It’s not about working from home

We have all become familiar with the headlines in the last year.  That post pandemic, a significant number of employees want to work from home for at least some of the time.  Employer responses to the so-called ‘great home working experiment’ have been mixed.  From telling people that they can work from home forever to saying it is an aberration that must be corrected, we have seen both ends of the spectrum and a fair bit in in between.

Hybrid is the new thing replacing the last new thing.

But what is at the heart of this desire for working from home, really?

It’s not like working from home has been easy.  For many, especially working parents, it has been anything but.  Working from home was, especially in the early stages, an adrenaline fuelled emergency.  Learning new ways of working whilst living with the anxiety and uncertainty of a global pandemic, amidst the backdrop of constant, fear provoking news and restrictions.

As the pandemic continued, we endured.  From overwhelm to burnout.

Isolation. Zoom fatigue.  Back backs from the dining chairs. More school closures.

Bereavement.  Ill-health.  Long Covid.

Tiers and tears.

Opening up and locking down again.

The crushing complexity of a whole long year.

And still. 

Amidst all of that, we have found many benefits in working from home.  More time for exercise or cooking, quality time with family or significant other, avoiding stressful and expensive commutes, freedom from the 9-5, increased productivity.  The benefits we have found have been many. 

This is what stands out for me, every time I see another headline, another survey, another reference to hybrid.

Just why do we want to work from home, behind those initially identified advantages? I think that there a couple of things at play here.

The first, is perhaps that this is just a signal of how broken the default working model was BC (Before Covid).  Not just the Monday to Friday 9-5, but the reliance on the physical workplace – even if we went there to do mostly virtual work.  The way that we conflated (and still do) presence and performance.  How being seen equaled getting ahead.  Our hard wired beliefs too, about who is a good worker, the right sort of chap (a full time, long hours sort of chap of course).   The desire for hybrid is a push back against these ideas.  The sudden realisation that we had been conned all along.  That we didn’t need to go into the office all the time and for so many of us, so much of what we needed to do could be done from anywhere or any when.  Although we haven’t quite nailed the latter half of that sentence just yet.

But there is something deeper going on too. If you will forgive a little academic geekery, I have become fascinated by this paper (unfortunately not open access). My lay person’s summary of it goes a bit like this. When we go through a traumatic or other big life experience, it fundamentally changes us. It has the power to influence our values, our actions, how we think. It can force us to revaluate what we believe to be true. To deeply reflect. These crucial life experiences can lead to a turning point in our lives and our motivations. In particular, they change our intrinsic motivations – those things that we do because they are satisfying to us rather than because we may receive a gain in return.

In his book Drive, Dan Pink identified three basic intrinsic motivators; autonomy, mastery and purpose. There we see flexible working again. Because flex isn’t just about hours and location but choice. Choice that the office does not provide.

In the past few months I have heard about people leaving their secure job in the midst of economic uncertainty.  Starting a new business.  Deciding on a fundamental change of career.  Going back to studies. Deciding to hell with the office politics and their unsupportive manager and resigning.

I have a theory that we will see more of this.  More people in the months to come re-evaluating their working lives.  Rethinking those beliefs about work that we held to be true for so long.  Making big life stuff decisions and changes.

We want to work from home more; that is almost certainly true.  But I believe that this is a symptom.  It is how the desire to live and work differently is showing up in a practical action.  Something that is controllable, in the midst of much that is not. 

It is bigger than working from home.  Bigger than securing hybrid working or a little more flexibility.  It’s about purpose and about wanting more. More balance, more life. 

And for those of us in HR, when in the months to come, we look to devise our responses to the demand for flexible working post pandemic, we would be wise to reflect on this along the way. Hybrid working on its own will not solve all the problems of the old ways.

We need to think bigger, and better.

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