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Brislen on Tech: Farewell to the soggy middle manager

Paul Brislen, Editor. 09 October 2020, 1:13 pm

In 1998 the power went off in Auckland city and didn't come back on for about six weeks. It was awesome.

As a city dweller (246 Queen Street no less) it was … well, mostly it was quite easy as the building manager had seen the writing on the wall and got in a generator some time before. But the city centre was a ghost town, "buildings closed and windows were boarded" (or so the song goes) and it was during this time that Russell Brown went home and never came back.

Russell was the online reporter for IDG Communications and he took his laptop with him and never returned to the office. This was the first time I heard about anyone successfully working from home.

Fast forward to 2002 and my eldest daughter was born and I too went home and did not return. I was determined not to miss any milestones and the job of a daily newshound doesn't really gel well with an office full of reporters on a weekly cycle, and that's before we get to the monthly titles.

So determined was I to work from home that I worked above and beyond starting early and finishing late and producing more than ever before just to ensure nobody could ever say "well, you're slacking off so you'd better come back to the office".

I've been doing it pretty much continuously ever since and for me it works well. I'm vastly more productive at home than I am in an office where I'm easily distracted. I have Twitter for entertainment value plus the fridge is close to hand and the commute is excellent. But I fully appreciate it's not for everyone.

Interestingly, everyone has had a chance to sample the delights of the home office thanks to the world's most boring zombie apocalypse and that's produced some really interesting results that could have a longer-term impact on the way we do business.

Chris Herd, the founder of FirstbaseHQ, a US-based remote-working management company in the US, has interviewed about 1,000 companies in the US regarding their plans for remote working and the future, and the results are quite stark.

Sadly his results aren't up on the company blog yet, but in a Twitter thread he outlined some of the headline numbers.

Head offices are finished, he says, with companies expecting to cut office space by 40-60%. Around one third of the companies say they're doing away with office space altogether and move to remote-only working. This has a two-fold impact: companies can start hiring the best person for the job, not just the best person in a 30-mile radius; and employees can live where they want and still get the job they want. It's something of a win:win situation.

It also means both companies and employees can cut costs hugely. For employees there's less commute time, no parking hassles or bus/train timetables to juggle and no need buy trousers unless they really want to.

For companies, the savings are even greater. Office space costs around $20,000 per worker per year (a number that's not far off the figures I've seen for city space in New Zealand) and cutting that out of the company budget, even if you replace it with a $2000 a year per person budget for tech/office support at home, is an enticing idea. I'd love it if my employer outfitted my home office at that rate. I'd have new monitors, a better desk, my chair would get an upgrade… and that's a chunk of my internet connection paid for as well.

Indeed, many companies are already doing this - helping staff offset the increased costs of working from home by adding in a stipend to cover power, internet and what have you.

One of the biggest concerns Herd saw is around remote burnout - that is, staff working too hard because they can. Productivity has gone through the roof in many companies and the danger is staff will do what I did and forget where the lines are between work and life. I highly recommend getting that straight in your head as soon as possible. Herd says the smart companies are already working on ways to sort that out and that includes building in time to get together as a team (or a company) in ways that reconnect individuals with colleagues. Forget going to the pub on a Friday night, the most popular option is flying teams to remote locations for a week. Seriously now.

There are downsides of course. Personal injury rates are way up as staff work hard in non-ergonomic settings. Kitchen chairs, non-adjustable desks, you name it and we've all seen it on Zoom calls. Plus there's always someone from Legal saying "we can't accept liability" even though of course companies already do.

I asked around to see what the experience has been like here in New Zealand for employees and it's safe to say the reaction is mixed.

Sure, there are people like me who are well set up, have a job that is best done in this kind of environment and who have taken to it like ducks to water. But then there are those whose roles are quite different, who miss the office life, who feel isolated or whose home set-up is less than conducive to good work behaviour. For them, this has been a nightmare.

Successful Company

The two extremes seem to divide along tech-centric and non-tech-centric lines - tech folk are more used to sitting at a desk typing on a keyboard for a large part of the day so to them it's second nature.

Regardless of whether you like it or not, the new world order seems likely to be around for a while - even once we clear COVID out of the way. That kind of cost saving is too great for many companies to ignore and so long as the company pays attention to onboarding processes and culture building (proper culture building) then there's hope for a happy outcome.

Herd says that the split is around 90% for remote working in some form or other, 10% dead against it but I suspect that's a skew based on where his company is and what kind of customers he deals with.

While big team gestures and funds to enable good home office set-ups help, it's also the little things that will make life easier for staff. Reduced need for office space means perhaps take out all those hot desks and put in some more meeting rooms, and upgrade the coffee supply. Then when you do need to be in it's a nicer environment. And make sure everyone is treated equally when it comes to team meetings - if one is remote, everyone should be remote so you've all got the same access and same experience. Otherwise it's just awful.

Whatever your views on it, there is one upside I've yet to find anyone oppose. The soggy middle manager who judges employees not on output but on their time in the office, the clock watcher, his and her day is over. There's no need for those roles and instead we can actually assess staff on performance.

Finally we have a productivity tool that might lift us out of the doldrums.


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Gordon Milne 09 October 2020, 3:07 pm

I am one of those middle managers and I spend zero time working out how long people are in the office. For me, it is all about "when will we be finished" and "what is stopping us from getting to the end"? If my company was serious about clock watching we'd have a time-clock system and time-clock cards. I had that at my first job but that was to reassure the blue-collar workers that the white-collar workers did the same number of hours work. The white-collar folks had more generous flexitime than the blue-collar workers.

I both enjoyed and hated my time working from home. Since my partner has worked from home for the past 8 years, but mainly in the afternoon, I got to use her office in the mornings. However, I needed to relocate elsewhere in the afternoon. That was a PITA.

I could not have a decent set up at home without carting a ton of equipment from the office (2 monitors and a desktop PC). Instead, I took one of the monitors home and used Google Remote Desktop to log into my work computer from home. My personal notebook wasn't ideal as a work device but it didn't suck as much as I thought it would. However, Google Remote Desktop let me have no company stuff on any piece of personal equipment which is a big issue for me.

To make this work long term, I'd need a better setup at home. I'd probably opt for a small format PC with 32GB RAM and a 1TB SSD plugged into a single 28-32inch UHD monitor. I'd have this on a desk on wheels that I could move about the house to get the sun where it shows its face and to hide myself from it when it's too hot. Such are the joys of single glazing in South Island NZ. I'd dedicate one of our other rooms to be my office since sharing the space with the other half can be problematic when it comes to both os us making video calls and the like.

So, two people working from home really need 2 separate workspaces. Yep, this is starting to get costly.

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