The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging experience for companies and people alike however, even though the effect is diminishing for the time being and some workplaces seem to be returning to normal, it is likely that the workplace will not be the same as it was before.

Many aspects of life have changed and some of these changes may become permanent. This applies to both the work environment and our social lives and while it may present challenges there may also be opportunities and benefits to both companies and individuals.

The largest change has related to the shift from working in the corporate office to working from home.  With the gradual return to work, many changes, particularly short-term changes, will be necessary. These include social distancing and increased levels of cleaning and sanitisation, although these are likely to diminish over time, especially if a vaccine becomes widely available. However, some changes will be more permanent; one of those changes is likely to relate to how much time people spend working at the office compared to working from home.

Of course, there are many types of work where work from home is not suitable, but where it was possible it proved to be popular and more efficient than people had previously given it credit.  Many, but not all employees have expressed satisfaction with removing or reducing the need for a daily commute which leads to being more accessible to their family and increased leisure time.  At the same time, employers have often been surprised at the success of the move to working from home. Many have noticed improvements in productivity rather than the reduced productivity they may have expected.

 

A. Reduced travel

One of the obvious benefits to employees of a work from home environment is that there are financial benefits in not having to travel to work. This includes the cost of running motor vehicles for some and using public transport for others, both of these costs can be significant to the employee and being freed from or at least significantly reducing these costs is appealing.

Another benefit is regaining time. Somebody who travels an hour to work and another our home each day will save a considerable time each week, time that builds up over the course of the year and is available to be redirected to family and other leisure time.

Unlike the benefits of time and money, working from the comfort of home is more difficult to quantify but is very real.  For some people this will be very desirable and something that they highly value.

 

B.  Real Estate and Other Costs

During the COVID shutdowns people were working but offices were closed.   This meant that companies were paying for office space which was not being used. In a world where employees spend more time working from home requiring less office space to be provided, companies would benefit from needing to maintain smaller, leaner, less expensive workplaces. This provides an obvious benefit to the corporate bottom line.

Without a need for many separate offices or large spaces with multiple desks existing office space could be repurposed to provide larger collaborative work rooms and meeting rooms.  These spaces may help to provide areas where staff can interact when they attend the office to make up for any shortfalls in reduced collaboration caused by working separately.

 

C.  Risks and Challenges

While there are many and fairly obvious benefits to the notion of working from home it’s not all plain sailing and there will be challenges that need to be overcome, some related to the employee, some related technology and some lega

Often, when you hear about people talking about the benefits of working from home, the discussion comes from an idealised perception of what home life is like and there no consideration given to whether someone’s home that is suitable to work from.

Consider someone who lives in a share house with multiple other people.  This environment may be totally unsuitable for various reasons including a lack of confidentiality or having access to usable, private space space from which to work,

While it is lovely being near the family, being there all the time can cause other stresses.  Working requires focus and attention and so does family; by doing both in the same place at the same time, competition for attention arises and can provide a deterioration of quality for both the family and the work.

Another problem may relate to technical capacity. One of the most commonly reported problems during the pandemic has been frustrations related to internet connectivity. As an example, problems might arise from shortcomings of the corporate servers which were not designed to having multiple external devices connecting to it, or they may arise from shortcomings of the employee’s ISP which they would have little or no control over and various other potential problems.

A more serious issue potentially arises because physically going to work provides a social connection for many people. Losing this social connection can cause hardship with consequences including anxiety and depression needing medical treatment. People often don’t initially recognise the importance that connection to workmates has in their life but once it is taken away, especially for any length of time, problems arise. It is likely, that a work environment that is totally focused on working from home will see an increase of people with depression and anxiety caused by isolation.

 

D.  Reduced Supervision and Collaboration

In an existing workforce where the participants already know what it is that they are doing and how their work fits in to the bigger picture of the business shifting to a pattern of home-based work is not a large step.  However, somebody who is just joining the company whether they are a younger person with little work experience or even a more experienced worker who does not yet know how the company operates is likely to take much longer to train and to fit into the company’s needs if they are working from home.

Another difficulty that may be experienced relates to a reduction of creative collaboration. Collaborative environments are often important for the development of creative solutions, especially those solutions that rely on people sharing ideas. While online conferencing is beginning to come into its own, very few people would disagree that it doesn’t genuinely replace face-to-face interaction. This is because the full range of emotional connections and empathy is not easily portrayed or detected on a video screen. As a result, people often comment that video conferences seem “wooden or unnatural”.

When people work in a team one of the benefits is the ability to assist and lift the performance of your team members. Without the benefit of this team it would not be surprising if individual team members start to feel lost or directionless. If this is not dealt with reasonably quickly then there will be a reduction in productivity and satisfaction for the employee. These are exactly the problems that proponents of working from home believe they are fixing.

 

E.  Cohesion and Fairness

Working separately is the opposite of cohesion and collaboration. Developing a cohesive and collaborative work environment has been something that companies have been striving for over the last decade. This has been something that some companies have spent considerable sums of money to engender closer ties among the workforce in an effort to improve productivity.  No doubt there has been considerable research into the benefits of improving occupational relationships although there will not have been much research that examines the ability for people to develop relationships in this new environment. So it is still too early to tell if working from home will allow the development of cohesive relationships.

It is possible that in the push for people to work at home because it is perceived as being more desirable for all the reasons we have discussed that we will risk alienating those who cannot work easily from home and unintentionally develop a system that reduces rather than improves fairness.

 

Working from home - A Decentralised work culture

 

Conclusions

A search of the internet and social media platforms such as LinkedIn reveals an increasing number of articles suggesting that many employees are beginning to settle into working from home and would like to continue this way of working.  Some employers have embraced the situation while others have been reluctant and may seek to resist a move towards working from home in the long-term.

While there has been a clear imperative to work from home under the current circumstances and as much as there is obvious appeal to the idea, if it were to become mainstream moving into the future, there will be challenges to face.  Importantly long-term decisions should be based on evidence of the various factors involved and it is likely that the appropriateness of working from home will vary on a situation by situation basis. There will be some businesses and some individuals where it would not lead to improvements and these situations will need to be considered carefully.

 

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