It is quite evident that COVID-19 will permanently shift working patterns as companies are now forced to embrace remote working by the pandemic may find that their employees will not want to return to the office once the closures are lifted either due to fear or that fact that they are more productive
The sudden increase in working from home is presenting problems as well as opportunities: on the one hand, startups such as Slack and Zoom and established giants including Google and Microsoft are offering their tools for free, in the hope that people who start using them in a crisis may carry on once normality returns.
On the other hand, some systems are already creaking at the edges. Corporate networks, which are not used to having a majority of their connections coming in over virtual private networks (VPNs), are experiencing unusual strain.
It looks increasingly as if the situation will not ever go back to how it was as many employees for companies who have sent all staff home are already starting to question why they had to go into the office in the first place.
Large technology firms such as Facebook and Twitter were some of the first to make the switch to remote working for all their staff, building on pre-existing infrastructures such as office chat groups, remote access to critical tools, and the fact that much knowledge work can be carried out remotely.
“We understand this is an unprecedented step, but these are unprecedented times,” Twitter’s head of HR, Jennifer Christie, said in a message to staff. Christie promised to reimburse employees, including hourly workers, for the expenses required to set up home offices, covering the costs of buying things such as computer hardware, desks and ergonomic chairs. “Overall, working from home doesn’t change your day-to-day work, it just means you’ll be doing it from a different environment,” Christie added.
Those sorts of investments have prompted many to wonder if companies that embrace remote working in a crisis may find it sticks around as normality returns. It is harder to say no to employee requests for working from home if HR has already bought them a new desk – and it is easier to view the investment as a sensible one if it pays off for years, rather than months, to come.
Millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick. This might be a chance for a great reset in terms of how we work.
Tools for remote working
Slack, the über workplace management tool, is loved and loathed in equal measure, but one thing it has going for it is its free-to-play business model: rather than needing to sign up the entire organisation at once, it is easy for individual teams, desks and offices to get started with the free tier, and expand as they see fit. That means it is best placed to help home workers quickly recreate the sort of in-person chat they had in the office.
Where Slack recreates the feeling of turning to a colleague for a quick chat that’s as much personal as professional, Trello is more like your boss walking over to “just check on how you’re doing”. The project management software lets teams arrange and assign tasks, track wider project progress, and build workflows for repeated jobs – perfect for day four or five of working from home, when you might start to wonder if your boss has forgotten you exist.
Videoconferencing tools are 10 a penny, but Zoom has impressed many by ironing out the kinks in an often-frustrating process. The app lifted its limit on free accounts as a response to the crisis, and theoretically supports up to 1,000 participants in a single meeting, though it’s unclear whether that’s actually a positive. The company has had some controversies, however, from an insecure plugin for Mac clients that was fixed in June to a questionable “attention tracking” feature that allows horrible bosses to use AI to check whether their employees are actually looking at the screen.
Just as important as making sure you work well at home is making sure you take breaks from work at home. The Pomodoro method, a well-known approach to focus management that lets you break the day into 20-minute chunks with five-minute rests, is one such approach. Tomates, a simple and cheap Mac app, helps you to automate those timers – although any similar app will work too, or a simple physical timer like the tomato alarms the method is named after.