes less, outspoken, verbalised values and principles more important to create and to maintain it.
We strongly believe that aggressive, ignorant or abusive behaviour can successfully be managed out of the corporate culture, positive examples of team spirit and supportive attitude can also be rewarded, regardless of which communication forms are actually the more frequent.
Negative impacts tend to receive more attention, but there are some positive changes that we can observe. Pandemic is a global issue, and almost no one can avoid the consequences. It tends to generate a cooperative, sympathetic attitude, simply because there is no way to benefit from a sharply individual approach. This is the major point. Competitive, highly individualistic attitudes tend to be questioned, and cooperative, supportive, community-sensitive approaches to be more appreciated. Is it temporary or did we learn a lesson? It is too early to draw conclusions.
Our expectation is that certain questions, like the healthcare services, and public services in general, may receive an increased attention, and a different emphasis. Globalisation, in the meaning of being exposed to international trade and cross-border services may also be approached differently: more attention paid to the security of supply, in opposition to the former primacy of economic efficiency. Parallel to that, we also expect a shift in the focus of social relationships: local communities, families and close environments may receive more focus, and long-distance relationships may be less valued than before. Is less really more? This question may be answered on the medium term. Patterns, role models may change, and new examples may be appreciated more than before.
Change. This is a key word. Although, as we stated earlier, it may be too early to make conclusions, but probably a good point in time to see what has happened so far. We can analyse the reasons behind such a pandemic, how and why did it happen, etc. but regardless of the individual conclusions, one thing seems to be sure: we received a huge amount of homework to do, and the possibility to analyse what we consider essential and non-essential, sustainable and unsustainable. We received a strong and effective warning of our individual and community level vulnerability. We can now see our limits in many different contexts.
We are confident about that even the near future would not necessarily look like the near past (right before the pandemic). The possibility of another global issue like this is on the table and all of us have some personal experience so far, which has generated adjustments in our mindset. Being an entrepreneur, a shareholder, a director, an employee, and official, a customer or a supplier, we all have our own experience. And this is expected to have an impact on our professional behaviour.
Let us see where it would lead us from here.