Howard Davies: WFH and the elephant in the Zoom

Column: The RBS chairman remains to be convinced by remote working.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 24 Jul 2020

Early in the lockdown I received a letter designating me as a “key worker”. I don’t think I have ever been considered as “key” before, in an almost 50 year career. Diplomats, Treasury officials and regulators all, I would submit, do things which are occasionally useful to their fellow citizens, but not quite in the essential category, like doctors, policemen and app developers.

In this crisis banks did have an essential role to play, pushing out loans to troubled companies, and keeping the cash economy running. Whether a chairman is exactly central to those efforts, one might question. I certainly couldn’t restock an ATM unaided, and bank transfers are something of a challenge even in my private life. But someone has to oversee all this activity I suppose, even if 99.9 per cent of the heavy lifting was done by Alison Rose and her executive team.

We did it, of course, largely on Zoom, our gallery view of choice. And almost every employee, apart from a brave few who staffed the branches, was working at home, or “from” home (WFH) as we mysteriously call it. It all worked so well for us, and many other firms, that some now ask if we will ever need to return to the office, especially if office life is constrained by social distancing rules. If I turned up at 8am, with two people to a lift I would reach my 7th floor office around mid-afternoon.

So I am sure that enterprising small builders are planning loft conversion packs, or perhaps broadband-enabled garden pods, to protect home workers from children, bored partners and noisy dogs. But will WFH become the norm? Is it viable as a long term approach to running an enterprise? I wonder.

I can run board meetings today because I know all the people involved. Even on a thumbnail screen I can tell when the chair of audit is unhappy. We have all built up social capital over time, from our informal interactions with colleagues. That social capital will depreciate over time if it is not renewed.

Of course WFH was not invented in the lockdown. So there are some longer term experiences to learn from (see pages 28-34). One study in the US showed that most people improved their productivity when allowed to work remotely, but a non-trivial percentage saw a significant fall - probably related to difficult home circumstances. Another showed that while repetitive and easy-to-measure tasks can be handled well at home, remote workers were rarely promoted. Out of physical sight, out of mind.

A third, more intriguing study of patent officials in Virginia showed that people were a bit happier and more productive when allowed to work at home, but the biggest change occurred when they were allowed to live anywhere. Many upped sticks to Colorado and points west, to set up home working arrangements that better suited the demands of their working and family lives.

I confess - maybe this is a generational thing – that I have no desire to go to Colorado, where little cricket is played. And I miss the social interactions of office life. I don’t think I have ever stood by a water-cooler, now the transatlantic image of choice, but informal corridor meetings are crucial.

In a video meeting we have discovered that it is surprisingly easy to despatch planned business. But what about “the elephant in the Zoom”, the problem you should be addressing but which no-one is brave enough to raise in a time-constrained meeting? I suspect that when some of us do return to the office we will find a few elephants lurking by the water hole.

Image courtesy of RBS

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