Extra: The Problem With Working From Home

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Since Covid, there’s been a fierce debate raging over where the best place to work is.

In one corner, the homebodies, extolling the virtues of no travel, a calm morning routine, and having time with the kids. In the other corner, the commuters, highlighting social connections, a zoom-free life, and having time away from the kids.

I’ve always been a big fan of having a couple of days of both. (Admittedly, it was more difficult when I was a branch manager at a bank. For some reason people preferred to see an actual cashier than turn up at my house and pass me money through the front window.)

Sometimes, ‘the office’ means the physical home of The Foundation, with plants, post-its, and organisational-health-approved ergonomic chairs. But sometimes, it’s more flexible: a restaurant, a café, a train or a taxi, on my way to and from clients.

Crucially, though, wherever ‘the office’ is, it has one feature that distinguishes it from home: my colleagues are there.

And being around other people is at the heart of the three reasons why I think being in the office is still so important to personal development and creativity (as well as why I think contact centres up and down the country are struggling so much at the moment, despite what HMRC thinks):

1. Learning by osmosis

When you’re new into a team or organisation (or even into the world of work), there’s often set onboarding programmes and online learning to help get you up to speed. But what that doesn’t give you is the unwritten rules of the way things are done around here or the opportunity to learn unconsciously from more experienced colleagues.

To put it another way, in football (other example sports are available), often what you do off the ball is as important as what you do on it. Online learning and working help you with the former, but leave you blind to the latter.

What time do people arrive and leave? What’s their timekeeping like? How often do they take breaks? How do they speak to visitors, clients, or people on the phone? How do they react when they’re stressed, or worried, or angry, or happy? How do they do they prepare before meetings? What conversations do they have outside of formal meetings? What can you overhear them saying or doing that’s interesting to know? The list could go on.

Admittedly the last one sounds a little like staying on top of the gossip. Which also matters.

2. Managing Energy

During Covid, I listened to a superb podcast about working from home, arguments, and ghosts. Bear with me.

Firstly, the podcast discussed how we get our energy from moving locations – the way you’re exhausted at the end of the work day, but thirty minutes later, in the pub with friends, you feel completely reenergised.

Secondly, it talked about how our interactions leave ‘ghosts’ behind, reminders of what happened. For example, if you have a big argument at work, then the next time you’re in the room it occurred, your brain recollects the moment, and your body feels the stress again. Now, what happens if this room where the argument happened is your kitchen? It’s much harder to escape it, to walk away, to leave it behind.

“I feel like when you exist in the same spot, it’s almost like your ghosts stack up. I have a hard time thinking of my home office as my workspace after a while. It’s just a place I’m existing, and I have trouble focusing. I resent how it turns happy places into work places. I have a tiny backyard here in the city, and I walk outside to take a break, and my backyard has stopped becoming the area where I barbecue and have fun, and now it’s like my break room.”

Sean Blanda on Hurry Slowly, October 2020

3. Creative Serendipity

Serendipity is an overlooked and under-appreciated ingredient in our lives, one that’s crucial to creativity and innovation. And whilst we can’t control it, we can create the conditions for serendipitous things to occur.

However, the way most of us currently work is anything but set up for serendipity. Endless hours on zoom calls keep us focussed on the functional task at hand. Back-to-back meetings leave no time for side-of-desk chats. Every spare commuting second is taken up by endless emails.

Whilst this way of working may give the impression of us being more functionally productive, it blocks us off from the world around us, dramatically reducing the possibility of those serendipitous moments of connection and inspiration that come from meandering conversations and interesting observations

For me, the commute is a crucial time for creativity to occur, whether it’s seeing how people behave, having customer experiences, or simply seeing the latest adverts on the underground. Then being in a room, surrounded by stimulus, able to walk, wander, and think, helps good ideas flow. Staring at a Miro board on a laptop full of distractions does not.  

(You can read more about the importance of serendipity here)

At The Foundation, we instigated a ‘Wednesday +1’ approach, with everyone in on a Wednesday, as well as either a Tuesday or a Thursday. We default to home on a Monday and a Friday. It’s worked, for us. 

And come to think of it, maybe that’s the future of branch banking, too?  

Thanks for reading this article, I really hope you enjoyed it. You can subscribe to my monthly newsletter below, and find me in tweet form @johnjsills, in picture form on Instagram @CX_Stories, or in work mode at The Foundation

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