WFH 6 months on: The view from China

I was reading yet another article extolling the virtues of WFH. The narrative was that people enjoy not going to the office. Indeed, some newspapers inform us 9 in 10 of people want to continue working from home for good. Others claim it’s roughly a third. Or 43%. Or 24%.

When I see such discrepancy, I’m sceptical about all data points.

Because for a topic as affecting as this has been, it’s important not to jump to conclusions. Maybe, initially, we’ve just been excited about change. Many are still in the Honeymoon Period – are we like young lovers putting our new partner on a pedestal?

In Asia, Covid has impacted our lives since January. We’ve experienced situations where we as a country were WFH, while everyone else was still working in the office. Then a couple of months later, the reverse happened.

We’ve experienced the economic uncertainty and the rebound. We were first to amend our processes to WFH and were the first to observe some of the challenges of returning to the office.

And from my perspective, I must say that throughout the whole experience I have remained unconvinced that non-office based work (WFH or WFA: Work from Anywhere) is the way forward for everyone.

Decisions from an ivory tower (or quaint second home)

A lot of the commentary I’ve read so far has, perhaps unsurprisingly, come from senior execs, working in their comfortable big apartments or houses. Many have children who they now get to see more often. Their personal lives benefit from a lack of travel. They have fast internet speed. Some have a second house they visit. They have 15-20 years’ experience and “know what to do”. WFH provides many benefits for them.

Who I haven’t read much commentary from, are those who lack space. Who live in a studio flat. Or small apartment with young kids. Or a shared house.

I fear that WFH will significantly reduce the amount of casual teaching and guidance that so benefits junior staff. I still treasure the mentoring I received on a daily basis, thanks in no small part to being surrounded by more experienced professionals. People just pop by your desk with some feedback, you raise your head to ask a question over the desk or learn from overhearing a conversation in your pod. This intangible benefit has been reduced.

Beyond the lack of coaching, this can lead to short-term inefficiencies too. A greater chance that less experienced staff members continue pushing ahead with work that is “off brief”. Less clarity and updates to ensure what’s going on aligns to business objectives or a Creative Director’s vision.

Tough questions

I’m not quite sure that 12 weeks in a pandemic can really allow anyone to say whether they’ve got a handle on work/life balance, either. A befriended executive coach told me that struggling to find a work-life balance is still the real issue for most people they speak to. I have heard the same from colleagues and friends, worried about longer hours and weekend work becoming normalised due to the blurring lines. It feels different when it’s come off the back of an unprecedented crisis, but what would happen if WFH became the norm? Burnout becomes a real danger.

Indeed, I’d be really wary of underestimating just how much success is being born from us ‘all being in it together’.  What about when a few people are WFH and others are in the office (as is the currently the case with people with offices in China)? How is WFH viewed when one colleague is working from a coffee shop, one is in a home office, and the others are in an office?

How do you judge those who lack discipline (but can and are willing to learn) against those who actively embrace slacking? Every organisation has staff who struggle to perform in certain circumstances – how do you ascertain what becomes acceptable? When do we call it shirking?

And specifically for creatives, until their hardware is easy to transport, will they need to invest in hardware to work from home, or will creative agencies double up on CapEx?

Flimsy excuses

My final worry is that a shift to WFH will be a small step away from more “flexible contracts”, with creative procured at the lowest possible cost. The power has already shifted from “partnership” to “vendor management” for many client-agency relationships, and this might accelerate the process further.

Take Uber as an example. A few years ago, Uber drivers were hailed as shining examples of the new economy. But research has since informed us that they increase traffic jams, and feel ‘poor and powerless’. I don’t want WFH to lead to inexperienced creatives lacking the confidence, recognition or empowering social environment associated with WFO (Work From Office).

Before Covid, “being in the office” wasn’t a key bottle neck for most professionals. People complained about the amount of meetings. But has that changed in the past few months? Or have we really just transferred them from the meeting room to the home office? In fact, are ‘Zoom back-to-backs’ even more stressful than the ‘drive-by’ 20-minute office chats?

I think right now, it’s those difficult questions that need to be asked. We have to approach every issue with a healthy amount of scepticism.

Because, look, I have enjoyed WFH. Catching up with my family, having lunch and dinner together every day. And I’ve seen some great work go out – in many cases our output has been as strong as ever.

But I’m also conscious that when it comes to WFH, I’m in a privileged position. And that for most agencies, a bulk of the work in the first few months of lockdown focused on development and production, rather than new strategic and conceptual challenges. 

So instead of writing articles on the future of the industry that are full of assumptions judged on a period you’re still deep in the throes of, take it from someone who’s seen the start of the next chapter play out. Right now, there are still far more questions than answers.