Home vs Office? Company Rents House for Employees to Live in and Work in?

Was the off-the-charts productivity of employees in the first few months of the pandemic actually fear-driven productivity? If that is the case, then work from home for teams dependent on each other is not sustainable. Three months earlier in the lockdown, not many companies were heard expressing their displeasure about working from home. Six months later, some companies are coming out to say remote work is not for everyone — validating their conjecture that a more controlled environment allows for spontaneous interactions. 

In a Wall Street Journal piece, “Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All,” more companies have decided on a hybrid workaround. Some are considering work teams to come together for a limited time on certain days of the week to bounce ideas off each other. 

OpenExchange, a Boston-based video technology firm that helps run big online conferencing events, is reportedly permitting its European team to rent a 15-bedroom house in the English countryside, so they can live and work together — with their families in tow. It may just work, because that’s like how some artists and musicians did it back in the day. 

In 1975, the legendary Queen band stayed in a barn for a month, writing and rehearsing songs until they were ready to record in a studio. If not for their self-imposed seclusion, there might not have been songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “You’re My Best Friend.” Many writers and painters have done the same for their art, so why shouldn’t it work for work?

It’s not surprising if this experiment catches on. After all, San Jose is close to San Francisco and for all those who live in the former, there are many places, even around northern California, that could work as a house and office at the same time — just ask corporate housing provider California Corporate Housing.

Work and live together?

So, is this the future of work — working and living together? But how would distancing work? Or will every assignee just stay in one place and never leave the premises? What about companies who relied on outsourcing work but realized that the companies they hired offshore are closed and their employees don’t even have laptops or decent Wi-Fi? 

There are no clear answers as evidenced by how the media can extol the progressive thinking behind remote work and then write a counterargument weeks later admonishing the logistical nightmare of working remotely.

For global mobility talent platform Topia, the answer is somewhere in the middle; in a word, it’s “flexibility.” The COVID-19 situation has proven the tools exist to allow employees to have flexibility in where and how they work.

Remote work not for everyone

Just months ago, many were confident that work from home may not be that bad. Or if it’s that bad, companies were willing to consider employees working from home. Lately, though, many see the opposite. Is it cabin fever — the fact that they’re holed out in one place 24/7? Maybe they’re not doing it right, as this New York Times reports. Quoting Leslie Perlow, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, “There’s a natural pull, even in these times, not to figure out how to operate in this new world, but how to replicate the old world in the new conditions.”   

For Topia, working remotely is not for everyone. There are circumstances, personalities, projects, and teams that will naturally dictate the need to work in an office or at least face-to-face. There will be some tasks that can be done remotely, but will not work with others who have complex projects that need close collaboration with teams. Others will say that it’s just a matter of adjusting to video calls — if people can pretend the call is their conference room. 

What does this flexibility mean for global talent mobility, though? Topia thinks it will not signal the decline of the “mobile” employee. There will be a shift in the type of mobile employees and the duration of trips/assignments. Working anywhere in the world without  HR or managers knowing may also create potentially massive compliance and financial risk

Companies that tried yet failed

The history of telecommuting has been strewn with failure, according to the New York Times which presented its own argument with historical context. In 1985, the mainstream media was using phrases like “the growing telecommuting movement.” It quoted Peter Drucker, the management guru, declared in 1989 that “commuting to office work is obsolete.”

Telecommuting happened for a few but it was not a widespread practice as companies envisioned it. Summing it up for the New York Times, Kate Lister, president of Global Workforce Analytics, said: “A lot of it comes down to trust. Do you trust your people?” 

The experiment didn’t last. IBM was one of the biggest companies that publicly pulled back on telecommuting. Others were Aetna, Best Buy, Bank of America, Yahoo, AT&T and Reddit. Even the word telecommuting didn’t last, as other euphemisms would come up — consultancy, permanent freelance, gig work, freelance, outsourcing, to name just a few.  

Marissa Mayer,  the former CEO of Yahoo, was also quoted as saying, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings,” a company memo explained. 

It’s those low-cognition moments, a break from work where creativity and innovation seem to flourish. The challenge is how to make spontaneous interactions happen on a video call. 

Some companies think that if it didn’t work before, they can make it work now — with better technology, online tools, security and years of experience outsourcing work locally and abroad. Of course, it remains to be seen what will happen to Twitter, Google and Facebook which are experimenting with remote work arrangements for longer periods of time. 

These companies will not lose much working from home, as they are big enough to make adjustments on the fly. They can also afford to lose a little of the creativity and innovation since they are market leaders. But smaller companies that are still trying to make their mark will be the one facing many challenges.