Pivoting in Crisis #1: Redefining ‘WFH’ as Welfare for Humans

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17 March 2020

COVID-19 represents an unprecedented challenge to global governments, health services, corporations and individuals alike. As the outbreak continues to spread and an abundance of misinformation muddies the water across the world, behaviours are starting to change.

Some individuals are avoiding handshakes, some are shunning public transport, while others are hoarding toilet roll and pasta. Businesses are also responding with some already writing down their earnings statements. The government too has stepped up in the form of what they are describing as “largest sustained fiscal boost for nearly 30 years”.

Just as the 2008 crash saw the birth of thousands of new businesses, COVID-19 will undoubtedly mean pivoting marketing strategies and ways of working. Some opportunists are already moving to outright exploitation (bottles of hand sanitiser appearing on eBay at hugely inflated prices, for example). Ultimately though, corporations have a duty to respond to the changing needs of their customers and several of the changes that Coronavirus is causing will create new consumer needs. It is these changing needs that we’ll be looking to highlight in our new content series.

Pivoting to enable a remote workforce

With the UK Government issuing an official encouragement for businesses to adopt remote working where feasible, this strategy is designed to create greater “social distancing” as one part of its move to the “Delay phase” of managing Coronavirus. Many businesses already allow remote working for their employees on an intermittent basis and, as we have seen, there is considerable demand amongst the workforce. But others will now have to comply, rather more reluctantly.

The appetite for working from home already exists 

Even before the advent of Coronavirus there has been a move towards more flexible working patterns and strong evidence of a desire for even more flexibility amongst the workforce, even though many admit that their home working setup is currently far from ideal:

  • Of 32.6m people working in the UK, some 4.5m or 14% are homeworkers, up from 3.7m (or 12%) in 2008 (link).
  • More than 1.54 million people work from home for their main job – up from 884,000 ten years ago (link).
  • 92% of Gen Y identify flexibility as a priority when selecting a workplace but just 6% of vacancies mention flexible working (link).
  • 70% express a desire to work more flexibly in future with 65% adding it would improve their wellbeing and satisfaction at work (link).
  • It is estimated that by 2020 some 50% of the UK workforce will work remotely (link)
  • Over 40% of UK kitchens have to double up as a home office space (link).
  • Homeworkers tend to work in higher skilled roles and tend to earn on average a higher hourly wage: almost two-thirds are self-employed (link).
  • And yet, 20% of both UK employees and HR decision makers feel that quality of work at home is of a lower standard (link) and one-in-three flexible working requests are turned down (link).

Separating short-term and longer-term effects

Social historians often point to the pivotal role played by women in the two World Wars (e.g. in munitions factories or as “land girls”) as a turning point in the battle for gender equality, creating greater social acceptance around working women. Once a precedent has been established, perhaps in response to a major crisis, the ground rules may change forever. This may prove to be the case with regards to working from home. As Coronavirus forces many businesses to permit widespread remote working for the first time, a large proportion of them will be forced to admit that productivity can be as good as, or perhaps even higher than, the more traditional model of the onsite nine-to-five, five day week.

Turning “Working from Home” into “Welfare for Humans”

“Working from home” or WFH does have some stigma attached to it with many companies questioning productivity levels. However, if this becomes a necessity then brands will have to pivot to where their audiences are and look to consider the “welfare of humans” in their new isolated habitats. This may mean better connectivity from service providers or more coordinated food deliveries from retailers to start.

Working from home will become normal, everyday, commonplace from here on. We will see the removal of the “air quotes” that are often placed around discussions about working from home, signifying a knowing conspiracy that “working from home” will involve lots of being at home, and not much work.

The sudden displacement of huge numbers of workers into a new working environment will also create a new set of product and service needs. The same will be true of those who currently work from home on an intermittent basis but who will suddenly be faced with doing so on a more permanent basis. It’s one thing working with your laptop on the dining table when you only do so every now and then, but quite another when that is your permanent workstation. And just because employees aren’t working on site doesn’t mean employers can neglect their duty of care.

Naturally, employers first thought will be how to ensure continued productivity, but the onus will also be on them to help homeworkers create a comfortable and productive working space. They will also have to ensure that workers don’t suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of physical interaction and office banter and that they continue to feel part of “the team”.

In short, working from home will require employers to show a heightened “welfare for humans” and there will be a real opportunity for brands to play an ancillary role.

How can the marketplace support both types of WFH?

How businesses will respond to the likely surge in remote working to create Welfare for Humans will vary from one business and sector to another, but we feel it’s worth considering some of the following:

Streamlining processes
Supermarket delivery infrastructures are coming under huge pressure as we hunker down and draw up the barricades. One potential scenario would be to streamline deliveries with multiple houses on a street being incentivised to pool their orders.

The need for interaction
With many people having to work remotely, they could suddenly become and feel very isolated. Can brands help by sponsoring and facilitating casual neighbourliness?

Can infrastructure cope?
There will be great pressure on tech infrastructure as large numbers of people look to stream and video conference at times when traffic is typically light. Is there a need to adopt localised bandwidth optimisation – enabling adjacent households to discuss and agree how they will share usage?

Providing WFH kits
Large numbers of people will suddenly need to be productive in-home environments that are optimised for family living not work. There is a market for short-term home office furniture rental and/or other packs of productivity related materials including headsets, screens etc…

Virtual team building
WFH on an ongoing basis is hard. Keeping on top of your workloads and engaging with clients is hard enough. It is easy to overlook the necessity for continual contact with team-mates, from the point of view of morale and bonding as well as functionality. While teams will have their own app of choice for informal chit chat, efforts need to be made to recreate the more ephemeral side of office life – after work drinks, coffee machine banter, etc.

So, what next?

As the story of the Coronavirus outbreak unfolds, new challenges will emerge and these, more than likely, will also represent the need for brands to quickly pivot to support a society under pressure. We’ll be continuing to seek out and share these opportunities with you over the coming weeks through our research, webinars and further blog posts.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited Group. 

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