Robert Almqvist: The future of business is remote

Working from home

The work-from-home job force just got a big push from the current global novel Coronavirus pandemic. But even before the pandemic became a factor, increasing numbers of people have been saying goodbye to their onerous commute to work. Thanks to ever-evolving technologies like Teams, Skype, Facetime, Slack, Zoom, Google Hangouts, cloud computing and authenticator apps such as VPN — not to mention texting and email — it’s now no longer necessary to be in an office full-time to be a productive member of the team. In fact, many kinds of work may be done just as effectively, if not more so, from a home office.

Coronavirus has indeed lifted the work-from-home stigma. How will that shape the future? In order to shed light upon the matter I invited Robert Almqvist, the communication director of CGI (Sweden) for an interview.

Hi Robert, I would like to ask your point of view regarding working from home and what is needed to even make it possible?

Robert AlmqvistHi Dani, well to start with, there are many benefits and advantages with working from home such as the peace and quite many usually enjoy from the very comfort of their homes.

I believe that a good working environment at home is key and greatly affects the job quality and focus – if you for instance have children at home who need attention, it can of course greatly affect your productivity. But with a suitable working environment, discipline and routines, I am convinced that most people will see an increase in productivity and efficiency.

However, it is important to consider aspects like innovation and creativity. I believe that innovation requires a certain combination of ingredients to happen and I think that Google among others have deduced from their research, that innovation thrives when we mingle and meet with other people, with other ideas and thoughts from our own.
Different backgrounds, skills and culture mixed together crosses boundaries and drives creativity. Regardless of how open and uninhibited we ourselves might feel, we are still limited by our own invisible obstacles and expectations. And I do find this a bit difficult to achieve in this “physical but not digital” environment we work in.

Live video calls and digital meetings, together with an effective and continuous digital social collaboration, may very well work as a replacement for the live meeting and can with the right approach and aligning effectively drive innovation in an organization. But most of us are probably not really ready for this adjustment just yet.

I myself have always preferred working from home when doing some of my work, compared to doing it in the office. Already as a journalist many years ago, I kept having problems getting my articles written during my regular working hours. When people left the office at the end of the day, I finally got started on my writing.

Production, reporting, and crafting presentations are probably tasks that I think most people do better from home. I would imagine coding (my days of programming date back to Windows 3.11) and other technical tasks would also be easier to do from home if this is possible.

Are there any security concerns to take into consideration?

There are of course a good couple of security risks to take into consideration when working from home. In a typical workplace for instance, the offices are well adapted and constantly checked to ensure the best working environment following strict regulations.
The office chairs are adaptable and ergonomic and the tables are height-adjustable. There is also a culture worth mentioning where we all remind each other to constantly move or even take a walk or have a cup of tea or coffee. At home however, there are no quality checks or regulations on the working environment and this can in fact cost very dearly for an organisation in the form of back- and neck problems, which might become a serious problem.

With regards to the psychosocial environment, one of the most serious problems I think is not allowing oneself rest as often as one should. I am also convinced that people working from home often actually do more hours than they should. Perhaps it is a feeling of wanting to prove to the manager that one is not just chillin’ and watching Netflix all day.

Frankly – I find this quite absurd. At least with administrational tasks such as mine, which include some production and management, the least important measurement of my effort is time. Still, I never report my actual work, only if I have done my eight hours of “Administration”.

Many experts have been saying that the world will not be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic and that our work will employ digitalization in a more practical way. Do you think we are prepared and willing to do the digital shift – where working from home is part of the process?

Looking back at other major crisis situations, I think that experts and people affected by the situation probably always say that things will never be the same again. I think that is partly true. I remember the day of 9/11, thinking that the world as we knew it was never going to be the same again. Also, I remember later on, during the financial crisis, when people said that we were in for very hard times. None of these situations had any or at least very little effect on my personal life 12 months later.

I believe that there will be some changes to how we work, but mainly I think the changes will affect laws and regulations, the way we stipulate responsibilities in contracts between companies for example. For a country like Sweden, which hasn’t been at war in the past 150 years, this might also serve as a wake-up call now when we realized we had nothing saved away for a rainy day.

But truly, I do believe it will take us a good few years before we are ready to start working completely digitally and remotely – where we all for instance work from home and are both comfortable with the technology and efficient, innovative and productive in our working tasks.

For now, despite many expert opinions claiming that we probably will not go back to the way things were, I still believe that most of us will. In the autumn or early winter, depending on the development of vaccines etc, restrictions will be lifted and I fear that we will just go back to the inefficient grind of dragging ourselves onto public transportation, spending time in a noisy, busy office and then go back after eight or nine inefficient hours.

Beside the obvious security issues you mentioned, why is it difficult to implement the work from home approach already today?

There are many aspects to take into consideration. First of all, not all the sectors will be able to transfer their workplace to their home office. Also, some managers may go against the idea of working from home merely on the lack of trust in their workforce. I believe that we managers need to trust our colleagues. Trust in them, and empower them to manage their responsibilities in the way they feel is best suited to their personalities and family situation.

How does the work-from-home benefit businesses?

If productivity and innovation are taken into consideration, it can be very beneficial for a business to have their employees working from home for some types of work. Besides the obvious economic benefits, where businesses will be able to avoid paying expensive rents for large workplaces and their maintenance as well as ensuring the quality of the working environment – Generally speaking, you basically save everything from cleaning expenses to electricity and heating costs.

It is also much more effective for a business to keep a business floating in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, as the work environment and the digital working habits will already be adapted to go through these crises without any special changes or adaptations.

Working from home is also a way to fight climate change, though it remains to be seen what the actual impact could be. By working from home, we avoid the long journeys back and forth to the workplace. Which will ease the CO2 pressure on the atmosphere and thus help create a better environment for everyone. Then again, speaking as a complete laymen here, I can’t really imagine that people’s commuting in the western world is a major factor globally. Still, the reduction of CO2 from reducing emissions from cars and vehicles is pretty pointless compared to staying at home instead.

I am much more interested in how we can change the rapidly worsening problem of stress-related issues and the difficult work-life balance equation. I do think that we have come a long way in the Nordics but mental health is suffering and it feels like society and business alike are stumbling trying to figure out why people work themselves to an early grave and poor mental health.

The hours we save when we don’t need to squeeze into an already packed subway train or bus and how the relatively peaceful work environment affects us isn’t totally clear. Some people feel more stressed working from home, and for some, it is even considered a blessing to get out of their houses or flats for a few hours. So, this will require more research.