Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been overloaded with Coronavirus communication, advice, surveys and ways to manage our daily routines. Every person who can read is fully aware of the advice surrounding the risks of COVID-19 and the workplace, but what about working from home? What are the impacts on productivity, work-life balance and working collaborations?
Working from home is definitely the new way to go, or so we believe!
Working from home has been perceived as very appealing and a solution to not only office expenses, but to commuting expenses as well, not to mention the hours spent in traffic on the way to work or back home and people being more productive due to this fact alone. However, data now confirms that the working from home niche has reached its peak and people working from home are now experiencing new pressures from the comfort of their personal space.
After months of working in their homely-hubs and participating in video conferences and webinars on Zoom, Teams, FaceTime and telephone calls, a large proportion indicated in a survey that they are ready to go back to the office. 73% of the workforce believes companies should embrace some level of working from home (Cushman & Wakefield) and 68% said they were very successful working from home (Workplace Evolutionaries).
So is working from home good or bad?
In an article written by Andrew Mason on 17 July 2020, he gives us the three popular misconceptions about the working from home experiment as reported by office furniture maker, Steelcase.
There is undoubtedly vested interests on both sides of the equation, one being from those that want us to remain at home to shrink their ever-increasing real estate costs associated with the corporate office. However, with employees representing the second biggest cost to an organisation, it is important to consider the true costs to your people of a sweeping work from home strategy.
It is not necessarily true that it costs less to have people working from home. Not only are the costs of homeworking being shifted to the worker as opposed to the organisation, but there are also hidden costs to consider before sending people home full time.
Whilst some senior management would advocate working from home has been a success, the data tells a different story. Those with larger homes and dedicated home offices are doing fine. However, those lower-income brackets who have to balance the laptop on their knees, or on the dining table whilst children run around the house because they are not at school… not so much.
A wide-ranging and sweeping strategy is not a good strategy. Everyone’s situation is different. A poor environment and/or equipment will never deliver the change organisations require.
The prevalence of video conferencing whilst working from home means that it is harder for workers to build relationships and the much valued corporate culture is likely to dissolve without the serendipity of the water-cooler discussion and corridor conversation.
Without group interaction, social capital cannot be built; this allows trust to develop, which is the currency of innovation. As social capital declines, morale decreases, staff churn increases, productivity falls and eventually new leaders will need to quietly abandon these programmes and promote a return to the workplace.
Knowledge worker productivity is an elusive target and consequently, most organisations struggle to measure its effectiveness. Knowledge workers are those who “think for a living,” making productivity challenging to measure. In addition, measuring knowledge worker productivity is situational, since outputs and how to calculate them vary widely across an organisation.
Do you know how your organisation defines and measures what it means to be productive? Have you been more productive whilst working from home? Most people would answer yes, but this is not as clear cut as you might imagine.
The reality is that transactional and task-driven work has seen an increase in output whilst working from home, as these are relatively easily accomplished with the help of technology. But true productivity of knowledge workers when it relates to creativity, innovation and transformation are notoriously difficult to measure in the short run and incredibly hard to accomplish virtually.
Working remotely means that most tasks are scheduled in between the intense bouts of video conferencing. This does not foster the serendipity that is required for truly creative endeavours. Work is inherently social. Leesman tells us that one of the surefire metrics for a high performing workplace is having a best friend at work and wanting to invite a family member or close friend to come and see their workplace.
As social animals, human beings require the messy business of physical interaction for the creative process to flourish, and this cannot happen in a series of short, online meetings. People who are together, building on each other’s ideas while working with the same information, can more easily ideate and solve problems.
Shorter meetings seem, on the surface, to increase productivity. The reality is exhaustingly different, where sprinting from one meeting to the next, without time to process or think about the outcome of the meeting, let alone take action on it, makes productive collaboration much harder.
Information sharing and considering options once generated can be achieved reasonably well online, but the truly collaborative work involved in generating ideas proves very elusive.
There is long-established scientific proof that physical proximity enhances team productivity. People can read each other’s body language, jump in when help is needed and get questions answered quickly. The rise of agile work in our workplaces over the last few years has reinforced these learnings.
Workplace experience and culture are shrinking along with our interpersonal, professional networks as we limit ourselves to interacting with thumbnail images of people on a computer screen.
Pre-Coronavirus the world of work was experimenting with the idea of working from home. With an increase of 44% in the last few years albeit off a small base, working from home was being touted as attractive because it suggests a better work-life balance.
But data produced during the lockdown suggest that it can actually make it more difficult to separate work from life and cause high levels of stress affecting the employees’ wellbeing.
As someone who has been working from home for several years, I can attest to the benefits of not getting up at ridiculous-o’clock and commuting to Sandton at 05:00 just to miss the traffic but getting stuck in it on the way home.
The commute across my driveway to my office space, comfy clothes and more time with family certainly has had its benefits. But data reveals that for many it also comes with its own set of trade-offs.
I’m sure many of you can attest to the danger that has shown us that those office workers that have had the chance to work from home have seen an increase in the average workday since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak and national lockdowns. Many have reported being at the desk from sunrise to sunset, with those in the USA reporting three additional hours per day, while most of Europe indicated that they have worked an extra two hours per working day.
The routine of important work-life boundaries such as leaving the house, the commute, leaving your desk to get a coffee or lunch, help imprint what have become important work-life boundaries. Without these place-based rituals or being with others, workers struggle to differentiate one day from the next, leading to what is known as ‘temporal disintegration’.
Harvard Business Review reports that the “social exchange theory means that employees respond to being given more responsibility by working at home, work harder and for longer”.
Consequently, employers frequently add workload, making requests that can’t be done within a certain time for it and that contributes to employee resentment and burnout.
“Zoom fatigue” is real. A life lived on screen day in and day out is exhausting. Neuroscience tells us that our brains have to work harder to make sense of the facial expressions and limited cues we get on the computer screen.
Besides, having a mono focus in one spot fails to allow our eyes or brains to take a break, like we can when we are physically present.
All that time on the ‘virtual stage’ pressures us to feel like we have to perform, which tires us out. Experts say boundaries and transition periods are important factors for reducing fatigue, but they require much more intentionality online.
The bad news is that this is likely to get worse. As more employees return to the office, meetings will increasingly experience ‘mixed presence’. This can create ‘presence disparity’, a disadvantage for virtual attendees during meetings with co-located teammates who may struggle to participate fully. The result is inefficiency that’s exhausting for virtual and co-located workers, alike.
Sitting in the same spot, staring at the same screen day in and day out makes people physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Physical movement that allows people to reenergise and rejuvenate, has been limited.
WKspace, a UK workplace strategy firm, reports 84% of people still need a suitable workspace at home. Movement, ergonomics and healthy nutrition are all dimensions of wellbeing that people are missing out on while away from the office. WebMD found half of the women and 25% of men reported gaining weight due to COVID stay-at-home restrictions. Contributing factors included: a lack of movement (no walking between meetings), no shifts in posture and constant access to food.
Also, damaging ergonomic environments are literally generating physical pain at home, something I can attest to, that has led me to recently buy an ergonomic chair for my home office.
So what should organisations do? Mason suggests that “organisations not be in a rush to adopt a radical and all-encompassing work from home strategy. They need to look at the data and understand what this means for their organisation and their people”.
Dangerous Misconceptions of Working from Home, By Andrew Mason on Jul 17, 2020
Accessed August 2020