May 22, 2020
COVID-19 will change the world in innumerable ways. It is already affecting how we think about disease transmission, consumption, labour, travel, and even space and distance. And it will change how we think about work. Almost immediately, however, designers, architects and everyone else with a stake in the future of workplace have spotted an opportunity to get creative and solve a problem that we don’t yet understand.
Of course, much of this initial outpouring is based on nothing more than conjecture and the ability of marketing teams to create glossy, speculative pseudo-strategic guidance. The workplace community will be in integral part of our collective recovery, but this must be based on insights and hard evidence rather than guesswork and hearsay just a few weeks into an enforced experiment.
Regurgitating over-used and misquoted management theory myths simply won’t cut it
We are already crunching the numbers with fresh new data from employees sent to work from home, and we have an almost unique opportunity to compare that with 730,000+ employee experience responses, gathered across a 10-year project to statistically map office-based working. The clients deploying our home-working tools who have worked with us before will directly compare an employee’s perception of their temporary home workspace with their office. It’s not a direct apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s better than guesswork.
Leesman’s historic data also reveals the magnitude of the behavioral shift needed if those predicting the immediate demise of the office are to be believed. In the UK and the US, for example, more than one in two employees have little or no experience of working from home whatsoever in their present roles.
Initial findings suggest that businesses have done an incredible job in dispersing the vast majority of those employees to home in a manner that still enables them to contribute. But to jump to the immediate conclusion that we should no reinvent workplace strategies overnight and leave a swath of our colleagues at home indefinitely because those employees did what governments and employers told them is misguided.
So, we must be more inquisitive than we have ever been. Regurgitating over-used and misquoted management theory myths simply won’t cut it.
One myth is particularly popular: that humans need to do something consistently for 21 days for it to become habitual. Dispersed workforce advocates are clinging to it because most of us are way beyond 21 days of lockdown. However, there is the small missing detail that this much-quoted myth stems from a 1960s publication by plastic surgeon Dr Maxwell Maltz, who noted that the patients he’d operated on took 21-days, on average, to come to terms with the operative outcome.
I’m getting used to working from home, but it doesn’t mean I like it
His enquiries were seeking to understand how long it took patients to get used to a new nose or a missing limb, not being re-housed from your plush office to your downtown studio flat. And to my knowledge, Dr Maltz never asked his patients if they would like their amputated limb back.
More recent studies by Phillipa Lally, at University College London, put the number of days at 66. But the variance was from 18 days to 254 days and the results took into account simple beneficial habits like drinking more water or eating a piece of fruit. I’m getting used to working from home, but it doesn’t mean I like it.
COVID-19 home-working is not a new habit that we should persist with, for our benefit. It’s a response to a global crisis designed to limit deaths. Lockdown is helping governments efforts to starve a pandemic. It is an experiment in dispersed and home-working of an unfathomable proportion. But that experiment needs testing and the results must be moderated before knee-jerk reactions decimate years of workplace evolution.
We will need creativity and inventiveness will by the bucket load if businesses are to claw their way out of the economic most will find themselves in. Design, architecture and workplace strategy will have a huge part to play in that, but only when the time is right and the evidence exists to support the decision-making.
Tim Oldman is the founder and CEO of Leesman which helps organisations understand and measure how well workplaces support the employees who use them.