16th September 2021
It’s been suggested that one of the more positive outcomes of the pandemic has been the fact that many people have been able to work from home. Factors such as a better work/life balance and enhanced wellbeing have been highlighted as just some of the advantages. But it’s had us thinking whether our (understandable) need to find the upside from an awful situation has actually tipped the balance too far in favour of home-working. Is it even starting to sound like going to the workplace is the second-rate option?
We need to be a bit cautious here because we could be in danger of overlooking all the pitfalls that exist when a workforce - or a substantial proportion of it at least - is home-based. It’ll be some time before the longer-term effects of permanent home-working become clear. We don’t as yet fully understand how it could change companies and their employees and what they could end up missing out on as a result. What are the risks if this way of working becomes more normalised?
There’s a massive body of research out there about the fact that human beings crave social interactions and need to feel connected to each other. The interactions we have play an important role in the way we feel and the quality of work we do. It would be interesting to hear how many people genuinely believe the quality of person-to-person interactions they’ve had whilst working remotely were of the same quality as the ones they’ve had face-to-face. Online interactions reduce the range of visual cues we usually rely on so can we honestly say working remotely hasn’t affected the nature of our relationships at all? Technology has been amazing, enabling businesses to keep going throughout the pandemic in a way that would have been unthinkable just a decade or two ago. Collaborative software is great for instance, but just how well does it replicate the experience of sitting in a room exploring ideas with others? How effectively can teams work if they are never physically together?
Before we all start cancelling our office leases, we need to have confidence that a home-based workforce will deliver the benefits we’re hoping for. It’ll inevitably affect different people in different ways. There’s a school of thought for example that people who tend to be more introverted might find home-working suits them better. But it might not be that clear cut. In fact, there have been counterarguments suggesting that introverts actually find online meetings more exhausting than their extroverted colleagues.
And with figures indicating just how important the workplace is for making friends, and therefore feeling more engaged and psychologically safe and able to perform better, it’s clear how important social support networks can be. This article cites research that includes the finding that 70% of employees say the most crucial contributor for a happy working life is having friends at work. But how strongly will those bonds form when people aren’t physically spending time together?
Problems could potentially arise if only part of your workforce is home-based too. Picture a scenario in a manufacturing company for instance, where working from home is allowed for office staff. But the manufacturing employees don’t have that option. From their viewpoint, they might feel office staff are being treated more favourably (especially if there are also perceptions of them having other advantages too, such as being better paid). It could start to create feelings of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Companies want to create cohesion and trust throughout their workforce, and this might end up having the opposite effect.
There’s also the question of how home-working will affect new starters. While established relationships are likely to fare better, it’s harder to build up those deeper relationships from scratch when you’ve not actually met face to face. How effectively will a new starter settle into the company if they don’t have a ‘sense of place?’ That could have implications for the culture in the long term too. Let’s not forget about the benefits of going into an office with colleagues we like and having impromptu social moments that are fun. Those are the kinds of things that build relationships, loyalty and engagement levels. If they aren’t happening it could create retention problems.
Don’t forget about people who aren’t just new to the company but new to the world of work as well. There’s a strong argument that the most effective learning happens experientially, in the physical world. Observing and interacting with others are key parts of the learning process. It’s debatable quite how achievable it is to replicate this in a home-working scenario.
It will be interesting to see to what extent employers find a largely home-based arrangement works to their advantage once we’re out of ‘emergency’ mode due to the pandemic. A home-based environment is going to be hard pushed to offer the same level of professionalism as an office. How productive will employees be if their only working environment isn’t conducive to a professional and engaged mindset? Will companies really feel that longer term they are happy to have the background noise from kids and dogs going on while their employees talk to customers on the phone or video calls? While there’s been a real degree of tolerance during the pandemic, there could come a time when companies prefer to have a greater level of control over the environments from which their employees are representing them.
There are all kinds of other practical implications to get a grip of too. How sustainable is it for managers to manage their team remotely on an ongoing basis? Can we honestly say that if there’s an issue that needs sorting out, it’s every bit as effective to try to get hold of someone on the phone as it is to go and speak to a colleague who is a few desks away? Health and safety must be thought through too. In a few years’ time, will companies be facing a host of musculoskeletal claims from employees who’ve been sitting on dining room chairs to work? Might home-working reduce opportunities to spot the signs of an employee who is overworking and at risk of burnout? Rather than helping wellbeing, home-working could actually end up having the opposite effect.
Innovation and progress occur when people are willing to think differently and try out new approaches. But they also require the ability to identify if something isn’t working or delivering the hoped-for benefits. It might turn out that the best option is the middle ground: a blended approach that meets the broad spectrum of employer and employee needs while giving companies time to properly assess and understand the impact a regular home-based way of working has over a longer time period.
Is having all of your people based in the workplace still the most effective way to get things done? Or has the world moved on? Over time, might we come to realise that home-working has the potential to solve many more problems than it creates, resulting in more engaged and productive employees?