Jack Dorsey, head of Twitter, says the company’s staff can work from home “forever.” Such statements seemed almost incredible pre-2020. Now, after six months of working from home, the white-collar worker and her employer agree: working from home has massive individual, corporate and societal benefits. But there are some cons, and working from home can come at a cost.
For the past twenty-five years, shared services, GBS and BPO delivery centers have brought together hundreds, and often thousands, of workers under a single roof. Over decades, the aspiration was to have global centers – huge delivery centers housing clerks who would work shifts to support their internal customers, often based in completely different continents and time zones.
These centers, owned or rented, represented as much as 30% of a shared services’ overhead, but the finances were rarely questioned. What was the alternative? Have thousands of people work from home? Our work-ethic conditioning had told us this was crazy. How could you monitor your workers’ productivity? How could you manage surveillance of hours worked? How could you manage reviews if you weren’t watching workers work? How could you finance the move from office to home office with new hardware and connectivity? And how could you support the 21st century virtual model if you were still operating off 20th century platforms?
Shared services organizations have been heralded as the place where change agents live. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that many were not infrastructure-ready – their technology was in no way geared to support a high demand for touchless working. Despite years of talking about electronic processing, high levels of automation, even “lights out” processing, shared services leaders either fell short in getting the support and budget to invest in implementing much-needed levels of automation technologies, or they simply lacked the vision. For some, 2020 and the success that has or has not manifested during the office to home-office transition, will be their legacy. They have either passed or failed the test.
So what happens now?
Ahead of us is a massive opportunity. Cost reduction has huge appeal for shared services, but this is just one of a number of gargantuan benefits. 2020 will be the catalyst for radical technological change: productivity will improve (though efforts need to be made to make sure the improvement is sustainable and not just based on an increase in hours). Teams will likely be happier, and staff retention will likely improve.
Starting with technology: We have a renewed appetite, and even if we have always been hungry to deliver our automation vision, we now have just the excuse we need to jet propel projects – our senior sponsors have to be behind us. 2020 may continue to be a low-investment year, but 2021 will see the brokering of many deals between the demand side and the vendors – possibly because a vaccine will be slow coming, and we will have to keep our virtual models up, or because we no longer can see a world of 100% of workers back in the delivery center for 100% of the time. Seeing how the virtual model works, it’s now the working-from-the-office scenario which seems to fall short. Why commute? Why work in a noisy office? Why juggle child-care precariously when you actually don’t need to? Why cause unnecessary stress for staff? Base your automation vision on the virtual model, and you’ll likely map out the “ideal” set-up built on touchless, integrated, end to end, close-looped, AI-powered process flows.
Productivity is climbing: For any self-respecting delivery center, Productivity is a huge KPI. Pre-2020 you can assume one of the biggest reasons to resist homeworking was the supposed drop in productivity. It turns out, the converse is true. Productivity has gone up, even with kids schooling from home. According to The Economist, home workers worked, on average, 50 minutes longer each day.
For wholesale productivity to really kick in, automation needs to happen, but for the time being employers have been encouraged by this increase. There are many reasons supporting this increase:
- Home working is quieter (fewer interruptions)
- Going out in the evening has not been an option so there are fewer “hard stops”
- We can all get to the laptop sooner in the morning
- Without being able to “show” the boss how hard they’re working, some workers have chosen to put more focus or hours in, especially if they feared possible job loss.
- Unless technology captures productivity, a great deal of productivity is “self reported”
Culture will see a major shift: Some could argue the delivery center’s culture will never be the same. It could take the hit. Others could argue the cost of keeping the culture has been low productivity, or (now) unnecessary cost in the bricks and mortar center itself. For years, the value on culture has eclipsed other considerations and led us down the path of open-plan lay outs, bean bag lounges, snooker tables and a massively expensive canteen to feed the hundreds or thousands. Now we look at the new culture and the ‘framework’ that will help leaders nurture their teams, helping individuals to feel part of something and feel a little less… lonely. Some ideas include:
- Maybe you’ll want 50% of your staff in 50% of the time. Different countries seem to be approaching the return to the office at varying speeds. If you prioritize this, you may keep up the levels on creativity and culture, but your costs may stay the same, and staff wellbeing (for the majority anyway), and productivity may dip.
- Occasional office days: Teams come into the office for time together. These days are “work light” and meeting-heavy, with set goals and set agendas and time tables. Maybe there is a social component, too.
- Set up “Retreats.” These quarterly or annual events can feel a bit more “special” with focus on problem-solving, creativity, feedback, socializing and bonding.
There is a cost to nurturing a particular breed of culture and bringing teams together for Retreats, etc. You will be paying for your delivery center premises for a while till you sell it or the lease expires, and you’ll be investing in away days). But the cost of under-investment is potentially greater with loneliness, inertia
or depression creeping into your workforce.
Creativity could lose or gain: Some argue creativity dwindles when workers sit in their separate bubbles. For extroverts who enjoy the idea-bounce, this can be true – and for super-creative, highly extroverted individuals, the last 6 months may have felt particularly hard. For others who are somewhat “creative” but with a strong operational bent, or those who are equal parts big-picture strategist/detail-lover, the home working model can still support creativity and group ideation. Some possibilities are:
Reduce the number of meetings you have. Pre-Covid-19, bringing 5 or 10 team members together didn’t mean you were tapping into 5 or 10 creativity fields. Many would turn up to meetings late, not sure about the agenda, ill-prepared, and distracted. These shortcomings have been symptomatic of a blocked-out diary which sometimes doesn’t even allow 20 minutes for lunch. Most companies, since Covid-19, have seen a decline in the number of meetings, which has led to higher productivity, a drop in stress levels, and a setting up of a “creativity-friendly” work environment. The problem is, we lack the “idea bounce.” But scheduled meetings don’t need to be the route forward here. Video messaging tool Loom means a worker can record their screen, voice and face, and, according to The Economist, instantly share it with colleagues. Colleagues can then review it at any time, when they’re ready to commit to listening, thinking and responding.
The crucial model is made of three parts: to continue to actively encourage creative thought by celebrating it, rewarding it and coaching employees to devote their mental juices to it; secondly, to set up tools so creative thoughts that randomly pop up can be captured, and shared (on Loom, for example); and thirdly, set up what used to be called “offsites” where operational, day-to-day duties are parked, and time is devoted to problem-solving, idea-sharing and strategic thinking.
Gamification will see a boost in popularity: Five years ago, gamification technology was heralded as a key enabler to boost productivity in transaction-heavy work places. If adoption was ever lagging since then, Covid-19 handed the concept a real boost. With gamification, workers can be based anywhere in the world. Workers can compete individually, or in teams, and teams can change over time, with new captains recruited. Good-looking dashboards monitor scores and spur on players and their competitors. Popular tools in call centers include Noble Systems and NICE and are built to help productivity, heighten engagement, and keep the focus on process improvement.
Your workers’ well being will bask: Millions of workers who commuted one or two hours a day are now winning back 5 to 10 hours of time a week. This is almost equivalent to being given an extra day. We can all breathe again. Looking back on the years we all suited and booted ourselves, boarded trains or got behind the wheel to join thousands of others heading this way and then that way can cause any healthy chest to tighten. Some might argue we only really did this because our bosses didn’t believe a virtual, home-working model could work. For most companies and most employees, it does. And we have over six months of evidence and experience to back this up.
As city centers empty, commuters begin to ask themselves, if they didn’t need to be near their office, where could home be? Home location choices could now be based on well-being rather than proximity to the office. Suburbia could be abandoned for remote towns or villages. Small, expensive abodes may well be swapped for larger, affordable homes. Workers struggling to pay mortgages may now have extra income, despite pay freezes.
This will likely lead to a happier, wealthier, possibly healthier workforce, who are less incentivized to push for pay rises, but are motivated to take on more responsibility. In fact, in 2017 American Economic Review stated that workers were willing to take an 8% pay cut to work from home.
Employment Rights will need to be updated: According to The Economist, it’s not yet known whether home-workers “will find it easier or harder to bargain with their employers for pay rises and improvements in conditions, though the idea of asking for a raise through a video chat is hardly an appealing one.” It goes on to say that employers may find it easier to fire workers, and that calls may grow for governments to give home workers more protection.
Should employers pay for home workers’ internet, mobile phone and heating bills? This detail is easy to navigate in the interest of harnessing the seismic shifts to work, well-being, town use and planning, business models, technology adoption and impact on the environment.
Almost overnight, businesses globally are having to re-think nearly every aspect of their operations. For shared services, technology has always been, in theory, a key pillar. The world has presented the laggards and late adopters a catalyst for immediate transformation. I suspect we will look back on 2020 in a couple of years and see Lockdown as the inflection point for serious, unparalleled maturing in shared services process and technology. Let’s face it – if Covid-19 isn’t a wake-up call for GBS automation on a global scale, what is?
This article was partly inspired by The Economist, published September 12th 2020.
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