#WFH: SMB Ready for the Remote Workplace, “Absolutely Not”
When I interviewed David in early April 2020 he, in contrast to Neal, did not like working from home. David said he would much rather be in the office. He is another seasoned independent consultant with lots of experience in technologies, but he does not embrace the working from home experience with the same vigor and enthusiasm that Neal does. David has been in the world of technology for decades. He is a seasoned executive and entrepreneur and sits on a lot of boards. He describes himself as very hands-on and an engineer who can read a balance sheet. He is currently acting as President for a well-established IT firm, the oldest in his state. Although most of his company has worked remotely for the last eight to ten years, he’s a go to the office kind of guy.
Consisting mostly of programming and project management talent, his company has been relatively insulated from the remote worker paradigm shift that is taking place. Their people have always been remote workers. In doing climate surveys with the staff during the COVID-19 crisis, about 20% of the people said they do not want to work from home, they prefer to be on site because they like the interaction with clients and colleagues. Those folks that did typically work from home didn’t work a standard 8 AM to 4 PM kind of job, they put in their eight hours somewhere between 7 AM and 8 PM. They enjoy the freedom of being able to go to the store or pick up the kids from school. With the COVID-19 forced remote workplace, they do not enjoy those same freedoms. For one thing, the kids are at home.
Over 45% of the workforce in David’s firm hold visas. Rather than a “gig economy” or temporary positions and short-term commitments, he describes this workforce as a series of long-term commitments on a short-term basis, renewed over and over again. They work primarily with large companies, government agencies and big corporations. The companies like this arrangement because they can shut down the operation on short notice. The workers do not like it because it is highly stressful, and they are always worried about getting the next contract. Am I going to get extended? The workers want security. David’s company pays for upgrading certifications and continuing education, and provides some sense of belonging and loyalty for workers. They provide benefits like insurance and some job security. They talk about career security instead of job security.
The impact of remote work on the wage structure has been a passthrough. Even if wages might be lower, there is still the cost of recruiting the remote worker, and talent management companies generally have no standards. Generally, small to midsize businesses do not attract the best talent. Depending on the industry, the workforce may vary in levels of education and length of employment. Because there is often a middle organization taking up to 4%, there is no long-term savings for the hiring company.
David is an up early and in the office kind of guy, even on the weekend. He is not married, has never been married, and has no children. He gets into the office by 5:30 AM and admits to being an unapologetic workaholic. Before the COVID-19 lockdown, meetings were usually face to face. He would go out to breakfast or meet in the office. Since the crisis, meetings are on Skype, Zoom or GoToMeeting. The number of meetings he attends has not decreased but the venue has changed. He still has several meetings every day.
When asked if the SMB (small to midsize businesses) were ready for the remote workplace, his response was “absolutely not.” They were not ready to support people working from home with technology, systems, or access. They never embraced the approach. They never thought they would have to do it with their own staff. They literally had to have a gun to their head that was usually held by the employee saying, “we don’t want to come in” or “we don’t feel safe.” Often, they had to borrow equipment where they could find it. One of David’s clients is a large hotel casino that thought that by spreading the rumor that their air conditioning system had ultraviolet capabilities, and was killing the germs so the patrons had nothing to worry about, they could stay open. They shut down six days later and are still closed. They are genuinely concerned about reopening and the restrictions of social distancing.
The crisis has stressed the system, but really has not changed the way employers are looking at employment laws and compliance issues, at least not yet. David asked one of his leadership groups, “When did it go from a crisis on the other side of the world to a personal situation?” He got responses like, “When the sports season was cancelled,” “When I was told to work from home,” or “When the kids were no longer in school.”
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