How many of us sit there, smile beaming from ear to ear, in anticipation of waking up at 6am Monday morning, eating the same cereal and staring at the same screen for the next few hours? I’d wager not so many.
But, in recent years, there’s been a quiet swelling of interest in what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once called “the dull routine of existence.”
And now, while we’re all forced to work from home amidst Covid-19, that ‘dull routine’ might be the key to productivity in very difficult times.
Look at the lives of famously gifted and creative people—including Freud, Beethoven, and Georgia O’Keeffe, to name but a few—and you’ll see that many of them optimized their daily lives to get on top of their games. Routine was their secret weapon. Here’s internationally bestselling author Haruki Murakami talking to The Paris Review:
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10 kilometers or swim for 1,500 meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
This is an intense example—maybe even a bit frightening, depending on how you feel about swimming. But you don’t have to wake up at 4 a.m. to reap these rewards. The key benefit of routine for people is its regularity: if you find what works for you and then turn it into a process that requires zero thought, you free your mind for more important things.
Arguably, having a good routine and a clear pattern of work is more important now than ever. When you don’t have anyone to turn to for help with just a quick swivel of a chair, you have to rely on a regimented routine to get you through tricky tasks and deadlines.
One of the only problems with routines is that they are very difficult to adopt and even harder to change. They are habits that you created at a particular time following a particular pattern, and you never consider again if they are wrong or can be improved. Running a routine already in place costs no effort; modifying it implies paying attention to everything you do, until you are accustomed to it again.
So, at times like these, when you are forced to work from home and adapt the habits, routines, and processes you already had in place, take solace in the fact that this is something everyone is having to go through. The best part? Once it’s done, it’s a healthier, more productive life for everyone.
We wanted to get tech business leaders to share their opinions on how working rituals have changed and how they can see this impacting people’s working circumstances in the future.
This is what they said.
Small Robot Company is an agri-tech start-up commercialising a deceptively simple idea: small robots not big tractors.
Catherine, operating as COO of Small Robot Company, has achieved qualifications as a CSPO, CSM, CSP and a SAFe Agilist; is certified in Prince 2, UML, proficient in BPMN, and is practised in all aspects of Business Analysis. Catherine has proven experience in both public and private sectors, and successful delivery of IS projects using different methodologies including Waterfall, RUP, IBM Method and Agile frameworks including SCRUM and Kanban.
With Covid-19 putting the UK on lockdown, Catherine is now focused on ensuring working practices are maintained and her colleagues are both happy and healthy. But for an agri-tech company, that houses engineers and manufacturers on-site, the closing of public and working spaces poses certain unique problems.
“We’re combining engineering and manufacturing, where you have to be on site. If you’ve got 3 people physically building something, you have to be collected in one place.”
As a result, Catherine has been juggling a few health and safety balls to maintain the productivity of Small Robot Companies’ incredibly diverse range of employees, many of which now find themselves with young helpers. But rather than seeing this as a problem, Catherine can see the opportunity there for everyone who juggles a working life and a family life.
“Up until Covid-19 we’ve had this pretence that we almost have to ignore that our family life exists while working from home. I think people now are going to have a lot more understanding that we do have families and we do just need to go and deal with that from time to time.
I had a great one the other day. I was on a conference call the other day when I hear from the other room – It’s on fire, it’s on fire! I had to jump off the conference call and run into the kitchen to see the microwave on fire.
Work life balance won’t be a thing anyway. The emphasis will be flipped. Work will slot into life, not the other way around.”
A firm believer that work should fit around life, Catherine has been encouraging her team at Small Robot Company to embrace this new working pattern and routine seeing it as an incredible opportunity to improve relationships with both your work and home family.
“Children are becoming more involved. They’re getting a better understanding of what their parents do. Your work colleagues aren’t people you just talk about, they’re real people appearing on the screen.”
But it won’t be plain sailing for everyone. Some employees, who no longer have the safety net of a herd mentality in the office, will find themselves suffering.
“This isolation is definitely going to highlight who your rockstars are. In the office, it’s easy to coast. You can always make yourself look busy. We often find ourselves something to do in the office to make ourselves look busy. But when you’re at home and when you have to rock up to a stand-up and say this is what we did. If you don’t have anything of value it rings even louder. The things aren’t there to twiddle at home.”
INDE is a developer of products and experiences that inspire, entertain, inform and educate using Augmented Reality and Computer Vision.
INDE’s Chief Operations Officer, Alex Alanson, largely contributes its continued health to decisive measures that were put into place long before the UK government made the announcement to close public spaces.
“We’ve been very clear about making decisions ahead of the curve, and consequently taken action quickly having seen customers in the Far East affected by Covid long before their European and US counterparts. We’ve now had everyone working from home for a good couple of months. Having implemented a work from home day on Wednesday of each week almost a year ago, we’re very comfortable with what’s the new normal for many other businesses.”
But this is generally where the cracks begin to appear. Instructing people to work from home is protecting their health and that of those around them, but it isn’t always indicative of a positive working environment. The problem of keeping employees engaged while operating remotely was a problem Alex and his team thought long and hard about before settling on a simple yet effective approach: keep the team focussed by ensuring they have plenty to do.
“Giving people clear daily, weekly and monthly deliverables is imperative but that’s just how we’ve been operating for a long time now.
People thrive under pressure. Once they get through the sense of uncertainty that they’ll inevitably have felt from the change in their personal and business environment, they adapt to the new normal.
I want people to be almost “too engaged” with their work, focussing their minds in a positive sense. People thrive off purpose. So I’ve asked line managers to align people in a clear direction, almost giving them too much to do so they don’t dwell on the negatives implicit in their change in circumstances.”
Tooling is another important piece of the puzzle. You can give your staff all the work in the world but if they don’t have fully integrated systems that talk to each other and help make work easier, their efficiency will suffer.
For Alex and INDE the most basic of tools can be perfectly sufficient for keeping everyone on track and updated if your staff is given enough time to work with them and understand them.
“One of the other key factors for us is that we’re “Google-integrated” as a business, and have been for 8-9 years now using tools like Hangouts and shared documents. 3 years ago we added Slack, Hubspot, Quickbooks and Trellorto our internal toolkit. We’re all very used to talking to each other at weird times and in different locations because our business has always been global. For us where we are now is not that far from normal.”
An issue that many UK business leaders will face will be the question of who should be furlouged. Although many will jump to the quick cost-saving approach of furloughing as many people as possible and operating on a ‘skeleton crew’. An alternate approach, one that INDE is now reaping the benefits from, is to redeploy staff you would have otherwise furloughed.
“One thing we’ve done specifically to retain our full team is re-deploy the project managers, since we’ve got fewer projects to deploy, on supporting back-end sales activity. This is enabling the sales guys to work with better information, and the project management team to better understand the sales process. We could’ve furloughed them, but this serves us better in the short-term and has kept people in a job.”
This approach is of particular importance when considering any contractors you have working for you who work through their own limited companies.
A contractor working through their own limited company is the only engagement type for which IR35 status is a consideration. These contractors are employees of their own limited company and therefore only they can determine if furlough is a suitable option for them. Furloughing themselves would allow them to access the 80% grant (to a maximum of £2,500 per month) however, this 80% is only based on PAYE earnings, not dividends. This means it’s likely that limited company contractors would be accessing significantly less than 80% of their pre-Covid income.
So deciding to end relationships with Contractors may well be an attractive cost-saving exercise, it may be a better approach for both client and contractor to enter contractors into ‘Short Working’.
Instead of ending a contract or a project, a hiring manager may choose to stretch out the length of the contract and then, in turn, reduce hours. So, say for example you have a contractor working 3 days a week for a month long contract, you may decide to increase the length of the contract to 3 months and reduce working days to 1 day.
It doesn’t cost the employer any more or any less but it does have a number of benefits:
You retain important and highly skilled staff who can help you scale up projects quickly
You can redeploy experienced and skilled staff to crucial projects
Contractors will still be getting income needed to sustain themselves
Contractors will have time to look for and bid on other projects
Although not for everyone, this is certainly something to consider if you have a large contingent workforce who you want to keep engaged over this transitionary period.
Phillip Green, ex-Amazon EMEA Finance Director believes the NHS’s rapid rate of change, even at such scale, should give big businesses across the world food for thought.
“Change drives innovation.
And who’s had to change the most during Covid-19? The NHS. It has proven you can innovate in a large organisation. Size wasn’t the only blocker either, the culture was dramatically reshuffled. Covid-19 has resulted in instant and positive change after years of inertia and red tape.”
With the NHS leading the charge, big businesses now have nowhere to hide when it comes to lack of change and innovation, and this is surely going to be something we see echoed in the sentiments of everyone who has to get back on a packed train once all this has passed.
“Why get on a train to go in for a meeting you have been having through zoom for the past 4-5 months?”
Many employers, however, would cite a lack of productivity as a reason people should flock back to workspaces. A recent study by Glassdoor revealed that sentiment is not shared by the employees themselves.
Glassdoor, who surveyed nearly 1,000 employed U.S. adults, found that 50% of employees believe they would be equally or more productive working from home as opposed to their normal work location.
They also revealed growing confidence in younger generations to get the job done from home. 68% of employees aged 18-34 reported being confident efficiently doing their work remotely if they have to, compared to 44% of employees aged 55-64.
This growing confidence in the workforce’s ability to work from home, in both employer and employee, would certainly have employers giving a second thought to office-based working.
“If you’re less reliant on technology hubs, I could see the decentralization of cities like London.”
If one thing is for certain, it’s not a good time to be in commercial real estate.
Have your working routines or patterns been affected by Covid-19? Is it for better or for worse?
We’d love to hear about it.
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