Reflecting on a year of home working.
We’ve always dabbled with working from home. In principle, this has never been a problem at AMT. We’ve long understood the benefit of people having time at home to get their head into a piece of work without the day-to-day disruptions of office life, or even just to get the new washing machine delivered or let some workmen in. For a few years now, I’ve worked a couple of days at home and enjoyed the lack of commute alongside the peace and quiet of my home office. Skype for Business, and then Microsoft Teams, made communication easy, and often conversations are higher quality over a headset than many of the informal chats that happen in the office, with lots of people listening in.
Why did we delay working from home in the past?
The reason we’ve never encouraged wider use of home-working has been the difficulty of “hybrid-meetings”, with some people in the office and some at home. We start each day with a daily stand-up – the whole team gets together for 15 minutes to share what they did yesterday, what’s happening today, and raise any blockers. This is a key part of the how we organise ourselves, and without a meeting room big enough to hold everybody, we never sorted out the technology that we needed to make this work with home-workers.
Similarly, weekly team meetings and various other gatherings were noticeably more difficult with a mixed working environment. I’ve no doubt that, with a bit more effort put into the technology that we used, we could have improved this, but our office setup just didn’t seem to lend itself to working this way.
The other thing that held us back was the importance to us as a company of the social side of work, especially a culture of open communication and ideas shared around the coffee-maker. We were always nervous about excluding home-workers from general office goings-on and risking a them-and us thing happening.
It's interesting how smoothly the move to fully home-working went
True, we already had the technology in place. We’ve been fully cloud for a few years now, with all of our servers in Azure, all of our files on SharePoint and OneDrive, and everybody chatting and calling using Teams.
But what we found was our daily office routines translated really nicely into Home Working. The daily stand-ups carried on over Teams – everybody is on video, and we encourage some banter and social-news sharing. Weekly team meetings work really well. Group chats make sure that people who need to know what’s going on are kept informed, and meetings can be quickly spun up without worrying about trying to book a meeting room or finding out where people are going to be based. We’ve also realised that we can now recruit from much further afield, significantly improving our ability to attract high-calibre candidates.
We put some effort into making sure quieter members of the team weren’t forgotten about, but the morning stand-up seems to really break the ice with the team, and you can see immediately afterwards that lots of chat and calls are happening as people communicate about what they need for the day. A theme among people who aren’t enjoying home-working does seem to be a lack of routine team meetings; this seems to quickly lead to isolation and a breakdown of team dynamics.
What downsides have you experienced?
There are definitely downsides – particularly people who are living alone not getting out of the house – but this is balanced with the benefits of not having to sit in traffic for hours every week, removing the daily grind of heading into work every day, and generally being a bit more in control of your own life. When I phoned round everybody in June to see what they thought about giving up the office, I got a universal ‘yes’.
Looking towards 2021...
Looking to next year, we still plan to find new office space. This is going to look very different, though. We’ll embrace mixed working, and encourage everybody to work at home for at least part of the week. This is likely to bring the old challenges with it again; the office space that we’ll need will be very different – it might end up with us needing more space so that we can accommodate hot-desking and bigger break-out/meeting areas equipped with high quality video conferencing equipment. We’ll also need to carefully look at how people interact, making sure that home-workers are as included in conversations as office-workers.
I think this is going to be the most difficult way to run an office. It may well be that we end up predominantly, or even totally, home-working at some point. What I can’t see happening is going back to being fully office-based with the daily fight with the traffic.