SIGN OF THE TIMES
Many are eager to drop remote work and return to the office, here’s why
With vaccine roll-outs under way and the country’s recent move to adjusted level 1 lockdown, a number of offices have begun to reopen to staff. However, employees themselves remain divided in their sentiments towards returning to the office.
In April 2020, a month after the declaration that South Africa was going into its first national lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that “all staff who can work remotely must be allowed to do so”.
Mandating businesses to make provisions for employees whose job tasks could be completed from home was one of the first decisive actions taken by national governments in response to the coronavirus outbreak in 2020. The thinking behind it was that allowing employees to work from home would help to limit their social interactions and minimise the risk of spreading the virus.
Perhaps most notably, the general shift of work activities to online platforms during lockdown has created an expectation among employees that elements of the work-from-home model will continue even after lockdowns have become a thing of the past.
The discourse around what a post-pandemic world might look like tends to brandish the idea that remote work will supersede traditional office structures. Researchers reckon that a more likely outcome will marry elements of both remote and on-site work, under a concept that they’ve termed “the hybrid model”.
Here, we delve into the reasons some employees are more eager to return to the office than others. We look at what a middle-ground hybrid solution might look like and consider why experts anticipate that this will be the way forward for the world of work. Finally, we offer some science-backed best-practice tips for leaders looking to implement the hybrid model in their businesses.
The case for the office
In a webinar hosted by global market research company Ipsos, titled “Understanding staff ambivalence to returning to the office”, Service Line Lead Stella Fleetwood notes that 51% of survey respondents reported finding working from home to be more stressful than working from the office. One possible reason for this: employees are working overtime. This is not necessarily because companies require employees to work extended hours, but rather because they feel a sense of obligation to be on-call 24/7.
Fleetwood explains why this might be happening: “We tend to be in the same environments all day [while working from home] so that means we cannot get a complete break and switch off from work.”
Coming into the office is one way of enforcing boundaries between your work life and your personal life. An oft-cited perk of working from home is the reduction in time spent commuting to and from the office. However, a study by De Klerk et al found that having a physical distance between employees’ place of work and their homes allowed them to better mentally delineate their work time from their personal time and made it easier for them to switch off at the end of the working day.
Research shows that not being able to go into the office is also taking its toll on worker productivity, with 27% of survey respondents reporting that their productivity levels decreased while working remotely. This is in part owed to interruptions around the home which make it difficult for employees to dedicate their full attention to the completion of job tasks.
“We are surrounded by social media, by televisions, by children and by animals whilst working from home, so yes, people find that there are definitely more distractions,” Fleetwood explains.
Working from home has also negatively affected the cohesiveness of teams and the ability to effectively deliver on collaborative tasks in general – 54% of Ipsos survey respondents reported finding teamwork more difficult when working from home.
Cathy Ashton, Lead Partner Africa at Multiplex Partners, reflects on her experience of coaching teams during lockdown: “If I think about the teams that I’ve been working with, particularly over the last while, there’s a sense that they’ll give someone an instruction but what the person hears and what they actually said wasn’t the same.”
Remote working has necessitated a significant shift of many of our job tasks to online platforms and communication between colleagues and managers is often done asynchronously. Because we are no longer afforded the luxury of walking over to a colleague to ask them a question and receiving an immediate response, the efficiency of completing collaborative tasks is often compromised by delays and breakdowns in communication.
The case for remote work
On the contrary, some studies have found that some employees reported increases in their productivity levels while working from home. Workers are able to reallocate the time saved on commuting to the completion of job tasks.
Those who have a quiet, dedicated workspace in their homes also report experiencing fewer interruptions to their workflow when working remotely as opposed to from the office.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, explains that this is particularly true in the case of open-plan offices where minimal spatial or sound boundaries exist between employees.
The consensus among researchers is that working remotely blurs the boundaries between home life and work life. That being said, the increased flexibility that tends to come with being able to work from home has helped some employees to maintain a healthier relationship between their work and personal life commitments.
“… people agree that they have a bit of a better work-life balance. We also see that frequent breaks are becoming part of the routine and, most importantly, people are spending more time doing domestic chores as well as running errands during working hours,” says Fleetwood.
There is also evidence to suggest that employees are more satisfied with their jobs when working from home.
One anonymous participant from a study conducted by De Klerk et al reported having more energy throughout the day as a result of flexible working hours that tend to accompany the shift to online work: “I sleep a bit more because I don’t have to get up so early… I think my energy is definitely (up), because the mind is in a good space.”
Then, of course, there’s the obvious pro-remote work argument of physical distancing. “We are still not where we need to be in terms of vaccinations. We also see a very high level of vaccine hesitancy from South Africans which creates a bit of a double burden in terms of whether or not we really want employees back in the office,” says Fleetwood.
Researchers anticipate that the option of working remotely is likely to become an increasingly important part of employees’ selection criteria when deciding between future career positions.
The hybrid solution
Fortunately, employees’ seemingly disparate preferences for where they’d like to do their work are not quite as polarised as the statistics might make them out to be.
A 2021 study by the Boston Consulting Group found that nine out of 10 employees would opt for a combination of both on-site and remote work if given the choice.
This means the idea of the office is not entirely dead. People like the flexibility that comes with the option of working remotely but they don’t want to get rid of offices completely. They still value being able to see their colleagues face-to-face, touch base and pick up on the subtle changes in facial expression or body language cues that can only truly be realised through raw, human interaction – without the obstruction of a screen.
The more likely outcome is that businesses will have to adapt to the novel, post-Covid world of work by implementing a hybrid model which allows employees latitude in terms of where they work, and perhaps also when they work and how they work.
Flexible working hours, adaptable working spaces and accelerated rates of digitisation are all things we are likely to see as the hybrid model takes over. In fact, “flexitime” has already been implemented by a number of local corporations as a part of the shift towards a hybrid model of work and many have already begun to reap its rewards. The concept usually involves mandating a set period each day during which employees must be on call but allowing leeway in terms of when the remaining required work hours should be fulfilled. Organisations that allow their employees to work flexible hours often benefit from reduced absenteeism, reduced employee turnover and increased job satisfaction as staff are able to maintain a healthier work-life balance.
Best-practice tips for management: trust your employees
A 2014 study by Putnam et al found that flexible work arrangements that were not underscored by a trusting organisational culture led to unrealistic demands being placed on employees, unhealthy working practices and decreased employee performance.
If flexible working conditions are implemented in companies with a trusting organisational culture, they are much more likely to see positive outcomes, including increased employee engagement and performance and decreased absenteeism.
Employees need to know how such change will affect aspects of their jobs: will they be assessed against different key performance indicators? What new tasks will fall within their scope of work? They need to be clear on what this means for them. How many days of the working week do they need to be in the office and how many days are they allowed to work remotely?
Though some firms might opt to let their employees decide which days to come in to work and which days to spend at home, Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, advises that firms decide on this centrally. To ensure office space is efficiently used and that the activities of teams are well coordinated, management should ensure that teams’ office times overlap at least two days of the week.
A report by the International Labour Organisation highlights the importance of providing training for employees on how to use ICT tools and balance their in-person/remote work activities.
Working online can also take its toll on the physical and mental health of employees. The boundaries between employees’ personal and working lives tend to blur when work is done remotely, and they often struggle to switch off after a day of work, leading to burnout and negating job satisfaction.
Finally, not all South Africans have the necessary infrastructure or financial resources to work remotely. “I’m thinking of a particular team that we were working with where the team member went to her boss and said, I don’t have a desk, I’m working on the stove,” says Ashton.
If the hybrid model is to endure, companies need to make provisions to ensure that mandated “work-from-home days” will not benefit certain groups disproportionately. The International Labour Organisation suggests developing plans to ensure ICT equipment is delivered to the homes of employees and that they are reimbursed for modalities like data and internet bandwidth.
One strength of the hybrid model is that it compensates for the other mode of work’s shortcomings: Bloom explains that small meetings can be held on virtual platforms, but meetings of 10 or more people should be done in person. In larger meetings, people are allotted smaller visual windows, making it harder to decipher facial expressions and reactions to conversation.
A large body of research suggests that solely working from home can make colleagues feel isolated and have negative implications for their mental wellbeing. Allowing employees opportunities to come into the office facilitates the informal exchange of “tacit” information, essential to fostering relationships and building networks, and something that is difficult to achieve in virtual conferencing spaces where people log off after a meeting has concluded.
The hybrid model is still in its genesis and the precise ways in which it will be implemented will differ from company to company. The common denominator is that there will be a definitive shift towards a more flexible way of working which should grant employees greater autonomy over where, and potentially when and how, they work. DM/ML