A recurring topic of conversation amongst clients, colleagues, friends and neighbours has been: Are you working back at your workplace yet? Are you still working from home? Are you allowed back in the office yet?
It’s genuinely been interesting to hear the approach that different companies, of various sizes and different industries, are taking in terms of managing their workforce remotely and returning them to the workplace.
The forced work-from-home situation has given many organisations (and individuals) the opportunity to re-think the traditional model of being present at work from 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, and questions abound:
- Do we even need offices?
- Are our people happier working from home?
- How has working from home affected our productivity?
Now that many organisations have undertaken the work-from-home ‘experiment’ for around 3 to 4 months, real data, analysis and hypotheses are starting to emerge. We take a look at some of these and why the prevailing thinking is that most organisations probably shouldn’t entirely ditch the office space just yet.
I should note that the reference to ‘work’ in this post primarily refers to office workers and not those in hospitality, retail, healthcare or education who need to be present to perform their roles.
1. Mental Health and Wellbeing
It’s probably unsurprising that emerging research shows a decline in employee mental health. This study undertaken by a partnership between Qualtrics, SAP, and Mind Share of over 2,000 employees in Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, UK and the US conducted at the end of March and early April 2020, showed that 44.4% of newly remote workers say their mental health has declined.
The stress related to the pandemic itself is a significant factor, but is also theorised to be a factor is the diminishing relationships, sense of belonging and community that working in isolation can bring. Humans are, by nature, social beings which is why we need community and to connect with other people. At a fundamental level, it’s in our relationships with others that we understand ourselves and as this Forbes article Why The Office Simply Cannot Go Away: The Compelling Case For The Workplace suggests “being present together in an office feeds this need for togetherness.”
On the flipside: real consideration also needs to be given to the benefits that working from home can bring: less time spent commuting and achieving an overall better work-life balance.
We also know, anecdotally, that employees and teams have found new ways to connect while working from home. A study undertaken by Microsoft (published by the Harvard Business Review) on their newly remote workforce backs this up. It showed that their people scheduled more time to connect with colleagues and engaged in more virtual social meetings, sometimes with fun themes (e.g. ‘pyjama day’ and ‘meet my pet day’), as a way to connect with each other and foster a sense of belonging.
According to Covid-19 research undertaken by the Society for Human Resource Management, “How the Pandemic is Challenging and Changing Employers”, 35% of organisations were ‘grappling with changes in employee productivity’.
While each organisation and industry will likely differ in the specifics of how their productivity has been affected, it’s also worthwhile to consider how productivity while working-from-home may impact specific cohorts of your workforce. Here are just a few considerations:
- Junior employees – are likely to get less opportunity to learn from those with more experience when working from home.
- Female employees – Anecdotally, we know females are still more likely than men to take responsibility for household and childcare duties. Therefore it’s wise to consider if females are able to be more productive in the workplace where they aren’t required to face these competing demands. The results of this analysis, published in April 20, by the American Journal of Political Science “It Takes a Submission: Gendered Patterns in the Pages of AJPS” suggests that paper submissions from solo authored females were down to 17% from an expected 22%, suggesting that “they [females] seem to have less time to submit their own work than men do amid the crisis“.
- New employees – hiring and integrating new employees while working remotely poses new challenges. Induction and orientation processes will need to be tailored to ensure your new hire can feel a sense of belonging and that your team’s values and culture can be conveyed effectively.
3. Innovation / Exchanging Ideas
Working from home means that we lose the opportunity for spontaneous exchanges. While there is technology that will aid in keeping the conversational tone going while working remotely, for example Slack and scheduling video conferences for social interactions, questions arise: can this technology replicate the free exchange of ideas that come when individuals are face to face? Do these platforms enable for the same level of banter exchange and the same ability to brainstorm, share thoughts and express ideas as say two colleagues who bumped into each other in the office kitchen? For anyone that’s experienced network drop offs, delayed video/audio feeds and/or the inability to clearly read someone’s non-verbal cues during a video conference, you’ll probably agree that the technology does have some limitations.
It’s fair to say that we are still in the early stages of this sudden change in the way we work, and it will take years to work out the lessons: what worked well, what were some of the pitfalls and what learnings can organisations take forward in how they manage the workforces of the future.
I think the aforementioned Forbes article, “Why The Office Simply Cannot Go Away: The Compelling Case For The Workplace sums it up best: “it is likely companies will continue to encourage some level of work from home, but the best strategies combine working in an office and working from home. It is not an all-or-nothing”.
I’m personally fascinated to see how this unprecedented experiment in changing the way we work continues to unfold and what the continued findings suggest.
Stay safe and healthy.
Nick Hedges is the founder of Resolve HR, a Sydney-based HR consultancy specialising in providing workplace advice to managers and business owners. He recently published his first book, “Is Your Team Failing Or Kicking Goals – Take Control Of Your People And Their Performance”. It is a practical response to your most pressing HR challenges, which can be found at https://resolvehr.com.au/
Disclaimer: The contents contained do not constitute legal advice, and is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.