Over a year on from the global shift in work and lifestyle caused by the pandemic, we are all still working from home. Those first few weeks, no one expected it to last this long, with many a story of people worrying for their withering office plants and lunchboxes left in their desk. Ick.
But more importantly, at the start of all this, there was an optimism and even a giddiness to how we approached this new working from home lifestyle. We would have more time with our families, we could make elaborate lunches in our home kitchens, some of us could even make our own hours. There was a freedom to it and a novelty that almost felt like a holiday at first, rolling from our beds to the laptop, pausing only to put a shirt on over our pyjamas.
It’s strange to look back on the articles written about remote working those first couple of months. They’re like rave reviews, extolling the virtues and benefits of the ‘home office’. It’s a little like knowing a car crash is about to happen and being powerless to stop it, seeing this overflowing enthusiasm that slowly dwindles from March to April to May.
Now, we are seeing the other side of remote working. The slowly lagging productivity, the lack of interaction, the inability to separate home and work life. The novelty has worn off and all that’s left in its place is lockdown fatigue.
However, ‘The Future of Work’ report conducted by Microsoft has found that Irish businesses expect at least 45% of their employees to remain remote workers even after the restrictions has eased.
The Irish Times reported on the benefits that Ireland’s business leaders were seeing in remote working:
‘Some 73 per cent of business leaders saw equal or more productivity from remote workers rather than a decline, a common fear cited in opposition to remote working in the past, while 68 per cent of Irish leaders said they believed remote working would be an important factor in retaining talented employees. That was higher than the European average of 56 per cent. Another benefit for businesses was in helping them to meet their sustainability goals.’
But does what suits the business leaders necessarily suit their employees?
Working from home in a pandemic is not the same as working from home by choice. The added element of the pandemic changes everything about our relationship with our work and home lives and one can no longer balance out the other. Therefore, change is needed in how we work from home if this structure of employment is to continue.
A study from Kennesaw State University, “I’m not Working from Home, I’m Living at Work”: Perceived Stress and Work-Related Burnout before and during COVID-19’, found that remote working presented a ‘unique (and potentially more potent) set of associated stress and burnout factors.’ The researchers urged companies to consider the potential personal and mental health, time, and communication management issues before rushing into a more permanent remote working movement.
Leslie Willcocks, Professor of Work, Technology and Globalisation in the Department of Management at LSE praised the internet’s emergence as a tool to aid the remote, flexible work environment and advised businesses to invest in their remote systems for the benefits it can offer. In an article written back in April, he is quoted saying ‘the internet and remote working certainly now have the capability to support us in the new crises that we are going to face in the 21st century. If by the end of the year it proves otherwise, then we really do have work to do.’
And his predictions have proven true for many employees. The way in which remote work is being delegated has not changed to suit the way in which we now work.
‘Remote work for agile teams requires a considerable shift in work culture. Without the seamless access to colleagues afforded by frequent, in-person team events, meals, and coffee chats, it can be harder to sustain the kind of camaraderie, community, and trust that comes more easily to co-located teams. It also takes more purposeful effort to create a unified one-team experience, encourage bonding among existing team members, or onboard new ones, or even to track and develop the very spontaneous ideas and innovation that makes agile so powerful to begin with. And these challenges are complicated by the unique circumstances of the current health crisis. Teams working from their living rooms or their dining-room tables are often sharing that space with children or other family members also working remotely.’ – McKinsey and Co. ‘Organization Practice Revisiting agile teams after an abrupt shift to remote’
Parker’s theory of ‘Work Design’ refers to the content and organisation of work tasks, activities, relationships and responsibilities associated with the job. Your work is designed to generate certain work characteristics, such as well‐being, job satisfaction, performance, and other such positive outcomes. So certain work characteristics, like for example, a flexible work environment will generate certain employee outcomes, whether that’s a better performance, mental wellbeing or higher job satisfaction.
The way remote working has been designed – for most employees – has not factored in that the pandemic has changed the environments that we are working in. Wang, Qian and Parker’s paper, Achieving Effective Remote Working During the COVID‐19 Pandemic: A Work Design Perspective identifies four challenges that differentiate pandemic working from home, from normal remote working; procrastination, ineffective communication, work‐home interference, and loneliness. These are factors that impact employee’s work effectiveness and wellbeing.
Interference and interruptions from family was a major problem, with one of the study’s participants, a project manager, stating that her experience was that she was constantly online; “I’m basically always online…my supervisors and colleagues may come to me whenever they need something from me, and you have to give immediate response.” The study stated her need to be always online affected this project manager's ability to meet her family obligations. Another major problem encountered was procrastination;
‘Procrastination, defined as the irrational delay of behaviour is one of the biggest productivity killers at work. Procrastination is common in the office‐based workplace and it can become even worse when people work from home. Although most participants were committed to working productively as usual, they sometimes were struggling with self‐regulation failure… Given the restrictions on non‐essential social gatherings during the pandemic, people also lost social opportunities to meet their friends or colleagues, which inevitably contributed to the feeling of loneliness…Participant #4 suggested that though individuals can connect with colleagues via ICTs, conversations with colleagues were more task‐focused, which could not meet her psychological needs for belongingness or relatedness.’
The Harvard Business Review warns against companies going all in with the trend of remote working before really analysing their workforce and the kind of work design needed for best results.
‘At all times, it’s important to remember that your aspirational “what’s best” should be about more than your bottom line,’ they warn. ‘Even if remote work turns out to be less productive on some metrics than others, reducing carbon based emissions or the improving work-life balance could make up for it. Or not. It’s possible that what works for Twitter and Facebook won’t work for you, at least initially. Your struggles with it may point the way towards deeper changes that you have to make.’
Some of those changes involve rethinking the working from home model and some of the ‘virtual work’ characteristics that we take for granted. Wang, Qian and Parker’s paper suggests that social support and job autonomy are two major factors to be considered when reworking the model. Social support was found to be an essential and powerful tool for the virtual worker and the availability of it directly impacted performance and wellbeing.
Another factor that affected performance was monitoring systems. While many believe these could combat the procrastination and work effectiveness problem, the opposite was actually true;
‘Managers might incur a lot of cost in setting up monitoring systems, but the desirable effect of monitoring on work effectiveness was not supported by our data. Managers should instead engage more supportive management practices especially in this extraordinary context, such as communicating with subordinates using motivating language, building trust within the distributed team, and sharing information rather than close monitoring.’
They warn that scholars and practitioners may overstate the ‘bright side; of remote working if data from pre-pandemic remote working is used. It’s important to look at modern and relevant data from the pandemic era and to also recognise that not all employees are the same and therefore remote working may suit some and not others in the future.
Would you consider permanently working from home, or are you dying to get back to the office? What are the changes that would need to happen for you to be comfortable with a more long-term remote working status?