Cottage Industry – 21st Century Style


Working From Home (“WFH”) appears to be welcomed on all counts. A massive productivity gain, reduced personal spending, safety from infection, good for the environment, reduced traffic and parking volume, a parent at home for the kids. What could be better?

Seems over 40% of the workforce worked from home in the first lockdown. This statistic mirrors UK, USA and Norway, the balance of employees being either at essential work or idled. Productivity gained from WFH was seen as a quantum leap, with time saved by no commuting and no workplace chatter.  See Forbes. A Herald commentator saw a permanent and bankable productivity gain, of a scale which the Productivity Commission has long argued for. Anecdotally, while businesses are gearing for a future of spasmodic pandemic disruption, many are concurrently factoring a permanent WFH dimension into their structures and space planning.

Apart from the obvious direct savings in time and commuting costs, wider economies are in view. Partial redundancy of city buildings, carparks, public transport, city services and cafes flows through into changed but lower value uses for these assets, with new investment following the people to the suburbs. A relocation of infrastructure and activity as seen before in Los Angeles and Christchurch.

The environmental payback from reduced commuting is a valuable public and planetary good. No question.

But 21st Century cottage industry has significant negative impacts, not yet widely experienced or discussed. At both Organization and Individual level, the human factor will suffer losses without compensating interventions.  Human essentials that enable modern business, government and society to work and thrive are threatened by wide-spread and embedded WFH. These necessary human contact points seem to be most at risk: –

  • Teamwork / Company Culture / Leadership
  • Client Interaction
  • Control / Monitoring / Quality Assurance
  • Personal Development / Training / Mentoring
  • Social engagement
  • The creative (ideation) process
  • The hollowing out of cities in their function as social and entertainment hubs

The Organization Need is to direct, motivate and align people’s work toward stakeholder satisfaction and organization goals. An Individual’s Needs are ranked by such philosophers as Maslow, with social and esteem needs almost as important as survival, sex and money musts. Economics alone does not cut it.

A few observations:

  • Many people are already missing their workmates and keen to return to the workplace
  • Zoom is fine for information and fact-based meetings; less successful for joint problem solving, creativity and exploration of feelings. Kanohi ti ke kanohi (face to face) is best.
  • The data worker has the WFH option; those who handle physical products do not. In a pandemic, the blue-collar worker is much more exposed. See Infometrics
  • Industrial relations will be turbulent, as capital and labour reset a fair cost and reward bargain within a WFH employment paradigm.
  • WFH is a high-trust model, requiring integrity and self-discipline.


There will be disappointments. WFH has WorryingFishHooks.