Bad news about working from home may have a silver lining
LIKE most farmers I work from home and spend much of every day alone. Over the last number of decades the wonders of modern technology have made it possible for people like me to work away from ‘the big office’ and to base themselves where they like.
Many large companies have been encouraging home working and this has proved to be a win-win for the companies, for the workers and for the communities in which they live, especially rural ones.
In a fascinating article in Quartz, a New Yorkbased news website, Sarah Kessler tracks the development of ‘remote’ or home working to the ’80s when companies like IBM pursued this as a policy, with the result that by 2009 up to 40pc of its workforce was working from home. Quoting IBM sources, Ms Kessler says the company reduced its office space by 78million square feet, thus saving about $100 million annually in the US.
However, it appears that change might be afoot and a return to ‘the office’ or a communal base could be in prospect for many whose commute currently takes less than a minute. While home working has benefited companies through increased productivity and reduced costs, experts are now saying that creativity and innovation have suffered. For innovation and creativity to thrive, apparently direct human interaction with people engaged in the same or similar projects is vital.
I work from home and I believe that one can be more productive in this environment. Working by yourself you are fully concentrated on the task in hand and, believe it or not, there are few distractions.
Not too long ago a friend who was visiting overnight did his morning’s work at my house, leaving after lunch for a meeting in the locality. I couldn’t help but notice how much time he spent on the phone dealing with issues that were peripheral to his work, much of it concerning ‘office politics’.
Over lunch I admitted to eavesdropping and asked if the kind of interaction I had overheard was typical of his day. He said it was, but he still managed to get done what he needed to do. In my estimation the job in question would have taken an hour, but three hours of time were consumed.
The technology that allows for home working has been hugely beneficial to rural communities in that it has enabled lots of people to live and work in rural areas, and the developments have gone some way towards levelling the playing pitch in terms of job opportunities.
Home working makes a huge contribution to the reduction of the commuter’s carbon footprint and is also great for the quality of family life. It means there is a presence in the house almost every day with someone at home to handle emergencies like the forgotten geography book or the hurling gear.
Despite all these benefits, it appears innovation has suffered: while home-workers do what is expected of them more efficiently and at lower cost, groups of human beings are more likely to do new things. The buzzword is now ‘co-location’ bringing workers together, maybe not quite back to the office but back to shared spaces where human interaction will lead to greater creativity.
In her Quartz article, Ms Kessler quotes John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University. Writing two years ago, he contrasted the home-work strategy of IBM with the office-based strategy of Facebook and Apple. At that time Apple and Facebook made around $2m per employee, while the IBM figure was $200,000.
Sullivan thinks working together in person is one of the keys to innovation, saying: “It turns out the value of innovation is so strong that it trumps any productivity gain. ((Remote work) was a great strategy for the ’90s and the ’80s, but not for 2015.”
Indeed studies have shown that chance meetings on corridors or at the ‘water-cooler’ lead to new ideas and problem solving.
So where does all this leave the home-worker in the box room, the farmer in the field and the rural community that hoped technology was the path to rural jobs growth?
In recent decades the development of discussion groups has been invaluable to farmers. These are places and spaces where new ideas and innova-