Against all odds? The ‘unexpected’​ success of working from home

“Against all odds, working from home was more successful than anyone would have predicted, with many people reporting their productivity had increased during the first two months of lockdown” opines Kerstin Sailer in The Guardian.

“Against all odds…”


Was the office environment so perfectly attuned to our needs, such an unparalleled environment of productivity that it was impossible to imagine how we could properly function outside of it?

That’s not how I remember it, nor does it reflect the comments I hear about office life today.

In fact, as someone who has been ‘untethered’ and able to work from wherever I could open my laptop for over 30 years, I find it an amazing statement.

It just shows how locked into our existing paradigms we are.

Because the evidence that things might work out for the good when everyone started working from home were already there. It’s the lived experience of many who freelance or work in tech.

Indeed, some companies make a virtue of the fact that they have no office and everyone works from where they choose.

It also infers that work is a single, homogeneous entity. Yet we know it’s not, it is varied and the different modes have different needs – one of the reasons the office is actually a pretty crap environment.

Dr Richard Claydon defines 5 types of knowledge work

  • Deep Work
  • Shallow Work
  • Collaborative Work
  • Connection Work
  • Learning Work

Of these, Deep Work is the one that is most difficult in our noisy, interruption-laden office environments. It is also the type of work that is increasingly important and valuable and a growing portion of our work. It is the work of creativity and innovation, which are essential to the modern organisation.

Many people engaging in Deep Work find they get far more peace and quiet and time to think and reflect in their home environment, which they have much more control over. (Obviously, if you are home-schooling children and caring for elderly relatives at the same time, this is not the case.)

Working from home (WfH) also frees up time and energy because people do not have to commute. They are able to balance their work and personal needs better and have autonomy over how they organise their time and their work (notwithstanding the horror stories I’ve heard about the worst organisations running virtual boot camps and using digital surveillance tools to bully their staff). These are big positives that improve their motivation and wellbeing and enable them to produce better work.

The reality is that this was all possible, all along, since we got decent broadband connections to most homes. The tools were there but the companies didn’t want to use them. 

So I don’t think this was ‘against all odds’. In fact, I’d say the odds were pretty good, if anyone chose to consider them. Some companies did and were already allowing working from home, at least to some degree for some of the time, and getting the benefits.

The odds of companies actually adopting this way of working on a large scale, though, they were pretty small. Until the pandemic forced their hand.

I’m not arguing that everything is perfect and that working from home has been a great experience for all concerned. Far from it, for some it has been hell. But it is clear that for the majority, it’s been a positive.

Preliminary research by Leesman shows it is working very well for 45% of those surveyed but 19% are struggling. If you are working twenty-something in a shared house, or a parent in a small apartment, then the challenges are going to be considerable. However, for those that have a separate space to work, whether that’s a dining room table, a workspace or an office, it’s working out somewhere between OK to great.

Productivity (for their sample) is higher than in the office environment but informal social interaction and access to support are worse, as you would expect. It’s not perfect, there are trade-offs, but it’s certainly not the car-crash that ‘conventional wisdom’ held it would be.

There have been some surprises. Companies have uprated their IT systems and networks to provide remote working for all quickly and effectively, which just goes to show what people are capable of when the challenge arises. Broadband connectivity across the country, whilst not great shakes by international standards, has proved adequate for the most part and certainly exceeded my expectations as someone who used to work in that field. 

Solutions have been found to problems as they have arisen. It turns out they were there all the time. Zoom launched their first version in 2013, became a $1bn company in 2017 and this year rather unexpectedly became a household name and also a consumer product. Cisco Webex, GoTo Meeting and other platforms have been around longer. That’s not to mention the myriad of collaborative working platforms that have been common-place amongst more agile and tech savvy organisations and freelancers.

Which brings me to the biggest factor in al this, and that’s the adaptability and creativity of human beings. It runs through the whole topic, it’s this that has made ‘WfH’ work. It’s what enables us, as individuals and as a species, to overcome difficulties time and time again, to survive and then thrive in the most unpromising circumstances. To mould the environment to our will, to meet our needs.

So I don’t think it was ‘against all odds’ that WfH would be a success and that productivity would rise. In fact, the evidence has suggested the opposite for a long time.

But now people have experienced working from home, it would be against all odds if they went back to the office full-time.

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