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Over the last few months, we have all been inundated with Coronavirus related advice from all over the planet. I for one have had COVID information overload and have been surveyed up the wazoo. We have all read about the angst of the return to work and why we should be working from home. Most of us in the industry (including me) have consumed huge amounts of white papers, case studies, webinars all in the hope of being able to polish what has stubbornly remained an opaque crystal ball.

In this post I do not want to regurgitate advice around risks associated with COVID and the Workplace I think we are all over that. What I want to do is explore in a little more detail the pros and cons around claim’s that seem to be emerging of improved productivity, increased collaborations and better work-life balance that are being touted as the results of the global working from home (WFH) experiment that we have all been engaged with over the last three months.

Only Fools Rush In

I am hearing some fairly extreme examples of WFH strategies from organisations that seem hellbent on a ‘gold rush’ to reap the promise of the rewards on offer both financially as well as for their productivity and engagement. 

WFH is not fool’s gold but it is also not a panacea for improving the bottom line, increasing collaboration and productivity that some are touting. As the saying goes “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Meaning that inexperience may lead to some organisations into unforeseen trouble where a wiser head will look at that data and have a strategy that looks at an appropriate adoption of WFH balanced with a return to the workplace that benefits the organisation as well as the employee.

As I have been at pains to point out over many of my previous blog posts that the Workplace is more than just the corporate office. It can be a train station, school, retail shop, hospital or theatre, all of these are Workplaces for someone. So I recognise those workers who have to physically be present at their place of work to be productive but our comments for this scenario here are confined to the corporate office environment.

Surveys Galore

Cushman WakefieldLeesmanIFMA are just some of the organisations that have produced extensive surveys relating to WFH. Which many are acclaiming as the new work frontier.

A plethora of data has been produced and is currently being processed around be working from this unprecedented social/commercial experiment.

The headlines from these surveys seem to suggest that team collaboration has been better than ever, personal productivity has been strong and the levels of trust felt by those that were assigned to working from home by their organisations, has improved. 

Most of the data appear to align to a common thread which is that working from home is useful. This has led some to the knee-jerk reactions of lauding the death of the office desk and chair. As so many times in the past, this is premature and without basis. Whilst office footprint reductions are likely, offices will remain; albeit reconfigured, re-purposed and in some instances relocated.

Working from home has not been such a boon for lower-income groups, millennials and generation Z. So, on the negative side, people have recorded feelings that they have lost out on personal connections. Loneliness, isolation, mental health issues and a general loss of collegiality and culture were experienced by many.

Hub and Club

Whilst the jury is still out on much of this data, organisations will have to embrace more remote working demanded by those for whom it works but it would be a mistake of epic proportions to assume that this can be a solution for everyone. 

As revenues return and balance sheets begin to look healthier, organisations should cast significant focus over their location strategy. To drive a meaningful ROI, real-estate footprints should look to adopt what has been referred to as the ‘Hub and Club’ model.

Out of town hubs will cater to smaller, agile teams that foster close relationships and drive quicker decision making. Moreover, they will allow employees to avoid busy commutes and instead work locally.

With the economic downturn that will affect retail outlets, it’s likely that these out-of-town locations may well pop up within the vacated units in existing shopping malls who will need to re-purpose these for walk-in type collaborative and agile office setups.

There is no doubt that there will not be a wholesale return to the workplace as we know it. The WFH Genie is definitely out of the bottle but this is not necessarily the answer to all of our wishes.

Much will depend on how the coronavirus outbreak advances and whether a vaccine can be developed. Whilst a new approach to the workplace is required and one that is compelling and safe for employees to return, an overly aggressive cost reduction approach aligned with working from home for everybody will be ill-advised.

The Honeymoon is Over

What has been seen as very appealing and a solution to the rising costs of office space, the disruption of commuting, the impact on the environment and the desire of the younger generation to all work from home, has revealed itself as a very nuanced conundrum.

The data is already telling us that our working from home honeymoon is over with people reaching a point of saturation when it comes to the new pressures of working from the domestic setting. Research is already showing that motivation and morale together with the links productivity levels are levelling off after just three months of the experiment.

After weeks of living on the video conferencing the novelty has worn off and according to some studies as much as 90% of us want to go back to the office again or at least have the opportunity to.

The C suite is starting to think about how work will change as a result of what we have experienced and learned. But we will need to tread carefully, we are still in the very early stages of what has been an extreme work from home experiment. Clinical trials are still clearly on the way and it would be foolhardy to yet again protect the end of office space as we know it.

Office furniture maker Steelcase has reported the following 3 popular misconceptions about the WFH experiment that seems to have gained popular attention and that could be hazardous not only to the health of the employees but to the business as well.

Misconception#1 “It costs less to have people work from home.”

There is undoubtedly vested interest’s on both sides of the equation those that want us to remain at home to shrink their ever-increasing real estate costs associated with the corporate office. But with employees representing the second biggest cost to an organisation, it is important to consider the true costs to your people of a sweeping WFH strategy.

It is not necessarily true that it costs less to have people working from home. Not only are the costs of homeworking being shifted to the worker as opposed to the organisation but there are also hidden costs to consider before sending people home full time.

Working from home is not suitable for everyone.

Whilst some senior management would advocate working from home has been a success the data tells a different story. Those with larger homes and dedicated home offices are doing fine however those lower income brackets who have to balance the laptop on their knees or on the dining table whilst children run around the house because they are not at school… not so much.

A wide-ranging and sweeping strategy is not a good strategy. Everyone’s situation is different. A poor environment or equipment will never deliver the change organisations require.

Too much remote work damages culture and slows innovation.

The prevalence of video conferencing whilst working from home means that it is harder for workers to build relationships and the match vaunted corporate culture is likely to dissolve, without the serendipity involved in the water-cooler discussion, and corridor conversation.

Without group interaction, social capital cannot be built that allows trust to develop which is the currency of innovation. As social capital declines, morale decreases, staff churn increases, productivity falls and eventually new leaders will need to quietly abandon these programs and promote a return to the workplace.

The home office increases the risk to employee safety and corporate security.

Most home offices don’t adhere to the Occupational health and safety act and so home office workers are potentially at increased risk of tripping, fire hazards, inadequate lighting and poor ergonomics. This is not the action of a caring employer and whether such incidents will be regarded as an injury on duty, remains to be seen

The security of information in a home office where there is less control over guests and who has access to home office whiteboards, desks, or sensitive documents that might be left out where others can see them. In fact, 84% of IT professionals say data loss is a significant concern when people work from home. 

The office is a more controlled work environment when it comes to worker safety and corporate security – and employers lose control and take on added risk as a greater percentage of their employees work from home.

Misconception#2 “People are just as (or more) productive at home as they are in the office.”

Knowledge worker productivity is an elusive target and consequently, most organisations struggle to measure its effectiveness. Knowledge workers are those who “think for a living,” making productivity challenging to measure. In addition, measuring knowledge worker productivity is situational, since outputs and how to calculate them varies widely across an organisation. 

Do you know how your organisation defines and measures what it means to be productive? Have you been more productive whilst working from home? Most people would answer yes but this is not as clear cut as you might imagine.

The reality is that transactional and task-driven work has seen an increase in output whilst working from home, as these are relatively easily accomplished with the help of technology. But true productivity of knowledge workers when it relates to creativity, innovation and transformation are notoriously difficult to measure in the short-run and incredibly hard to accomplish virtually.

Working remotely means that most tasks are scheduled in between the intense bouts of video conferencing. This does not foster the serendipity that is required for truly creative endeavours. Work is inherently social. Leesman tells us that one of the sure-fire metrics for a high performing workplace is having a best friend at work and wanting to invite a family member or close friend to come and see their workplace.

As social animals, human beings require the messy business of physical interaction for the creative process to flourish this cannot happen in a series of short online meetings. People who are together, building on each other’s ideas while working with the same information, can more easily ideate and solve problems.

Shorter meetings seem, on the surface, to increase productivity. The reality is exhaustingly different where sprinting from one meeting to the next, without time to process or think about the outcome of the meeting, let alone take action on it makes productive collaboration much harder. 

Information sharing and considering option once generated can be achieved reasonably well on line but the truly collaborative work involved in generating ideas proves very elusive.

There is long-established scientific proof that proves physical proximity enhances team productivity. People can read each other’s body language, jump in when help is needed and get questions answered quickly. The rise of agile work in our Workplaces s over the last few years has reinforced these learnings. 

Workplace experience and culture are shrinking along with our interpersonal, professional networks as we limit ourselves to interacting with thumbnail images of people on a computer screen.

Misconception #3 “People who work from home have a better work-life balance.”

Pre-Coronavirus the world of work was experimenting with the idea of working from home. With an increase of 44% in the last few years albeit of a small base, working from home was being touted as being attractive because it suggests a better work-life balance. 

But data produced during the lockdown suggest that it can actually make it more difficult to separate work from life and cause high levels of stress affecting the employees’ wellbeing.

As someone who has been working from home for several years, I can attest to the benefits of not getting up at ridiculous-o’clock and not commuting to Sandton at 05.00 just to miss the traffic but getting stuck in it on the way home. 

The commute across my driveway to my office space, comfy clothes and more time with family certainly has had its benefits. But data reveals that for many it also comes with its own set of trade-offs.

Home Office Workers work longer hours

I’m sure many of you can attest to the danger that has shown us that those office workers that have had the chance to work from home have seen an increase in the average workday since the onset of the COVID outbreak and national lockdowns. Many have reported being at the desk from sunrise to sunset with those in the USA reporting three additional hours per day while most of Europe indicate that they have work and extra two hours per working day.

The routine of important work-life boundaries such as leaving the house, the commute, leaving your desk to get a coffee or lunch help imprint what have become important work-life boundaries. Without these place-based rituals or being with others, workers struggle to differentiate one day from the next leading to what is known as ‘temporal disintegration’

Harvard business review reports that “social exchange theory means that employees respond to being given more responsibility by working at home, work harder and for longer” Consequently employers frequently add workload making requests that can’t be done within a certain time for it and that contribute to employee resentment and burn out.

Virtual meetings are more exhausting than in-person ones.

“Zoom fatigue” is real. A life lived on screen day-in-and-day-out is exhausting. Neuroscience tells us that our brains have to work harder to make sense of the facial expressions and limited cues we get on the computer screen. 

Besides, having a mono focus in one spot fails to allow our eyes or brains to take a break like we can when we are physically present. 

All that time on the ‘virtual stage’ pressures us to feel like we have to perform which tires us out. Experts say boundaries and transition periods are important factors for reducing fatigue, but they require much more intentionality online.

The bad news is that this is likely to get worse. As more employees return to the office, meetings will increasingly experience ‘mixed presence.’ This can create ‘presence disparity,’ a disadvantage for virtual attendees during meetings with co-located teammates who may struggle to participate fully. The result is inefficiency that’s exhausting for virtual and co-located workers, alike.

Sedentary work takes a toll on physical wellbeing.

Sitting in the same spot, staring at the same screen day-in and day-out makes people physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Physical movement that allows people to reenergise and rejuvenate, has been limited.

WKspace, a UK workplace strategy firm, reports 84% of people still need a suitable workspace at home. Movement, ergonomics and healthy nutrition are all dimensions of wellbeing people are missing while away from the office. WebMD found half of the women and 25% of men reported gaining weight due to COVID stay-at-home restrictions. Contributing factors included: a lack of movement (no walking between meetings), no shifts in posture and constant access to food.

Also, damaging ergonomic environments are literally generating physical pain at home something I can attest to that has led me to recently buy an ergonomic chair for my home office.

Call to Action

Organisations should not be in a rush to adopt a radical and all encompassing work from home strategy. They need to look at the data and understand what this means for their organisation and their people. 

People  I  Place  I  Performance

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