Part 1 of an interview with Professor Leslie Willcocks, London School of Economics and Political Science by Peter Warren, Future Intelligence, Future Intelligence.
By April 2020 the major economies were under lockdown as a result of the virus pandemic, and several billion of the global population were working from home. Peter Warren and Leslie Willcocks investigate whether homeworking arrangements will become permanent.
PETER: Homeworking – is this a change that is going to last?
LESLIE: I think we are going to build further on what we have achieved already in terms of homeworking. There has been quite a great increase in that, not least through previous crises, but after every uptake in homeworking there has always been, to some extent, a reversal by major companies to find out the actual, optimal arrangements.
Clearly, on net productivity, the measures tend to be very good, but I think the social dimensions of work, and the unquantifiable losses from home working, are sometimes quite serious. So it seems to balance out that, for most jobs, 2 to 3 days a week homeworking is quite good and productive and saves a lot of money for companies. But very few people seem to enjoy working 100% from home—they might like it for a while—but after time, then most start to feel social isolation and also experience that the richness of social communication is not enhanced by homeworking.
PETER: Is that the case or is it that we are just used to working together for so long that this is a flirtation with the technology systems of the 21st century and after three months we might actually find that we prefer it?
LESLIE: That is one possibility but I suspect that people will be really anxious to meet somebody after three months. I think that we are basically social beings.
PETER: The Royal Society says that after three months we break habits and we change habits.
LESLIE: You haven’t got to necessarily believe that. I think habits last for years, actually—I have some that have lasted 65 years. I doubt that I can break most of them within three months. And you have to remember that habits are frequently short-circuited ways of performing efficiently, that is they can be good, and make people feel comfortable. Certainly the style of working—we have got very ingrained in the way that we work and who we talk to and we are, as I said, social animals, so, relatively speaking, homeworking can be a very atrophied form of social interchange. Quite frankly if it was so effective we would probably have adopted it wholesale before. We have adopted it piecemeal with a rising trajectory, but I think there are definitely social factors that mitigate against wholesale five days a week of homeworking for most people. There are people that actually prefer it, of course, and there are some jobs to which it lends itself much better. Undoubtedly it will increase, not least because of the net productivity gains, but I think after about two years of that, as in previous crises, we will see some reversal/adjustment back to more social interconnections via personal contact.
PETER: Are there going to be other benefits? Commuting—if you start to think about commuting it does seem to be quite a stupid thing to do. All of these people going into one place, using up all of those resources when they don’t need to.
LESLIE: Yes, there are other, very big, gains from homeworking that you put your finger on, and I think that is absolutely correct. But this brings out the fact that what we are talking about is not an individual issue—a particular use of technology—but a whole open system, a dynamic, complex, uncertain system, where things are totally interconnected. So yes all that money that we spend on office space and commuting; worrying about location; improving our HR practices—indeed there are savings, perhaps much needed across 2020-2021. But it is a systemic problem and you can’t just lay out the costs and benefits and think that you have an answer, and equation, a solution. It’s a systemic set of issues and things will proceed in unanticipated ways. It’s very difficult to say that the costs will be much less than the benefits, therefore we will all move to homeworking. There are a lot of other factors knocking around the issue whether to homework or not. Technology is a powerful enabler, but the question always arises with technology: does ‘can’ translate always into ‘should’?
PETER: For an academic like you this must be an unprecedented opportunity to be able to study something that would never have happened before. You would never have been able to say: “Can we just stop the economy please and get off and have a look at what it will look like if people homework?”
LESLIE: It’s a natural research site, you are quite right Peter. It comes along occasionally, when you think this is a marvellous, natural research site. And the other thing is it is free action research—you are participating in it all the while. What is quite interesting is that today we spent a lot of time homeworking between us in order to get online to have this interview. And it took us about 30 minutes to get online, so that is an unanticipated cost of homeworking. Whether we become better at that is another question, but we are learning as we go here, about the advantages and disadvantages of homeworking.
PETER: I have been quite legendary in the past for being quite late to meetings—and I have managed to do that on a repeated basis. We will only have the technological hiccup that we had once!
LESLIE: I am not sure about that! I have seen technological hiccups for about 35 years and I don’t think they are going away. I think the assumption about technology is that it is going to be seamless—that we are moving towards this technological nirvana. The truth is we are creating highly-connected systems, very complex systems, very increasingly tightly coupled, and that is a recipe for systemic risk. So buried in the seamlessness that we are aiming are systemic risks and insecurities. We are creating these simultaneously as we head somewhat one-eyed towards higher levels of technological seamlessness. So things will fail unless we build resilience into them. But, on the whole, this is not what we have been doing. Information and communications technologies and software historically have been built hurriedly, then regularly ‘upgraded’ – often a euphemism for not having been done properly in the first place – to be first in the market, to take advantage of short product life cycles, to beat the competition, to get a reputation for innovation. I am not sure where we would be if hi-tech products underwent the level of testing prescription drugs go through, and even that has been imperfect!
PETER: This issue of ‘The value that you get from being in an office’ is obviously something you will be able to quantify with research when we start to assimilate the information we are going to get from here. Could that value of being in an office—just going back to what we said in the last comment—be simulated by technology? Could you actually give people the feeling of being ‘in the office’. Some of the people we have been interviewing have been suggesting that there are programmes coming along to make you feel as though you are actually in a real office.
LESLIE: Yes, and I have witnessed some of that and it is very powerful. We are trying to predict the future and we cannot here, because it is so connected, complex and uncertain, so I can only speculate based on reviewing our previous findings with a constructive imagination. The previous studies do show that there are great improvements in productivity from home (and remote) working, and clearly that will be amplified if you can make it feel like you are in an office. I think the gains from homeworking are equivalent to a full days work—at least that is what many past studies have shown. Employee attrition decreases by up to 50%. People who homework take shorter breaks, fewer sick days, less time off. And you are quite right, there are reduced carbon emissions with fewer cars clogging up the morning commute. Companies save between $2,000–$5,000 (a year) per employee on rent, by reducing the amount of HQ office space. So having a virtual office space is one way to go, and I am sure that is going to accelerate homeworking. But I still come back to this fact that the social consequences of homeworking are greatly underrated, and that there are invariably, in the past anyway, moves back to real social contact, and I don’t think that is going to change after we have experimented for one or two years with more homeworking.
PETER: I joined the company’s virtual pub 3 days ago, that was one of the mechanisms they were using as a method of maintaining social contact….
LESLIE: The issue is will it last when real life alternatives become available. Also the novelty value wears off. We found in previous studies that people really take to this, its very easy and they can relax at home, and do things in their own time. And yes a virtual pub might be fun, but four months in will you feel the same about it? The studies in the past about homeworking suggest that people don’t delight in it any more, they might not want it as a regular experience. So that is why I say more generally for homeworking that two to three days a week might be an optimal amount in the future, even after the pandemic experience.
PETER: But there are massive savings in all of this aren’t there? Not just the time savings, but there are also savings in terms of stress. You don’t have to drive your car to the station; find the car parking space; wait for the train; make sure the trains on time; get on the train; try and find a seat; get off the other end and push through the crowds. And you don’t have to do that again on the way back—your much less stressed.
LESLIE: Oh I agree. I have been homeworking for about 25 years, at least 2/3 days a week, because of the nature of my employment. I agree all of those are very powerful incentives for this and I think people do experience all of that. But certainly the past studies have said what I have just indicated. But the other big thing here is that, the other factor that now comes into play, I think Peter, that drives us in the direction that you are suggesting, is that it is going to be increasingly a default position for many companies. It seems a logical precaution for many companies to move to, and they will learn from the coronavirus experience how to do this better and how to make it easier for people. I think all those things are true and people’s experiences through the coronavirus will educate them to do this better, and to see when to use it and when not to use it. So I think, yes, those are push factors towards homeworking.
PETER: There is going to be this ‘’horses for courses’ thing that we are developing. There will be some people that will say, “yes I am doing 2 days homeworking and then I am going into the office.” Then they might think, actually I don’t feel like going into the office tomorrow I’ll tell them I am coming in remotely. There will be this need to find the personality of people who enjoy working particular ways.
LESLIE: I think that is absolutely right. Some people just are natural remote or homeworkers. And they don’t thrive on social contact. I think you are right on that. I just wanted to make another point—a bigger point—which is that I said it was a logical precaution for many companies to move to homeworking, given that we think the crisis will accelerate. I think that all the points you made earlier also are correct about ‘stop commuting, stop pollution’. I think climate change is going to become a big issue in the future. People are going to be taking it much more seriously. One of the lessons from the coronavirus experience is going to be how we face systemic risk and where those system risks are going to come from. Climate change is going to be a lot more on the agenda and homeworking is going to have climate change benefits in terms of stopping pollution by stopping traffic congestion … things like that. So I think, yes, that is going to come on the agenda, and be a big background factor driving for homeworking.