Has the time for location independent working finally arrived?

Steve Watmough

Executive Chairman


March 2020

key fact

Approximately 70% of UK employees feel that flexible working makes a job more attractive to them and 30% would prefer flexible working to a pay rise.

I was thinking back this week to an occasion in the late 1980’s. I was away in Devon for a week learning to windsurf. Each evening when we got back to base, one guy plugged his computer into the wall in the bar, ordered a drink, then proceeded to do some work on his laptop. When I asked what he was doing he explained that he was a sole trader and was picking up messages. This freedom allowed him to take a week’s holiday whilst still keeping an eye on his business and deal with customer enquiries. I’m not advocating this as a panacea for all, but it struck me as a pretty neat idea.

Not long after this we implemented early generation remote access technology in my corporate role. Having travelled to a conference in the US, it was quite exciting to be able to send meeting notes back to base, even if it did take a few hours and a large telephone bill to send what perhaps could have waited until I got back.

I also remember the first gulf war, and rapidly deploying room-based videoconferencing systems between the UK and US at a cost of over £50,000 per room when business users were nervous about international travel.

The modern business world nowadays has an abundance of technology to support location independent working. We take for granted the ability to have facetime video calls at nearly no cost. We can sit in a coffee shop and access cloud based corporate services as if we were in the office. In the early days of Mason Advisory, I once authorized salary payments via HSBC from Green Island in the Great Barrier Reef, 30km off shore from Cairns. Indeed, almost any type of commerce can these days be carried out from anywhere.

It is widely understood that some activities are not suited to remote working, whether it be manufacturing facilities or building relationships on a one to one or one to many basis. For but vast swathes of business life it is a real option. So why is it that we have spent such massive budgets over recent years on lavish office facilities, and similarly expensive transportation systems to get to these offices, when a significant percentage of the work could be done without them? Part of this is about employer trust. Employers often like to see what people are doing. Similarly, many individuals don’t really adjust to the self-discipline needed to effectively embrace working from home.

The environmental agenda has increasingly led organisations to consider whether all travel is necessary. Many global organisations have fully embraced remote working for international roles as a contribution towards reducing their carbon footprint.

But now Coronavirus has stepped up the challenge significantly. Many organisations are planning for large scale home working contingencies, realizing they may have no choice but to embrace the technology just to keep the business active. People are learning that switching video cameras on during Teams calls makes the meeting significantly more effective than people listening in via audio and doing something else at the same time. Who cares anymore that people are on the call in their pajamas when its start or end of day? Just think how quiet the roads might be when we do want to travel if we could just eliminate unnecessary journeys?.

There are other challenges of course. Maintaining work/life balance can be difficult unless you are disciplined. Give some people the opportunity to work all day every day and they will do. Everything in life is about finding an effective balance

My guess is that Coronavirus may be the watershed moment to change the way we do business. It will be fascinating to see what new business models emerge and how much more efficient we might become. Meanwhile it’s a good time to check that your systems work, find and dust off the Business Continuity plan and fully test it before the situation escalates further. We may find that some of the infrastructure is not really sized for everyone working remotely and that may require some corrective action. But let’s see how we can at least take something positive from this crisis and make our future business models radically different to the ones we have today.

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Author: Steve Watmough
Published: LinkedIn

Disclaimer – opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer or organisation.

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