Remote Working? We’ve Virtually Been Doing It For Quarter Of A Century!

Friday, 17 April 2020
By Ian Harris

Forgive me for opening this long view piece with a topical rant, but the written media at the moment is inundated with hokey articles about the world of remote working. Mostly these have been written by writers who have occasionally worked from home in the past, but, as a result of the covid-19 lockdown, find their working circumstances have changed. Naturally these writers rebrand themselves as experts on home working and explain “how it is” to a rookie readership, often in the form of “ten tips”, “eight exhortations” or “six suggestions”.

Based on Z/Yen's quarter century plus experience operating a virtual office, I set out below a long view on how the covid-19 lockdown might or might not change the way professional staff work henceforward in professional and business services.

25 Years Of History

At Z/Yen, we have been living remote working since our formation, in 1994. Recently, for our 25th anniversary, I wrote up Z/Yen’s creation story – every faith should have one of those – the third part of which explains the formation of our tiny centre with remote working tentacles. Perceptive readers will note my mention of cabin fever and other unexpected consequences of 1990s remote working.

In the mid-1990s, using technology to enable comprehensive remote working was challenging. I took on the role of Z/Yen’s e-mail and nascent internet resource centre from my flat. My evening routine was to set the modem running while preparing and eating my evening meal. If I was lucky the traffic would have completed its back-and-forth movements by the time I’d finished dinner.

Still, Z/Yen found itself to be a case study in Marion Weatherhead’s 1997 book Real Estate In Corporate Strategy, which suggested that the Z/Yen way might well be the modern way for professional firms, new ones at least, such that real estate strategists needed to look at our model as the professional firm’s way of the future. In truth, 23 years later, little had changed in the professional world.

Actually, by the time that book was being launched at a high-profile publishing event at the top of the BT Tower (super do, it was), Z/Yen was already remodelling its approach to remote working, to try to minimise the risks of cabin fever, maximise the flexible working choices we could offer our people and to build some robustness into the “head office” aspect of our business model. In order to do that, we actively sought two types of business that were not otherwise central to our plans:

  • managed office services for other organisations, to ensure that we needed several administrative folk and enough space to enable us to punch above our weight. Taskforce 2000 was a high-profile example; a pint-sized organisation, operating out of Z/Yen, that came across as being at least quart, if not gallon-sized;
  • administrative activities supporting some of our more information-based or strategic advisory client work. For example, in the first decade of this century, the Z/Yen office operated the Payroll Giving Centre for the Institute of Fundraising & the Government, as well as fulfilling an advisory role to the campaign.

In short, over the 25 years of Z/Yen’s existence, we evolved into a heterogenous culture of office-based and remote-based professionals.

Next we turn to the future post-covid-19, which might or might not include Chair Miles.

25 Years Experience Followed By Covid-19 – The Long View On Remote Working

When the covid-19 lockdown is over, what will happen? Will everyone simply revert to the way they worked before, as some suggest? Or will the working world never be the same again, as many of those March/April 2020 hokey articles suggest?

The answer is not straightforward.

At Z/Yen we have been living this heterogeneous mix of office and remote working for a long time. We have long offered flexible working to our people (itself a mix of staff and associate workers) and have tried to keep up with the technological advances that make remote working practicable. Because of this, most Z/Yen people have strongly indicated that, post-lockdown, they wish revert to working the way they had chosen to work before covid-19.

A few clients, however, have strongly indicated that they find remote working liberating and that they will seek to work from home far more post lockdown and henceforward. A minority but a significant minority. This is in line with early market research into the question of home working, which indicates that 70% to 75% of office-based workers who are working from home under lockdown anticipate returning to their office desks when the lockdown is over.

The Institute of Economic Affairs has published a fascinating paper on the topic of physical location & remote working - if you want a deep read on the topic I recommend that you click this link.

But the long view on remote working is not just about the main physical location from which professional workers spend most of their working time. It will also depend on the tools and technologies available to professional workers and the relationship between those workers and the organisations they serve.

Without question, the use of video-conferencing has increased dramatically as a direct result of the covid-19 lockdown. The timing of the lockdown is intriguing, because the near-ubiquitous availability of video-conferencing at low or no cost is a fairly recent development; hence the unsurprising order-of-magnitude surge in use on the back of the Coviid-19 lockdown.

While video conferences and webinars are less social than face-to-face meetings and physical events, It is hard to imagine the working world reverting to the same pattern of virtual to physical meetings as prevailed prior to the lockdown.

In particular, I have noticed with Z/Yen’s international work over the past few weeks, the ubiquitous use of video conferences and webinars is rapidly enabling closer, more regular and good quality connection with our international clients and partners. This element feels positive and I suspect will be a long-term effect.

Other lauded tools and technologies to enhance team working (examples include Slack, Teams Channels & Jitsi) are less likely to progress so rapidly into organisational ubiquity. The simple expedient of housing digital resources (software and files) in the cloud and the ubiquity of communication tools such as e-mail covers most of that tooling, file sharing and team collaboration need.

One final point on long-term trends relates to the legal form of the relationship between the worker and the organisation(s) for which they work. There has been much discussion in recent years about “the gig economy” for lower-paid, unskilled/low-skilled work. Up until now, professional workers have tended to bind into individual organisations and mostly work full time as employees for one employer. This pattern might change significantly as a result of the covid-19 lockdown and the resulting economic turmoil.

The economic recovery might take a long time and prove to be a bumpy road. Professional and business service sector firms, looking to manage their commercial risks, might well look to changing the ways they resource skills, minimising overheads and employed head count where possible.

When we look back in the coming years and reflect upon the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, the most intriguing long-term change might be the ways service sector organisations structure their relationships with their people. That would be an indirect consequence of the possibilities that remote working and related technologies allow, but perhaps it will prove to be the most profound consequence.