Are we working from home or living at work?

Yashna Wahal

Lessons learned from the world’s biggest flexible working experiment.

“Hi [boss] — sorry to be a pain but I just wanted to let you know that my freezer has broken down so I need to work from home today to get it fixed. Hope that’s okay. Thanks, [burned out employee].”
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We’ve all been there or know someone who has. In a pre-pandemic world, most of us have been victim to days where we just dread the thought of going into the office. We can’t help but come up with excuses to get ourselves a moment of peace. This doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want to work (which is more so the case with “pulling a sickie”). It just means, we want to have the freedom to work from home, or anywhere other than the office really. It could be a result of workplace burnout, needing a break from our commute or just needing a change in environment to give us a temporary release from the rut we’re stuck in.

That is why when COVID-19 suddenly and unexpectedly struck our lives, many of us across the world were secretly relieved to hear of the government imposed “work from home” (WFH) guidelines. Although several companies have previously recognised the importance of — and even played around with elements of flexibility, the 2020 global lockdown has been the biggest flexible-working experiment in our time, and the results have been fascinating.

The upside

For jobs that don’t require physical presence, productivity in the time of Corona has seen little to no real change. Employees have continued to remain productive from home, with some even working longer hours than they typically would — for example due to lack of commuting or workplace distractions.

People have also had a chance to spend time with their loved ones and have not had to “choose” between caring for their families/dependants and working. Further, working from home has given them the flexibility to incorporate other activities into their day — because now they can exercise, cook, clean, or even just indulge in their personal hobbies in their own time. Broadly speaking, the experiment has worked for many companies. We are now seeing several large organisations/IT giants considering a permanent WFH structure. By doing so, they’re not only revolutionising how we work, but also cutting back on massive real estate costs for their offices.

As sweet as this sounds to many people, is mandating a work from home culture really the right way forward? Let’s look at some of the downsides of a permanent WFH scenario.

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The downside

1. Collaboration

Although productivity in terms of hours worked hasn’t suffered in lockdown, collaboration has. Yes, we can still discuss topics and make decisions via video conferencing, but it’s just not as quick and efficient as doing it in person. People often need to wait hours before they get hold of someone on the phone compared to just walking up to their desk at work.

Additionally, sometimes complex issues really do require people to sit together with a pen and paper and map things out. It’s not that this can’t be done online, but it certainly can’t be done as quickly or seamlessly, compared to an in-person scenario. Working together in person also encourages a sort of bonding experience that is difficult to find with online interaction. Bonding with our colleagues brings about a sense of positivity and ease when we work together and facilitates effective collaboration.

2. Engagement

In a world with no offices and hence no physical contact, how much will employees really be able to engage with each other and with their company culture? The whole point of workplace engagement is to give employees a sense of belonging, shared values, and that extra boost of motivation to achieve organisational goals. With everyone working from the silos of their own homes, their relationship with the company is bound to start getting “strictly professional”.

For example, a team celebrating success over a video call just doesn’t give the same sense of shared achievement as congratulatory pizzas and high-fives at work. Similarly, if employees are at home, focused on the work that needs to be done, where is the ease and inclination for them to get involved in other company initiatives such as philanthropy, socials, mentoring and so on? Again, all of this can be achieved from home — but more likely only for those who would go out of their way.

3. Boundaries & Burnout

We’re all familiar with the sigh of relief we feel when we finally get home from a long day at the office and plonk ourselves on the couch. What a grand feeling! We’ve worked hard, we’re home now and it’s time to unwind and relax. This distinction between work and home had been undervalued until lockdown hit us. For so many people now, especially the large number who have small homes, their entire home can start feeling like an office. The boundaries between work life and home life are suddenly blurred. At the end of a strenuous day, having our work station and laptops still in sight can often be unnerving and prevent us from being able to switch off entirely. Needless to say, this is not great for our mental health and overall well-being.

The concept of boundaries also goes beyond the physical space around us. There’s something to be said about the boundaries we set on our own time. A lot of people have felt burdened with expectations to be available at any hour of the day or night simply because their boss or colleagues know that they’re at home. It’s been difficult for some to say no — and the overall workload has taken its toll on them.

We’ve also seen that workplace burnout is a real thing. Every now and then, people need a change from the rut they’re stuck in. Changing the mandated environment from office to home doesn’t really solve this issue. If we were burned out at office, we can well be burned out from sitting at home all day. When we want to escape our space, where do we even go?

The solution

The very essence of flexible working is that its’ — well — flexible. Imposing any kind of compulsory or mandated structure defeats the purpose. We all have our ways of working and differences in where we prefer to work from. For employees to feel truly at ease, it is important to allow them to choose what works best for them — home, office or even somewhere else.

The key metric that determines how well someone is performing should be based on just that — how well they’re performing! It needs to relate to their outputs i.e. productivity, quality of work and other criteria that their job entails. It should not have to do with the inputs like what location they work out of.

Planning for this kind of hybrid scenario is of course challenging to accomplish, especially for large scale employers. But it is not impossible. It doesn’t have to be chaotic. There are systematic ways of implementing flexible working even in large organisations. Employees should have the freedom to make these choices but employers should have the right to ask for it to be planned where possible.

The 2020 pandemic has shown us that as a concept, flexible working has been successful. That’s half the hiccup and hesitance gone. Downsizing and modernising office space, rather than total decommissioning is what employers now need to start preparing for. It will come with an initial set of challenges but will undoubtedly lead to increased happiness, morale and engagement at work.

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