Is Working from Home the Answer?

John Larkindale asks whether working from home is really the best way forward for organisations and employees.

COVID-19 has changed the workplace. Lockdown in March 2020 forced a number of organisations and individuals to develop new ways of working, in particular, working from home. While many workers have seen no change – tradespeople, surgeons (medical and tree), healthcare workers, supermarket employees – there has nevertheless been speculation that the pandemic has forever changed the nature of work, and working from home will be the new norm – or so runs the argument.

There’s no question that new technologies have enabled much business to continue as normal. And the enduring impact will be that more and more options will be available to those who wish or need to work at home. That’s great, but will it become the norm? Is the office or other communal workspace a thing of the past? I suggest not.

First, remote working during the first weeks of the pandemic was largely successful. But, in part, this was because it rested on workplace relations that were already in place, where managers, teams, and other co-workers were familiar with each other. This will erode over time as staff change, new tasks and teams need to be established, and organisational culture evolves.

Second, the necessity of combatting COVID removed many options; working from home simply had to become the norm. Zoom and similar technologies supported team relationships – but only to a point. Much of the complex fabric that underpins person-to-person meetings is difficult or impossible to replicate in a Zoom context. As personnel change, the risk is that Zoom exchanges become more and more rigid and formulaic.

Third, we work not just to put bread on the table. People are social beings, and much of the pleasure of daily life is interaction with others. We need direct human contact, including the conflict that often comes with interpersonal relationships.

Fourth, as has been conclusively demonstrated, people significantly increase innovation in organisations and enhance lateral thinking in the company of others. That is why similar organisations often cluster together. And we shouldn’t overlook the importance of those “over the water cooler” conversations in driving productivity and workplace culture and co-operation.

Fifth, not everyone has the luxury of having a home workspace. Should employers have a responsibility to ensure their staff have safe working conditions at home? And who should pay the cost of outgoings such as heating and power?

Sixth, the types of jobs that lend themselves to remote working tend to involve people from a middle or upper-middle class stratum of society. What are the implications of less mixing of communities if people largely remain within the areas they live? What is the impact on businesses that provide goods and services to those who have traditionally worked in offices? And, conversely, does the infrastructure exist to accommodate a significant long-term shift to working away from central areas of the city?

In my view, it is too early to know how work patterns will change. But COVID has given us a natural experiment. In New Zealand, where a significant number of office workers have returned to their offices, surveys show that the majority have no immediate plans to change their jobs. By contrast, in New York, where the majority are still working from home, a significant number of employees state that they are seeking to change their jobs. An obvious hypothesis is that the absence of a shared workspace leads to alienation, a decline of commitment, and, ultimately, job dissatisfaction. Watch this space!