The following is an opinion piece written by Bundeep Singh Rangar, CEO of PremFina.
One of the more unexpected outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been our collective obsession with other people’s bookshelves. Witnessed in the background of now-ubiquitous Zoom calls, we have discovered that Cate Blanchette has all 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. Prince Charles reads a lot about horses. And Michael Gove owns debunked racial pseudoscience book The Bell Curve and Holocaust-denier David Irving’s The War Path.
What, if anything, these books say about their owners is not for me to speculate upon, but they demonstrate something that will be increasingly important in a post-corona world: the blurring of the private and the personal as we take our work lives from the office to the living room.
Before lockdown, around 5% of the UK population worked mainly from home, according to the ONS, with just over half having ever worked from home. This number has rocketed in recent weeks – figures are hard to come by so soon after lockdown, but jobs website Finder.com estimates 60% of people are now working from home with some regularity.
We have been pushed into what is essentially a mass home working experiment, which will lead to companies both great and small redefining “normal” as they adjust to a business landscape that’s very different to the one we knew just a few weeks ago.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of recent events: we are living through the biggest voluntary surrender of freedom we will (hopefully) see in our lifetimes. We’ve given up things we would never have dreamed of in the name of public safety. Even at the beginning of the crisis the use of thermal-tracking cameras to monitor the public in China seemed impossibly draconian: now Heathrow airport is trialing the technology and Amazon is already using it on sections of its workforce.
Most developed countries are considering some form of tracking technology that can be applied to individual citizens, with the UK already trialing an app on the Isle of Wight. It’s all very Orwellian, raising the question: how much is too much? This debate will be replicated in microcosm in board rooms across the world. Working from home is a privacy minefield, with employers rightly expecting a certain amount of control over the actions of staff during work time, and staff rightly expecting a bit of privacy.
It’s a huge cultural shift – working in your spare room is very different to working in an office, and both employees and employers will have to adapt fast. Technology allows companies to track their staff down to a frighteningly granular level, from the exact amount of time someone has been active on a work laptop to the response times to Slack notifications. Some video-conferencing software can detect who has the relevant window open, and who may instead be simply gazing out of the window. Some employers will inevitably go too far, and we can expect a glut of stories down the line about employee behaviour being illegally recorded. Lawyers will have a field day. As a result, employee privacy will become increasingly important for HR departments, sitting alongside corporate governance and ethics committees.
If this all sounds a bit scary, well, it is. Adapting working practices that have been in place for a century or more will be challenging. Something that may give solace, however, is the fact that many companies – mine included – are seeing increases in productivity from home-working staff, rather than the drop you might expect.
My life has actually become busier since cutting out the inefficiencies of being in a physical workspace in a busy city. My assistant books my meetings back to back – there are no coffee breaks, and I have to remind her that I occasionally need to eat.
In the past, an hour-long meeting might have had 20 minutes of real content, once you’ve finished shooting the breeze and making sure everybody has a drink. Now meetings are half the length but are all business. When you subtract commute times, working days are getting longer, leading to a situation where we are almost too digitally productive. Companies will have to invest in ways to keep remote-working staff in mental and physical health, with the novel online yoga and social networking events that have emerged in recent weeks condensing into something that’s hard-baked into the way companies operate.
Another major change will be in the way we view real estate. If you have a workforce who can demonstrably do most of their jobs from home, keeping up a Mayfair office may suddenly start to look like fat rather than muscle. My company, tech-driven insurance brokerage PremFina, has an office in Berkeley Square, which, let me tell you, does not come cheap. It has, however, been a worthwhile investment, placing us within walking distance of our clients and lending authority to a relatively new company that has consistently punched above its weight.
But I believe this “perception requirement” will start to shift. Indeed, it may become desirable to work with companies that are not shackled to the “old ways” of doing business. Just as veganism as a lifestyle choice has risen in tandem with fears over climate change, so might nomadic companies become attractive propositions, seen as lean organisations that don’t contribute to ever-increasing city traffic and its associated environmental costs.
I can see my own company, PremFina, cutting back office space over the next few years, maintaining a flexible presence for meetings and networking but trimming permanent desks, and many companies will be thinking along the same lines. Bottom lines will undoubtedly suffer in the short term and rents are a key cashflow-driven expenditure.
Does all this take us even further? Remote working has happened; automation is flowing across businesses globally. Does the COVID-19 pandemic throw into question our entire way of building companies? How much of corporations, or any company created and built on the state privilege of limited liability, requires a traditional mode of working and interacting? And if you take that away, what are we left with? Does risk work in the same way if everyone who comprises a company is remote, and systems and processes are more predictable because they’re automated?
To my mind, we are entering the era of the iCompany – an era where entirely new structures, decentralised, even distributed, govern production and value generation. These new entities may operate in one place (perhaps selling X-as-a-service), with specialists working all over the world to build out better and better products for customers. They may be built and run on blockchains, able to automate governance and issue private currencies, offering banking services to customers, and their customers. Ownership in these iCompanies will be highly liquid, with employees and customers able to benefit from upside, but also to help provide cash flow.
It might seem far-fetched now. But then, so did a global pandemic when we kicked off 2020.