Andrew Lambert, Chair International Special Trade Interest Group
The coronavirus outbreak is having a major impact on business in all sectors. In the space of just over two weeks, my businesses have moved almost entirely to Working From Home (WFH). We have a few key staff who need to attend our offices to maintain the IT and broadband services we provide to our customers. We have had a very busy period helping our customers upgrade and enhance their data and broadband networks to enable key staff to work effectively from home.
As a Director, I have been following the Government announcements on the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) and the Furloughed Workers scheme. The IoD has created the Coronavirus Support Hub (https://www.iod.com/iod-coronavirus-support-hub) that contains valuable guidance and support material on the available support for businesses. The IoD has also been very active lobbying the Government for further clarification and changes to the regulations. The recent clarifications from the Chancellor on CBILS is a direct result of this lobbying by the IoD.
I left the corporate world over 20 years ago and my first business as a technology consultant was home-based. My company Electronic Media Services is a member of a recently established pan-European research project into the use of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in 5G networks. The consortium, which has 24 members in 6 countries, has never physically met. The project meetings are all held online using Microsoft Teams and the project documents are shared online with Office 365 allowing real-time collaboration. So, I have easily slipped into a world where board, management and team meetings, training and sales calls are all held online.
The Central London Branch Committee held its first virtual meeting this week and much of the agenda was devoted to moving the regular networking and SIG events to an online format. During the last two weeks, I have used Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WebEx and GoToMeeting and overall, the technology works as expected. There have been a few dropped calls and some people impersonating a Dalek when the audio breaks up or Buster Keaton when the video freezes and then rapidly catches-up.
There have been some practical issues, like the camera being at the wrong height or at a bad angle which often results in an unflattering shot. Yesterday I had one person with a bright window behind him so other members of the meeting could only see a dark shadow. On another call one member, who had clearly forgotten they were still on camera, started doing their stretching exercises. We were all amazed by their flexibility!
Many of my colleagues and friends who have children that are now home-schooling and possibly a partner also trying to work from home, talk of numerous challenges. These can be technological - slow broadband with all members of the household trying to video call at the same time. Some are physical issues – whose turn is it to use the desk or printer. Then there are the tensions caused by having household members together for long periods, possibly in one of today’s smaller houses or flats, with limited opportunity to go outside to exercise and relax. In China where the lockdown is currently being eased after two months, the divorce rate has increased by over 25% and there has been a threefold increase in cases of domestic violence. A clinical study of stress and psychological distress caused by the 2003 SARS outbreak found depression and anxiety in Hong Kong's general population in 2004 had increased by 21% from that in 2002.
There are many articles and a huge thread on LinkedIn discussing if WFH is the new normal. In addition to the short-term impact of COVID-19, the commercial property sector is also further depressed because of concerns that businesses will no longer need office space. With fast broadband and the wealth of video conferencing and collaboration apps, there is no technology barrier to more people WFH. I can see the financial benefit of not having the overheads of an office. However, the UK is predominately a knowledge-based economy and a key asset of these knowledge businesses is their staff. While virtual team meetings and online collaboration are useful tools during the current crisis, they cannot replace physical meetings where creativity, team spirit and networking flourish.
As Directors, even when our staff are working from home, we still have a duty of care to them to ensure their working conditions comply with current health and safety regulations (e.g. VDU, desk, chair etc.) and also to support their health and wellbeing.
The office of the future may well be different with some people choosing to switch to predominately WFH. Others, whose personality, personal circumstances or job function are not suitable candidates for WFH will continue to be office based. Humans are social animals and being remote and isolated from colleagues and friends, as the Hong Study shows, causes depression and anxiety. Therefore, I do not think WFH will become the new normal.
If you would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please connect on LinkedIn.
Stay Safe and support your staff, especially those on furlough, during this challenging period.