WAR, What is it Good For?

by Dr Sandra Bell, CEO of The Business Resilience Company

Whether you prefer the Temptations or Edwin Starr original versions or the 1984 cover by Frankie Goes to Hollywood the message in this 1969 counterculture anthem is clear. War is good for “absolutely nothin’!”.

Now, that may, or may not, be true for the “WAR” that is armed conflict – I am not even going to enter that debate. But, in my opinion, it is definitely not true for WAR as in Work Area Recovery.

Over the years I have written a lot about Work Area Recovery. I’ve also spent large sums of money on behalf of the various organizations that I have worked for buying it. However, since the COVID-19 outbreak I don’t seem to be able to come off a Zoom/Skype/Teams or “common or garden” phone call without being asked if I think the need for Work Area Recovery is no more.

For those of you unfamiliar with Work Area Recovery, it is an alternative location, usually provided by a third party, where your staff can work should their normal place of work be unavailable. The most common type is a room full of desks and computers that can be quickly configured with your information and applications so that when your staff arrive at the alternative location they can start work immediately. People tend to buy them when the risk of unavailability of the normal work premises is high. For example, it is located on a flood plain or the power and communications connectivity are known to be poor. Or they have a time critical function whose impact of loss is high. For example, a trading desk where lost minutes translates to lost millions or a call center where lost contact translates to lost customers or a large regulatory fine.

The theory put forward by my questioners is that COVID-19 has put the world through a crash course in remote working and therefore if, in future, fires, floods, power cuts etc. render the normal workplace unavailable the organization can just simply send everyone home and activity will continue as if nothing untoward had happened.

Great in theory, but I am not so sure about the practice.

Studies of behaviours following the 2010 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, that also required people to work remotely for many months, showed that the ability to work from home in the immediate aftermath of the disaster supported the wellbeing of individuals and enhanced organizational resilience to the disruptive situation[1].

However, the study additionally found that people rapidly returned to the pre-earthquake practices of informal, ad hoc remote working to meet personal responsibilities, despite increased investment in technology, collaboration and communication tools together with the encouragement of regular remote working in the post disaster environment. Therefore, whilst the investment meant that should disaster strike again more people could work from home, it would still take several days for that to happen because of people’s unfamiliarity with the technology and remote working processes.

This behaviour suggests that people, and organisations, find working within the same physical location beneficial. But the benefits are not just associated with management convenience or employee “feel good”.  There are real performance benefits: the 2018 Allianz Global Claims Review that reports that the average business interruption property insurance claim now totals over $3mn, and is 39% higher than the corresponding average direct property damage reflecting the fact that a workplace is more than just the bricks and mortar[2].

The physical environment facilitates work activities such a reading, writing, thinking and collaborating, but the workplace also allows organisational and personal activities, such as management and social interaction, to take place to foster mutual trust and responsibility[3]. For the organization the workplace is also often a status symbol used to enhance market position[4].  Likewise, for most of us, work, and therefore the workplace that represents it, is an integral part of our existence and a vehicle by which we can achieve “status, stuff and success”[5].

If the workplace is lost, it immediately signals to the outside world, such as customers, investors, suppliers etc., that there is a problem. Likewise, employees abruptly lose their ability to work in the way that they are accustomed and can feel personally threatened or attacked due to our territoriality[6].

In the case of COVID-19 none of us has lost our workplaces: they still exist, and we are not alone in our situation. We are also not simply working from home: we are also socializing from home, exercising from home, learning from home, shopping from home etc.

Also, because it is a whole of society issue, consumer acceptance of organisational disruption is high and practical support and help to make working from home possible is plentiful and frequently free. For example, there are even tax benefits[7].

So, lets fast forward to the post-COVID-19 environment. There has been a rapid acceleration of digitalisation and adoption of new technologies, a rethink of global supply chains, an increased focus on public health awareness and investment. Automation within the workplace has also increased and the trend for on-line delivery of services has accelerated. Economic measures to relieve the effects of the recession and prevent the concentration of wealth in a handful of big business by promoting competition have also put power in the hands of consumers.

You suffer a fire in the building that houses your head office and contact center. A building that also houses the head office and contact center of your closest competitor.

Do you:

(a) Send everyone home and spend the next few days working at dramatically reduced capacity while they get up to speed and remember how everything works? Or,

(b) Send your priority activities to a Work Area Recovery site where they can be reunited with their information and applications and up and running at full capacity within a few hours, and everyone else home, to recover a leisure?

I know which one I’d choose.

[1] Green, N. J. (2014). A multi-level analysis of telework adoption and outcomes following a natural disaster: the experiences of two Christchurch organisations (Doctoral dissertation, Auckland University of Technology).

[2] https://www.agcs.allianz.com/content/dam/onemarketing/agcs/agcs/reports/AGCS-Global-Claims-Review-2018.pdf Accessed 07 June 2019

[3] Haynes, B. P. (2007). The impact of the behavioural environment on office productivity. Journal of facilities management, 5(3), 158-171.

[4] The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) classifies office space into three categories: Class A, Class B, and Class C. According to BOMA, Class A office buildings have the “most prestigious buildings competing for premier office users with rents above average for the area”. BOMA states that Class A facilities have “high quality standard finishes, state of the art systems, exceptional accessibility and a definite market presence”.

[5] Gini, A. (1998). Work, identity and self: How we are formed by the work we do. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(7), 707-714.

[6] The question of human territoriality is hotly disputed. At one extreme, (e.g. Ardrey (1966)) believes that territoriality is a genetically fixed behaviour which has evolved in most species. Whilst other researchers believe that economics need to be considered (e.g. Dyson-Hudson 1978). However, all researchers agree that humans often display territorial behaviours.

[7] https://www.icaew.com/insights/tax-news/2020/apr-2020/covid19-tax-treatment-of-employees-working-from-home Accessed 07 May 2020