The recent pandemic confined us to our homes. The vast improvement of online video communication technology irreversibly changed how many of us go about our work. As we leave the pandemic situation the discussion in the media has shifted to which is the better working arrangement – working from home or working at the office?
I find this angle of discussion unproductive because it commits the either/or fallacy. Much of the media seems skewed toward creating the impression that working from the office or being physically present at the office to be an inconvenient or archaic thing. There is little consideration about how we work in relation to the nature of the work to be done. The shortcoming of that angle is it focuses on the means without any regard for the nature and purpose of the work.
The question is not which is better, but which is suitable.
My own experience tells me there are two kinds of people at the office from the standpoint of physical presence being necessary: those that have to be physically present, and those who do not.
In my office, my administrative colleagues have to be physically present. The nature of their work demands it, not me.
My front desk colleague has to attend to phone calls, walk-in clients, and manage the firm correspondence and my notary and commissioner appointments, amongst others. In the cubicle next to her, my conveyancing colleague is back up for phone calls and attending to clients if the front desk is occupied, aside from having to attend to her own work and manage our dispatch colleague. Needless to say, our dispatch colleague has to attend to carry out his work, delivering correspondence. None of them can do their work from home.
The rest of our colleagues comprise of lawyers, pupils, and interns – those tasked with intellectual, as opposed to physical labour. The nature of their work i.e., researching, drafting, reading, etc. allows them a degree of mobility because they don’t have to do these things at a specific physical place. The media, however, conflates can with should and concludes from that that working from home (or anywhere really) is superior to working at the office.
From there follows the arguments that there is no value to working in the office, it is a vestige of ancient thinking, physical presence is less necessary because of video and audio technology, and the rest. I feel the pitch for working from home has reached the level of propaganda. Anyone who thinks working from office is consigned to the dustbin of failed ideas and condamned as a dinosaur.
For myself, I resonate with the phrase, There is a time and place for everything. This phrase means there is an appropriate and suitable location and occasion for us to do something. And we should not blur that distinction. For example, we do not play lively dance music at a funeral. We do not speed like we are on a six-lane highway on a city street. We do not drink alcohol or eat when we do our work.
There is a time and place for everything means just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should do it. It means we must consider the suitability of when and where we are doing something in relation to what we have to deliver, not in relation to our personal convenience. We should organize ourselves in a manner that facilitates being in a position to do our best for the work in our care.
My starting point in thinking about work arrangements is with the question, Which arrangement enables us to attend to our work without hindrances, improves the quality of relationships and trust between our colleagues, and fosters a supportive, pleasant, and optimal working environment?
I think there is generally no better place to do our work than the office, or the atelier, as I prefer to call our working space. Of course, I work from home on occasion when I have to rush something or need an acute kind of solitude. But by and large, I prefer working from atelier because I believe it benefits not just ourselves and the working environment but the wider community as a whole. Working from home, which is really sitting in front of a computer screen or several (mobile phone not included) for most of the day, is a bad thing for us personally and for the community.
Firstly, when we work from office, we are physically together. There is less technological mediation in our interactions. That allows for easier, quicker and more quality and meaningful interactions with each other. The quality of communications is superior. It facilitates and encourages organic and quality discussions.
A five minute face to face conversation is more productive and meaningful compared to a half an hour video call. That just makes sense because 70% – 80% of our communication is non-verbal. We lose those non-verbal cues and information with video calls; our focus is narrower – just the head or upper torso – and the quality of experience of our engagement is inferior. When we are in front of each other we get more out of the conversation – it feels more richer and fuller compared to the tin-can communication of video and audio.
Secondly, our presence together with the physical space and personal attitudes creates the ‘work environment’, which I think to be an important thing. It’s an important intangible; something we only appreciate when its toxic or non-existent. Our presence at work creates and contributes to the work environment. It is important because it creates conditions for cooperation, learning, excellence and motivation. Working remotely and silo-like does not enable the creation of a real, meaningful and supportive environment.
Quality lawyers in a quality work environment produce quality work in a sustainable manner over the long term. A conducive environment fosters relationships of trust, cooperation, and agreeableness that result in the timely production of quality work. The point of that is to create a frictionless working environment for cooperation to flow freely between colleagues.
Of course, we can get quality lawyers to produce quality work from a poor working environment, but it won’t last. It’s short-term and harmful in the long run. A poor working environment is toxic and corrosive. Stay in it too long and it diminishes us whilst making it increasingly harder to deliver the same quality consistently. Too much time is spent dealing with office politics, gossip, one-upmanship, derision, fear, distrust, immense pressure, and the like.
In contrast, a quality working environment enriches, educates, and invigorates us. It enlarges and strengthens us. It enables us to do more because we spend no time, energy, or emotion dealing with toxicity or corrosiveness. All our time, energy, and focus are spent on the work or in activities that go towards improving relationships and the work.
For myself, working in close physical proximity in an office is the best way to create a quality working environment. No doubt some people can work entirely at home, never have to go out, can do everything through video communications, not have to meet anybody, do not have colleagues that have physical-based tasks; that is the nature of their job and if they prefer that way, power to them.
Thirdly, for myself, working from home requires me to contend with a number of potential distractions. Outside my home, I am a managing partner of a small legal firm. Inside my home, my professional role is crowded out by many familial and domestic roles. Aside from the usual father, son, husband roles there are others such as driver, bungkus/tapau procurer, handyman, ad hoc cleaner, babysitter, discipline officer, cat feeder. Generally, it is difficult to get a stretch of unimpeded time at home. It is difficult to produce quality work with distractions and disruptions. We have to spend unnecessary cognitive energy to refocus ourselves after a distraction.
Working from home removes the distinction between personal and office time and space. It allows the latter to creep into the former and entrench itself. We are now contactable any time because we’re always at home and always on. After all, what else could we be doing? Anything non-work becomes secondary to work. In doing so it disrupts and causes an imbalance to our natural rhythm of work and rest. It turns our personal space into just another office space.
The office-home divide reinforces that divide between the personal and the work. it creates much needed divisions to our time and space. There is a time and place for work and a time and a place for the personal. Working from home obliterates that distinction and allows for work to dominate all our personal time.
Fourthly, if I don’t need an office, I don’t need a dispatch or a front desk clerk to attend to our call-in and walk-in clients. I’d have to sack them.
In a physical office, though their positions appear perfunctory, they play important roles in the firm. The former ensures the firm’s dispatches are delivered timely. The latter ensures our walk-in and call-in clients are well attended to. If they don’t do their jobs, the quality of our services decline and chaos is likely to ensue in the office.
Not everyone is cut out for a work-from-home kind of job. Some enjoy being in the office especially if the environment is pleasant and they have friendly colleagues.
Without an office, I will have to sack our vendors – our cleaner, the drinking water supplier, our photocopier provider, our stationery supplier, and several others. There will be less business about, which means fewer business opportunities. My colleagues and I will not be around to eat in the surrounding restaurants, gerais and mamaks. Yes, we will be light and lean financially but we lose out on contributing to the surrounding and local business environment. We lose out on helping other businesses survive and flourish.
Fifthly, and this is an important one to me, if I worked from home, I will miss out on the ease with which to have impromptu discussions or conversations with my colleagues and hang out with them on our breaks. I will miss out on opportunities of serendipity with them. I feel those are important moments to have between colleagues.
It allows opportunities for the unscheduled, unrehearsed, personal conversations to occur, which are the building blocks for colleagues to build relationships of cooperation and trust. We can do this with technology, but it requires much more effort and focus because it is not a natural way for us to be together.
I know my pupils and interns learn significantly less simply from not being physically around. I just can’t have a relationship with them by video. Working from home means I won’t have those impromptu moments with them when I get to know them better and listen to them.
During the pandemic lockdown and restricted movements, I did experiment with remote internships and remote pupilages. I communicated with my interns and pupils during that time. It felt transactional. A mere exchange of information instead of one that led to forming a meaningful relationship with them. The technology did not create opportunities for spontaenous casual personal conversation between myself and the interns or pupils; it inhibited it.
Frankly, I am not motivated to call anyone up on video for a casual, meandering chat, never mind someone I don’t know well. It feels strange and inappropriate to me because the formality technology imposes on communications inhibits the casualness of the occasion.
If I worked from home, I am less likely to take interns and pupils on because I cannot cannot create a learning and supportive environment for them through online communications. Online learning can supplement but is not and cannot be the primary method for a human learning. Online learning is convenient and useful, but it is not natural or optimal and far inferior to learning physically or in close proximity.
I have, however, no compunction indulging in such chats when I am in the office. I’d call out whichever pupil or intern was in the office to teman me while I am taking a break or feel like a chat. That is when I really get to learn about and understand them and they from me. These unscheduled, unrehearsed and serendipitous moments when the conversation flows freely, openly, and thoughtfully that I am able to impart to them something of value to them.
Most of the learning that happens by pupils and interns come from being in close proximity with me and my colleagues.
I don’t intend to make an unassailable argument that working from office is best or better compared to working from home. Ultimately, whether we work from home or office has to suit the nature and quality of the work to be delivered. My point has been working from the office is more suitable and appropriate for my colleagues and our atelier, not just from a work delivery perspective but from a relationship one as well. It is also a reminder to myself and others about what we lose and forget when we resort to technological tools of convenience and supposed efficency.
It is also to add a different perspective to the propaganda going on about working from home (or anywhere for that matter) to our ‘national consciousness’.
My approach to working from home and remote technology is that for conversations that matter, we should use online communications only when we need to, when we have no other choice in the matter. But if we do not have to, we should avoid it.
It should not be our primary mode of communcation because it is by all accounts an inferior one to the natural one we have of turning up and seeing each other face to face.
Because ultimately that’s the human way of doing things. And we are human.