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Here's the good, the bad and the unknown about working from home

Lord Wolfson of Next believes faster decision making is a positive, but Zoom calls can quickly turn into 'boring, one-way lectures'

Simon Wolfson
Next chief executive Simon Wolfson

The pandemic has been expensive and miserable. But some good has come from the upheaval. It is remarkable what can be learnt from shutting down your entire operation and slowly, department by department, store by store, warehouse by warehouse, bringing it back to life.

It is all the more challenging and informative with much of the endeavour managed by hundreds of our colleagues sitting in their spare bedrooms, kitchens and conservatories! We have learnt how we can work more effectively. Lessons which, if we are careful to preserve them, will stand us in good stead for years to come.

The benefits fall into two categories: firstly, in our warehouse and call centre operations we have discovered more efficient ways of working and secondly in non-operational departments such as IT and Buying, working from home has forced us to take advantage of new technology with all its possibilities for improved communications, efficiency and employee job satisfaction.

At this point it is only right to mention the extraordinary effort made by so many colleagues, at every level in the organisation, to keep the company running through lockdown. The hard work, enthusiasm, ingenuity, common sense and determination of colleagues from so many diverse parts of the company has been an inspiration.

From warehouse managers to buyers, systems programmers to store managers and financial analysts – Next employees have pulled together to keep the company running in circumstances none of us could have imagined in January. I know our experience has not been unique, but nonetheless over the last six months I have, on many occasions, felt very thankful that I work for Next.

Working from Home - the Good, the Bad and the Unknown

The Good

Reducing the number of long commutes, with all their stress and inconvenience, and eliminating the distractions inherent in the office environment has allowed some solitary tasks (such as systems coding and product design) to become more focussed and effective.

Lord Wolfson, chief executive of Next

In our Buying teams, restrictions on overseas travel have actually encouraged more regular contact with suppliers and closer collaboration through video calls. Many of our Buying teams have succeeded in developing and selecting new ranges remotely using digital technologies to handle diverse tasks from amending garment fit to checking colour continuity.

The result, in many cases, has been more focussed, more frequent and faster decision making. Decisions have been made on the spot rather than being ‘saved up’ for trips or selection meetings. At best, these new ways of working have engendered independence of action, creativity and stimulated innovation.

Standing back from these changes one important theme emerges. We have had to let go of some of our time-honoured product selection processes - with all their checks and balances - and we have empowered individuals and small teams to make more decisions outside of the corporate machine. For many, this has been liberating and the best people have increased and improved their creative output. With hindsight, it appears that the corporate machine was supporting the inexperienced and the less able, but holding back the strong.

The Bad

By far the biggest problem with home working has been the lack of spontaneous conversations between colleagues. We have missed the chance conversations, unplanned questions, the ability to learn from colleagues, along with the training and camaraderie that the office provides. At its best, an office can be a cauldron for new ideas and enhanced collaboration.

Where problem solving requires large groups to work together, video calls have proved unwieldy, frustrating and inefficient. Worst of all perhaps, large video calls have encouraged the proliferation of one of the business world’s most damaging practices - death by deck: slideshow presentations that transform meetings from productive exchanges of ideas into boring, one-way lectures; with the “presenters” rattling through bullet points already visible to their stultified audience.

The Unknown - Home working going forward

It is too early to judge how much working from home will become a permanent feature of life going forward. It will vary from department to department, job to job and person to person. Ultimately there will be a balance between home and office working; finding that balance will take time and care.

We will avoid edicts from the boardroom that impose a one-size-fits-all solution for working from home. Instead, we will allow the balance between working from home and in the office to evolve over time, allowing each functional area (Buying, Design, Systems Development, etc) to work its way towards the optimum working practices for its particular needs and its particular people. We will, however, set out some very clear simple principles which we expect people to follow when determining the balance between home and office working – above all else we need to be clear that the business must come first.

Lord Wolfson of Aspley Guise is chief executive of Next

This is an edited extract from the Chief Executive's Review in Next's  results for the six months to July 2020