In Australia we are now seeing the end of the lockdown phase, but what will happen in the workplace after lockdown? Lockdowns have led to dramatic changes in the way people work, if they can work at all. Lockdowns have meant that people have been either:
- Stood down completely
- Retained on the Job Keeper payments, but without real work
- Working from home completely
- Doing limited work from home
Whether working from home has been successful depends largely on the type of work you do and the nature of the team in which you work. Now that lockdown is ending and the government is keen for people to start getting back to work, it is occurring to some companies that having staff work from home more might be a good idea. Let’s look at some of the things we might see.
Staggered Start Times
The idea behind staggered worktimes is to reduce the number of people required to be out of their home at any one time. This may include staggering the start time so that the company’s workday is effectively a lot longer. Some people will start and finish their day earlier and other’s start and finish their day later.
Four Day Week
The four day week has been suggested by the NZ Prime Minister. Here, the ability for people to stagger their work times is expanded allowing for the workplace density to be even less. The idea of four day weeks are not new, especially in New Zealand where a strong, long standing advocate of the idea has also recommended it.
The main aim will be to reduce the density of the workforce at any given time by having the same sized workforce spread over a longer period of time.
There may be some broader advantages to this. The client’s of the company may have access to the company’s longer working hours depending on how it is structured. Andrew Barnes introduced 4 day weeks into his company and found that efficiency and employee satisfaction increased although there are detractors.
Other problems might develop from not having the team together at the same time reducing collaboration and the free flow of processes and ideas. Another may be that increasing the number of hours that a business is open will increase some of the on-costs.
In spite of these potential issues, there is an obvious advantage in reducing the density of people in the workplace and the transportation systems people use. The only real weapon against COVID at the moment is maintaining a level of separation between people so reducing the density can help, provided the density is sufficiently reduced.
Team structure is important for the creation of effective and efficient teams and an industry has grown around the aim of building team cohesion. Companies recognise this and spend heavily to develop team cohesion and gain from the improved productivity. How will team development and personal growth be affected by working from home, either totally or partially?
Working from Home Full Time
People often believe that working from home will be a great experience and bring freedom, negate the need for the daily commute, improve proximity to family and so on. But the reality can be different – People who work from home experience trouble with isolation including depression, poor sleep, increased anxiety, and interrupted family time. We often forget that turning up to work provides social contact and structure. For some people, it is the primary means of connecting with other people.
People have become rapidly accustomed to using online video meetings such as Zoom, Skype and MS Teams. While it has been great to maintain some connection during this time, when people were allowed out, it was obvious that there has been a desire for people to see people ‘in-person’. This is because so much communication occurs in ways that are more subtle that can be easily captured in this format. Notably, eye contact, hand gestures and facial expressions are all more restrained than usual. This could have a negative impact on general communication, team cohesion and the development of friendships within teams.
One issue often discussed is the intrusion of family dynamics on the work time when you are working from home. However, perhaps the reverse problem that is more serious. When work is literally brought home, the invasion of the family space is very real.
Working from Home Part Time
There have been increasing comments in the media recently suggesting that as companies go back to work, people will be demanding greater flexibility to work from home some of the time. This sounds like a great idea and could provide the best of both worlds.
However, I wonder if having the team separated for some of the time will impact on developing a critical mass of interactions that allows ideas to develop flourish. Many companies will trial this idea, especially those who were already having some work from home days before COVID and it will be interesting to see if it improves or detracts from the efficiency of the team and the individuals within the team.
Social Distancing at Work
Workplaces where not designed with social distancing in mind. Even catching a lift in a busy building can become difficult with the maximum number of people in some lifts reduced to just 2 in some cases, there might be a lot of waiting involved.
Offices, especially open plan offices where people sit reasonably close together will no longer be able to accommodate the same number of people. Does this mean that offices need to be bigger? Will this be dealt with by reducing the density of workers using staggered hours, staggered days and partial or total work from home strategies? No doubt the solution used by each workplace will depend on the requirements of that particular location and the people who work there.
Are Further Shutdowns Coming?
We know that fresh breakouts of COVID are likely to occur, our government have said so. Yesterday, China locked down another 25 million people after new cases of COVID have started to appear. If fresh cases appear in Australia, it is certainly possible that businesses may be forced to close again though I expect the government will be hoping to deal with outbreaks locally. This could be in the same way as schools are managing, i.e. to close for a day while ‘deep cleaning’ is undertaken.
If and when these events occur, business will be doing whatever they can to be flexible, and this may mean returning workers to their work from home strategies for a period.
COVID has already had a huge impact on the workplace. So far this has been because of the closure of businesses or the shifting of business activities to home. However, as we move to the next phase, business will experiment and see if some of the things they have learned will be useful to them in the future. It is possible that the silver lining of COVID will be a more flexible workplace but this will need to be balanced against some of the hindrances they might cause until there is a new stable position in years to come.
 Semmer, N. K., Meier, L. L., & Beehr, T. A. (2016). Social aspects of work: Direct and indirect social messages conveying respect or disrespect. In A. M. Rossi, J. A. Meurs, & P. L. Perrewé (Eds.), Stress and quality of working life. Stress and quality of working life: Interpersonal and occupation‐based stress (p. 13–31). IAP Information Age Publishing.