Jail and the Future of Work

The recent story of the Italian man who was under house arrest, but who went to the police and begged them to arrest him, resonated with me. He apparently had had enough of being stuck at home with his wife, and in an act of desperation decided that he would be better off in jail that living at home. And so, we went to the local police station and threw himself at their mercy. It was a dangerous move, as their refusal meant that he would have to return to his home and to his wife, who I cannot imagine would have been very impressed with him or his behavior.

The story didn’t resonate because I am, have been or am ever likely to be involved with drugs, and not because I have met his wife, but perhaps because following almost two years of remote working, I have reached the conclusion there is a small part of Italian man in each of us screaming to get out. And by “out” I mean literally out of the dining room and into an office where no one will ask me why I insist on wearing that shirt. Again. And where there are no pets or Hadadas and no vacuum cleaner that seems inexplicably designed by some sort of artificial intelligence algorithm to work at its loudest just as I remove the mute setting during a meeting. To be clear, this is not a male- female thing and am certain that there is an equal amount of all genders tending towards the way of that brave (but probably miserable) Italian.

Which makes the discussion around the future of work even more interesting. In a recent conversation with a leading South African insurance company, I was told that they were looking to only use 60% of their current office space. They were going to create a system of “hot-desks”, more soundproof meeting rooms for “Zoom” calls and would allow employees to work from home three out of five days.

This seems to be the prevailing approach. Deloitte, in a recent announcement, said its employees can split their time between any of their offices, their client and a remote location of their choice. Their hybrid working model, according to the company, will be client-focused. It will move with clients based on their business and their needs, too.

According to Fin24, “Financial institutions are leading the way in taking a permanent stance on whether their staff will return to the office or now. Earlier this month, PwC offered all of its 40 000 US client services employees to work virtually and live anywhere they want.” In the banking sector, Nedbank and Absa told the publication that their approach is if any person’s work can be done from home, it should be done from home. Nedbank said its Property Portfolio division has made plans to accommodate a 60/40 split between people who work from the office and remotely.

The advantages are many. Reduced overhead, savings in terms of time and cost of travel to and from the office, and most times, increased productivity. From a South African perspective, acceptance of remote employees also means accessing talent that might not be available locally, something that many companies are struggling with.

But there are some drawbacks. Organisations that value company culture will find it challenging to infuse in their employees the values and the “unwritten ground rules” of the organisation. Relationships between employees might not be as strong as it would be when working closely with each other, which might cause less “stickiness” and a tendency to move around from company to company. Conflicts might escalate and become harder to resolve because of more shallow relationship. The dreaded “Zoom” meeting overload will probably continue, but on the flip side, a silent vacuum cleaner is likely to be developed soon.

A further impact is potentially on the mental health of employees. The act of leaving the home each day and then returning to it is good for couples and for children. It means being able to talk about the day outside of the home and to bring something “fresh” to the (dinner) table. Working at the office means sometimes bringing work home, but working at home means living in the office. Which makes the separation of the two a lot more challenging than we think it will be.

The work environment has been altered and that we are unlikely to ever go back to a traditional world that was. But I believe it is best to spend a moment thinking about that Italian drug dealer who, as we speak, is standing at the counter of his local police station, begging them to cart him off to jail.