After a difficult year, there is, dare we say it, light at the end of the tunnel.
Although our long-awaited ‘Freedom Day’ has been pushed back once again, it is visible on the horizon. Meanwhile the rollout of the vaccination programme goes from strength to strength, and many of the familiar freedoms of our pre-Covid lives have already been returned to us.
But when lockdown began, many of us felt that a return to the office would be the ultimate indicator of post-pandemic recovery - that the day remote employees began to pour back into the office towers, it would mean we had finally returned to our old reality.
But after more than 12 months of working from home, it appears that even when the final restrictions are lifted, remote working may be here to stay.
When it was first introduced, our new working arrangement brought drastic change to our daily routines – one that shook industries to their core overnight. But as teams quickly adapted to their new ways of working, our new normal became, well, normal.
And though the hotly anticipated 19th of July was expected to bring a mass return to the office, in May this year no fewer than 43 of the UK’s 50 biggest employers confirmed that there would be no full-time return to the office for their staff. And whilst few companies intend to permanently dispense of the office for good, remote working has taught us many useful lessons about the value of communication, the importance of employee wellbeing, and the benefits of flexibility. Here are just five key lessons we’ve learned whilst working from home.
1. Employees can be more productive at home
When the crisis forced us out of the office in March 2020, companies feared a major decrease in productivity.
For years, this had been one of the biggest arguments against working from home – in spite of studies which had indicated the opposite. Prior to the pandemic, employers were deeply resistant to the idea of working from home, and for many it seemed there was too much at stake to trial this working format.
But when businesses were left with no choice but to revert to virtual connectivity, the alternative produced yielded positive results for many.
In a September 2020 survey by TalkTalk, over 50% of employees reported an increase in their productivity since working from home. This same study estimated that with our newfound flexibility, workers were achieving five days’ worth of work in just four days – strengthening the growing argument for a four-day working week.
There are a number of potential reasons for this increase in productivity. One of these is the elimination of the office environment, which can provide untold distractions – background noise, interruptions from colleagues and meetings which disrupt our routines. After making the switch to a WFH environment, these things were no longer an issue for many of us.
However, this rise in productivity was not without its concerns. In some instances, there were fears that many employees may be clocking extra hours from home in order to be seen as productive when not in the office, fearing perceptions by bosses that they may be slacking off – this brings us to our next crucial lesson about working from home.
2. Flexibility is key
An increase in productivity is great news for newly remote companies, and a fantastic argument to make the switch at least semi-permanent.
For many employees, working from home has enabled them to maintain a better overall work-life balance, allowing many to spend more time with their families and cutting out the commute, which has given us hours of our lives back each week. But there are complications to working from home, too, and for some it has been far from plain sailing.
Whilst the absence of office distractions can enable a much more productive working environment, the home provides unique distractions of its own – from noisy neighbours to housemates, partners to pets. Not to mention, with so many parents suddenly becoming their child’s teacher too thanks to the closing of schools, maintaining standard office hours was now nigh impossible. For these individuals, the traditional 9-5 working day was simply unattainable, unworkable and unrealistic.
Thankfully, many employers agree – amongst them, cloud-based software company Salesforce, who in a recent blogpost declared that ‘the 9-5 workday is dead’ and promised to secure flexibility for its employees in the future. As the company’s chief people officer Brent Hyder put it; ‘Whether you have a global team to manage across time zones, a project-based role that is busier or slower depending on the season or simply have to balance personal and professional obligations throughout the day, workers need flexibility to be successful.’
Whether other companies will follow Hyder’s lead remains to be seen, but with prominent tech firms such as Facebook and Microsoft taking similar action, the likelihood is that these organisations now set the trend for workplace flexibility in the future.
3. Wellbeing is crucial
Under the difficult circumstances of our recent shift towards remote, one could argue that instances in which working from home has proven to be unsuccessful could not be adequately judged – after all, teams are simply doing the best they can in unprecedented conditions.
And it’s true – whilst many of us may be more productive, this has not been the case across the board. Whilst up to 45% of employees surveyed by the Royal Society for Public Health felt that working from home was overall better for their wellbeing, 29% stated that their new working arrangement was actually worse overall.
A reported increase in physical and mental health issues was the most common reason cited for this, with a number of participants feeling less connected to their colleagues, and others reported a drop in their physical activity and newly disturbed sleep patterns.
Furthermore, a quarter of participants stated that for the past year, they had been working from their sofa or bed. It comes as no surprise, then, that over a third of those surveyed reported newly developed musculoskeletal problems since the start of the pandemic.
In other words, for those who did not have strong support systems around them, isolation was the most difficult part of working from home, whilst those who lacked an optimal home working environment suffered a serious physical impact. For these individuals, a return to the office could make all the difference, providing a working environment that is conducive not only to better productivity, but better overall wellbeing.
Further to this, one of the newly discovered downsides to working from home has been the risk of staff burnout. With up to 40% of remote workers reporting a difficulty in switching off at home, the boundaries of the work-life balance are deeply affected, and without the support of an in-person team, this can be difficult for employers to identify.
In short, even in a remote model, employers must maintain their duty of care towards the health and wellbeing of their employees. But as these major concerns face remote teams, it is clear that no future remote model can thrive without prioritising employee wellbeing. Could this be one of the major arguments for a hybrid model in the future? And what further risks do we face by eliminating an office environment for good?
4. Face to face communication may not be obsolete
On 8th March 2020, political scientist and University of California professor Sara Wallace-Goodman tweeted “I guess we’re about to find out which meetings could have been emails after all…”
Her humorous and not unreasonable take on the impending changes to our lives range true for many, and as we began to work from home, our communication became almost instantly more streamlined, with messaging apps and emails replacing face-to-face conversation.
But throughout the pandemic, communication has been one of the most widely reported challenges for remote teams, with a quarter of employees stating that they had struggled to build strong relationships with colleagues. Meanwhile, though many businesses have turned to it as a communicational crutch, Zoom has perhaps had the biggest impact on our workplace connectivity – and not necessarily for the better.
Amongst the most notable consequences is that across video links, individuals are unable to perceive many of the social cues that are vital to fluent and natural communication. Without these, teams run the risk of misinterpreting one another and second-guessing interactions.
And yet communication is at the heart of successful teamwork. It’s something that we can’t afford to lose, and possibly the most significant aspect of office life that we’ve missed out on – if the office is a thing of the past, then so too are the days of spontaneous chats in the break room which spark those all-important lightbulb moments.
That said, our technology has bridged a vital communicational gap during the pandemic – as the new remote starters of the workplace can confirm. From icebreaker activities to domestic interruptions, new team members have found innovative ways to connect with their colleagues despite the circumstances. With the potential to form new workplace relationships in virtual environments, could the role of the office be less crucial than we had previously suspected?
5. Working from home works
Ultimately what we have learned is that a successful working model which incorporates the flexibility of telecommuting is possible.
And for many businesses, it’s preferable. Whilst very few plan to dispense of the office environment for good, many more are open to the prospect of a hybrid model in the future which sees only a part-time return to the office – one that facilitates communication and freedom, providing staff with the necessary environment for collaboration whilst offering them the flexibility to set their own schedules and nurture their individual productivity in ways that work for them.
And for those who are already accustomed to the challenges – and the benefits – of remote working, remote learning could be the next natural step. Over the previous year, many universities have attempted to make this work with varying degrees of success, but it’s something ARU have achieved for years.
These are just five lessons we have learned whilst working from home, and in spite of the challenges we have faced, it’s possible that the past year has led the way for the workplaces of the future.
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