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DataIQ Leaders briefing – From WFH to 3:2 and everything in between

Has your organisation decided when it will fully re-open its offices and, if so, how often it expects workers to be there? It is one of the crucial questions being asked by companies, many of them having decided to downsize their physical space. A DataIQ Leaders roundtable discovered how Covid-19 had changed working practices and workspace for data departments. David Reed reports.
DataIQ Leaders 2021 - April RT - Return to work graphic

The working climate in macro

Attitudes among major corporations towards the new life-work balance offer a decidedly mixed perspective. In one camp, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase have made it clear they anticipate 100% office-based working from the Summer onwards. On the other side of this divide, Facebook has said its workers can carry on with WFH and forecasts a permanent 50% split between office-based and home workers. Twitter has also said its staff can carry on working from home forever.

Just as important to what happens next is the attitude of the workforce itself, of course. A survey by Salesforce of its Australian staff found that Thursday is the new Monday for coming into the office – most preferred to start the week WFH, but by Wednesday and Thursday, 80% of collaboration space in its offices was being used. 

Whether “no jab, no job” becomes a rule – and whether it is enforced or even legal – is yet a further contingency. According to a survey carried out by a digital coaching firm, Ezra, just 51% of workers feel confident returning to work when either they or their colleagues aren’t required to have a vaccination, with 28% stating they weren’t confident, while 21% remained on the fence.

So any data department reviewing its plans needs to take into account the wider mood in the economy, what the attitude of the business might be and also that of its analysts and practitioners. Returning to the office after such a long disruption to normal working practices is not a given, nor is it as simple as saying, “if we re-open the doors, they will come back”.

Reshaping offices for the three Cs

Whatever desire the government may have to see economic activity restart and a return to pre-Covid “normality”, there was a widespread sense across DataIQ Leaders members that things will be different, not least in terms of what the workplace will look like when restrictions are finally lifted.

For example, one pharmacy chain had outgrown its office space after five years of growth before the pandemic, but has made the decision not to increase its footprint. The implies a clear shift towards having teams working remotely at least part of the time.

An example of the emerging 3:2 model – either three days in the office and two at home or the other way around – came from a major grocery and consumer goods chain which is remodelling stores to create office space in the back, with the intention that only 40% of working time will be in a physical location, specifically for collaboration, with the rest spent WFH. It now views physical space as being for the purpose of three Cs – coaching, collaboration and community.

A price comparison service is following a similar strategy by changing office space from desk-based to collaboration zones and has closed down one location completely. Its CEO is currently resisting specifying a set proportion of the week to be office-based, although at group level there is more of a desire to see the workforce in person.

At a catalogue and e-commerce retailer, offices are also being refurbished to create four collaboration spaces for a return to work in September with a focus on social zones, while one location has been closed permanently. Even its leadership team will adopt a 3:2 pattern, but is likely to prescribe which days workers need to attend in person. 

As the data leader noted, “analysts are happy to work from home and jump on calls, but you lose the collaborative element. You have to step out of your comfort zone to drive collaboration.”

Demographics and career drivers

An important point made by everybody at the roundtable was that the desire and ability to work from home differs depending on demographics. Many early career data practitioners are keen to be back in the office either because they lack appropriate workspace at home or because they want to be able to socialise. Many have been onboarded remotely and have never met their team members in person. More established data leaders have become comfortable with WFH protocols and have no great desire to resume their commutes, by contrast.

There is an important dimension to this around knowledge transfer between generations and also across organisations. As one data leader put it: “Young team members need to hear how the business works from senior leaders, so the senior leadership teams need to be visible otherwise those new joiners are not seeing the whole culture of the organisation. They need to literally see the business and have people in one room.”

By contrast, some data practitioners have seized the opportunity created by the pandemic to permanently change their working pattern. One example given was of a data scientist who has negotiated 100% home working in a new contract. This could be a win-win for employer and employee since it might allow a company to access skills without the premium usually associated, while individuals avoid the high cost of living in employment hotspots like the golden triangle of London, Cambridge and Oxford.

But there are downsides for senior leaders who have adopted working from home, not least among those with workaholic tendencies or where output is highly time-sensitive. As the partner in a law firm noted, if a lawyer does not complete a defence in time for a trial, they risk losing their licence to practice. That often leads to long working days which in a home environment have no natural break. A company’s responsibilities for its workforce’s wellbeing is not removed just because that workforce is remote, so methods of tracking working time without being intrusive need to be considered.

Conclusion

At the time of discussing the re-opening of data departments in April 2021, there were still two months to go before this would be fully possible, with some organisations formally delaying any return to offices until September. But work had already begun on remodelling office space and reducing office footprints, meaning a 100% physical presence would no longer be possible at these companies.

Instead, when the freedom to choose working location returns, anybody venturing back to their head office is likely to find a very different environment. The cliché digital office space – all coffee bars, soft furnishings and play areas – was designed to keep workers at work. But in the post-pandemic era, those same resources seem likely to be used to entice workers into the office, but not to stay there too often or for too long.

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