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Time to expose the glorious Potemkin Village of teleworking

Brooks Tigner / Jun 2021

Image: Shutterstock

 

Among the endless prognostications by pundits, policymakers, and consultants about Covid’s “revolutionary” impact on work, none have been more repeated, ad nauseam, than the glowing descriptions of our new utopia of teleworking.

Telework will end the tyranny of big offices, argue its proponents. It will help save the climate. It will decentralise tasking and authority, creating a more democratic and “transparent” work environment, all the while enabling a more flexible lifestyle for all.

Finally, and inevitably, they point to Covid’s energizing impact on services: creative products are exploding, tech companies are booming, and stock markets have soared!

Yet has this service boom been that all that positive for the customer or the economy in general? I beg to differ. Covid’s expanded symbiosis of teleworking and services carries the seeds of its own destruction if it does not lead to work productivity levels and economic growth comparable to pre-Covid conditions, not to mention far better customer-service accessibility than we have seen so far.

A show of hands, please, for all those who have thoroughly enjoyed the customer contacts, services and responsiveness they have received since March 2020 from banks, telecommunications companies, insurance groups, airlines, the travel industry – and practically any government department or agency.

With the exception of public health authorities (and that only due to pressure from Covid-panicked politicians), my own experience in dealing with all the above sectors has been overwhelmingly negative: often no telephone number to call, or no one answers when there is one; or the phone ultimately disconnects; or you only get through to someone, if at all, after cascading through a dozen rigid, sub-menu robo-options, only to be told to “send an email.”

In Belgium at least, this enraging lack of willingness to directly deal with the consumer – with the citizen – has been the same for either public or private sector “service” interlocutors. I suspect the pattern has been similar across many parts of Europe.

And the main culprit? Teleworking.

Pandemic or not, it’s time to throw cold water on the reality of this raving new world of virtual work…what it means at the micro level (i.e., the individual) and what it probably implies at the macro level (i.e., our economies).

First, telework requires discipline. Most workers (yours truly included) do not have enough of it to match in-office work levels, day after day, because the temptations and distractions at home (media, children, pets, noisy neighbours, refrigerator, etc.) are too many, too disruptive, and too unpredictable. Few can resist or escape them from within the home, particularly in apartment buildings.

Second, effective telework demands dedication to one’s work and organisation. Do the armies of teleworking drones across your country’s banking, telecom, and government sectors display that? Here in Belgium there has been a monumental country-wide uptick in house-and-garden renovation during the past 15 months. Gee, could there be a link between “home work” and “work on the home”?

Third, if service sectors intend to shift telework to a higher footing, then they must also do the same for their levels of customer accessibility and responsiveness, whether answering phones promptly or quickly executing consumer requests by email. That means hiring or devoting more personnel to actually interact with one’s customer/client base. Otherwise, the latter eventually will revolt.

Such devotion to customer service has not happened so far. Excessively long call-waiting times have been the norm during Covid, which suggests that service providers are either understaffed to handle the demand and/or refuse to hire more, or that too many teleworkers are simply hiding behind their “official” phone lines. It’s not rocket science to deduce that this is not good for Europe’s economy.

Fourth, decent organisational productivity requires hands-on supervision. It is nice to think that Zoom meetings and virtual work desks mean a flatter, more democratic structure, and that this will yield a more productive one. For most worker bees, if the boss is away, they will play…or at least dawdle more than they should. I would, and so would you. The only sure-fire way to avoid dawdling away from the office would be to install surveillance or productivity-tracking in the home. Is that the future we want?

Fifth and finally: the syncretic factor. I think too much emphasis on teleworking will lead to a hit to Europe’s economy, permanently, for the above four arguments.

Despite popular predictions, the brick-and-mortar office is far from dead, and should never be allowed to die – or else with it will go group creativity, team spirit, and just plain monitored-and-measured productivity that comes from face-to-face interaction in the workplace.

As for teleworking itself, okay – but only in small doses.

 

Brooks Tigner

Brooks Tigner

June 2021

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