When the Pandemic Isn’t the Only Reason to Work from Home

Image by Mudassar Iqbal from Pixabay

By now, the majority of us have at least some experience of setting up our office in our living room, commuting to work within seconds of stepping from one room into another, and ‘bumping’ into your colleagues for ‘random’ chit chat at scheduled times and through prepared online meetings… yes, the work-from-home experience, which, as described in my other blog post, we have all come to enjoy! Indeed, there are obvious perks, such as saving time due to a lack of commutes and saving energy thanks to less distractions from co-workers, all of which makes some of us more productive. Moreover, our home office may end up being the cosy, suitable and personalized physical working space, which comes with a wonderful deal of home-cooked lunches. The unexpected productivity gains and practical convenience of remote work is also praised by many CEOs.

Yet, the same sources also suggest that CEOs voice concerns about the lack of serendipitous and unstructured interactions, the ones that would usually happen by the office cooler, espresso machine or in the kitchen nook. Also, there are relevant and reasonable concerns about the blurring of boundaries between work and private life, increased loneliness, and reduced team spirit. I am convinced that any parent with children at home would easily find additional arguments against working from home.

The pros and cons of remote work apart though, there seems to be quite some consensus that remote work is here to stay, in some form and to some extent. In other words, Covid might have been an excuse to boost work from home, but it definitely isn’t the only reason to continue!

Recent research by Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, Steven J. Davis (2020) indicates that compared to an earlier share of 5%, nearly one-quarter of workdays are expected to have been remote since the start of the pandemic. More specifically, a survey of 15,000 Americans over several waves of Covid-19 shows that employees and employers envision and plan for a hybrid solution, where some 3 days in the office would provide for all the benefits of face-to-face interactions, while the remaining two days of the working week would make use of remote arrangements. As the researchers note, there are several good reasons or facilitators to stick with the latter:

  1. Less stigma. Whereas work from home might have been stigmatized and poorly trusted before the pandemic, such perceptions seem to have changed. With all the respect for human suffering related to Covid-19, last year’s silver lining for the world of work has been the realization that working from home is possible and, in general, nothing falls apart when employees stop coming to the office. What is more, many see actual benefits in such a work arrangement. At large, different surveys emphasize the positive experiences of work from home, which gets us back to the notions of home-cooked lunches and alike.
  2. Infrastructure improvements. To make Covid work realities possible, employers and employees have invested into building better conditions for remote work, be it adjustable work desks at home, ZOOM pro licenses, or any other physical and technological equipment. Also, I wouldn’t underestimate the value of newly created communication routines, reporting lines, efficient cooperation modes and the many micro productivity shifts in mindset like ‘this meeting should have been an e-mail’ that might have taken place. In other words, this new reality required adaptation, with some of it being potentially good and useful even for post-Covid times.
  3. Stickiness. Finally, apart from the willingness to keep the well adapted elements of working from home, there seems to be quite some reluctance to returning back to some of the ‘normal’. The survey data indicates that about 70 percent of respondents express a reluctance to engage in socially proximal activities, such as using public transport, crowded elevators or eating in the office diner. In other words, in some way the pandemic has conditioned us to associate physical proximity with risk and negativity. As such, even as vaccines for Covid-19 become widely available, the unpairing of this association might take some time.

To end on a positive note, I am personally ready and excited to welcome the post-pandemic reality with whatever beneficial impact and impulse this global work-from-home experiment will leave us with. After all, many of our organizational routines, work designs and professional mindsets are deeply antiquated and could do with whatever push there is to be revised!

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