Working from home will be more complicated once lockdown eases and directors may have to take tough decisions, writes Louise Rodgers

Louise Rodgers crop 2

I am not a person tormented by regret about life or career choices (I have had a lot of coaching!) but the one thing I do regret, as a working (single) parent, is not being at home more when my children really needed me. I regret not being at home more when they were young teenagers, too old for after-school care but really too young to be unsupervised at home; and unsupervised and unfed they were until I had completed the daily battle with public transport only to find that no one had turned the oven on for jacket potatoes, so I had to cook pasta in my coat (again). And let’s not even talk about homework.

This regret is compounded because, on the face of it, I had choices. For starters I was a founding director of my own company. One of four, the other three all being men with partners who assumed the bulk of the responsibility for childcare. Surely I was, technically at least, not answerable to anyone and could choose where and how I worked? I am sad to say that it didn’t ever occur to me to assert the need for this kind of flexibility. Or to extend it to anyone we employed who was in the same position. I am not sure it occurred to me that this flexibility even existed.

This was less than 20 years but a whole pandemic ago. I was reminded of it recently by a conversation I had with the leader of a large architectural practice. We talked about how the experience of the last year has accelerated the need to take a more holistic view of people’s work life and home life, and not see them as two distinct spheres.

This presents a new set of leadership challenges. As my friend said: “It means I have to learn to take care of things I am not used to having to take care of.” Leaving aside the need to become attuned to the personal circumstances of each individual you employ, balancing the needs of those individuals with the needs of the business, if the outcome one is striving for is that neither suffers, it is a particular kind of pretzel knot to get tied up in.

Homeworking is the obvious case in point. It certainly seems here to stay, in some form. A recent research report by an academic at Stanford University, featured in the Financial Times, confirmed that no one wants to go back to the nine-to-five suburb-to-city centre commute. No surprises there. And most leaders I have spoken to say homeworking has worked out better than expected. They haven’t noticed any decrease in productivity, and the “shirking from home” stigma (something I think I totally signed up to in the early 00s) has diminished.

But this was when everyone was working at home. Nicholas Bloom’s report goes on to highlight the pitfalls of the “mixed mode”, or hybrid, approach to homeworking which may follow the end of lockdown, with everyone having the choice of whether to come into the office or not. I have already spoken to people who have struggled to focus when loud MS Teams meetings are taking place in the same office space they’re using, and others who are concerned about the challenge of organising team or project team meetings with some people in the room and others in remote locations, adding a layer of technical fumbling and awkwardness.

It also raises the spectre of a new kind of discrimination, where people who choose homeworking over a return to the office inadvertently damage their own career prospects; not because they are deliberately overlooked (although it’s easy to see how this might happen) but because they miss out on the accumulation of what Bloom calls “managerial capital” by having coffee, lunch or water-cooler chats with colleagues.

It was certainly this FOMO that kept me on the commuter hamster wheel all those years ago. I was worried my colleagues would take decisions affecting the business without my input. Or that my clients would think I was somehow only semi-present, unable to meet their every need as soon as they knew they had one. As it happens, both of these things did happen from time to time even when I was in the office five days a week. But I also spent a tortuous two to three hours each day on public transport, panicking because I was going to be late, whichever direction I was heading in, and my children had pasta for tea more than was good for them.

So my conclusion is that the future of homeworking is complicated. Many of us are going to have to make difficult choices around what we think is best for ourselves, our families and our careers.

And leaders will need to have some challenging conversations and take difficult – and perhaps unpopular – decisions. This may mean having to be more autocratic than usual, making policy decisions around home working which they believe are best for their teams as well as for the business. Inevitably some staff will complain but others may be quietly grateful to have strategic decisions made for them. As one director said to me recently: “It’s not my usual vibe but I’ve been doing it on certain things this year and it’s given the team a space to thrive through having a bit more headspace.”