The Future of Working From Home

I think it is fair to say that 2020 hasn’t gone quite as anyone planned so far. The Covid-19 global pandemic has thrown a grenade into almost every aspect of our lives. From home to work, from education to sports and leisure, we have all had to adapt – and quickly. So far New Zealand’s swift and hardline response and lockdown has seen us re-emerge from initial crisis in better shape than many other parts of the world and, fingers crossed, that will also mean that our economy doesn’t take the same sustained battering we are seeing predicted elsewhere.

One of the most universal changes, seen up and down the country and across industries, was the enforced move to working from home (WFH). Almost everyone has a story of a less than slick Zoom call, a technically inept colleague, interruptions by children/pets/partners, or surprise at a manager’s choice of artwork and reading material.

A couple of weeks ago we did a short survey to find out how our candidates had found the change to working from home, and what they think will change as we take lessons from this extraordinary period.

The first headline was that most people – almost 90% – said the transition to working from home was easy (“a piece of cake” in fact), and for others any initial teething problems were soon resolved. It is great to know that firms were able to adjust and keep working. However, it does beg the question as to why firms have been reluctant in the past to talk about working from home as a regular arrangement? It is fair to say there has been more discussion about flexible arrangements in recent years, but there has still been quite a lot of push back on WFH on more than an ad hoc basis.

There is also the question of whether the ease of change was based on a Disaster Recovery Plan, designed to get a business back up and running after a major event, a more detailed Business Continuity Plan, involving adopting different processes to ensure business as usual, but with little prospect of development or advancement for the business, or genuine Business Continuity Practice. This last contingency aims to make sure any change is seamless, workflows remain the same, and workers don’t have to change the way they work simply the location. It means that employees don’t need to adapt working practices at the same time as dealing with another, usually major, event. Think earthquake, pandemic lockdown, convention centre fire etc.

The next headline, and this was not altogether surprising, was that 83% of our candidates surveyed wanted to continue working from home in the future. When asked to express a preference they were overwhelmingly in favour of 2 or 3 days working from home each week. Only one person wanted to be in the office full time and, at the other end of the scale, only one person wanted to work from home every day. There was also plenty of recognition that flexibility is a two-way street, but also a majority of people expressing the hope that there will be an overall change to measuring success by productivity, rather than just hours worked. In comments a number of people wanted more autonomy if the job is getting done and clients are happy.

Interestingly, despite the questions covering the period of Level 2 lockdown, only 30% of respondents said that any other working arrangements had changed. These included staggered start and finish times and not everyone being in the office at the same time. However, most comments seemed to indicate that there were ongoing conversations about flexible working and WFH, which is promising.

Finally, it was clear that most people feel that the experiences of the last few months have changed the working landscape in New Zealand long term. Almost 80% said they felt it will have a lasting effect. Most of the related comments were around flexibility and increased ability to WFH, but several mentioned more trust between employees and employers. Others felt there may be more people on fixed term contracts, introducing another facet of flexible working. There was also a feeling that coming to work when sick would no longer be tolerated, and that would be a positive change all around.

On the other side of the fence we’re in the midst of surveying our law firm clients to get an understanding of how their HR priorities have changed since the lockdown. We will be able to benchmark it against a similar, more detailed, survey we did alongside ALPMA in the first quarter of the year. The responses from candidates suggest there is no appetite to simply return to the same old working practices, and it will be interesting to see if firms will take the lessons of lockdown and implement long term changes.