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Remember when working from home was on most employees’ wish list? In survey after survey, employees said they wanted the flexibility of working remotely to balance their personal and professional lives.
As recently as February 2020, FlexJobs said that choosing the work environment was a key aspect for applicants when looking at new career opportunities. Remote employees were happier and were more likely to stay in their jobs, another study found. While many companies were moving in that direction, some were reluctant, with leaders concerned that employees wouldn’t be productive without supervision.
Then pandemic came, and at one point during the nationwide lockdown, 70% of American employees worked from home at least some of the time. And while the celebrated frontline workers were putting themselves at risk, others were figuring out how to make a WFH a reality. But as is typical, the reality of this arrangement was not as wonderful as everyone imagined.
Now, as some companies have announced their employees can work at home indefinitely, leaders must recognize that option may simply not be sustainable for all organizations.
Work from home woes
Certainly, some employees have always worked from home and have done well. And granted, today’s WFH circumstances are not the norm, with social distancing and lack of after-work social activities. This is compounded as roommates and family members vie for desk space, while parents try to schedule their calls around their kids’ online classes. Employees are stressed, and many are overworked.
But even once the unusual challenges of working at home during a pandemic fade, when companies consider whether to return to the office, they should take a close look at several of the aspects of work that are lost or diminished when employees work solely at home.
Culture. Organizations have realized that their culture is critical and have spent countless budgets and time to create a personality and brand. It’s difficult to communicate and reinforce that brand when working remotely. In an office, photos of employees volunteering for a charitable organization shows the company’s mission focus. A meeting room reserved for a lunch hour yoga class shows the commitment to wellness. Interactions among employees can model respect, friendliness, enthusiasm and support.
That feeling of connectedness is challenging to maintain on a Zoom call. And, when culture is no longer a differentiator, it’s easier for employees to leave. Without that tie, they may as well work remotely for company B just as they did for company A.
Isolation. When employees so abruptly transitioned to working at home, they lost their social connection, not just with peers but also with senior leadership. That change is hard enough in usual times. A pre-pandemic survey found 20% of employees who work from home were lonely. That’s exacerbated now, as people are more cautious about socializing. Regardless of the circumstances, leaders must be mindful of the likelihood of loneliness among remote employees and intentionally connect, if only virtually.
Disparity between employees. During the pandemic, not everyone had the opportunity to work from home. Frontline employees, like those in manufacturing and retail, couldn’t do their jobs from home. However, often in the same organization, employees in corporate positions could. This disparity can create a sense of unfairness in and outside the organization, which might be forgiven during an emergency but is not acceptable long-term.
Longer WFH hours. During the pandemic, employees at home filled their shorter commute time with more meetings and worked longer — 48 minutes per day — at home than they did in the office. These increased hours can lead to burnout and lack of engagement.
Physical ailments. With these longer hours sitting at the kitchen table or makeshift desks come physical discomforts. Although companies may have sent employees home with laptops, workers may not have the standing desks or ergonomic equipment they used in the office. This sedentary life can create physical aches and pains that impact total well-being.
Lack of resources. One source of friction is having a technological problem and no tech services onsite to help. More than half (51%) surveyed said they experienced IT pains while working at home, with most of the issues being poor home internet bandwidth and increased security and compliance risks. Even if a problem isn’t technological, quickly identifying a resource is easier when you can ask the person in the next cube over.
New ideas needed for work environments
The unintended work from home experiment gives leaders some essential insights. Although working remotely may have seemed to be a utopia, it isn’t the right answer for every organization or every employee. As leaders consider heading back to the office or working from home indefinitely, it’s essential to create an individual plan and ask:
- What scenario works best for your organization? Can everyone work remotely or just the “knowledge workers?” Can additional flexibility be given to frontline workers? What implications does any flexibility disparity have on your culture?
- How can you create a sense of community, connection and culture vital for your brand and success? Can this be accomplished in the office or remotely, and if so, how will you achieve it in either place or a combination of places?
- What do your employees want and why? Are they looking for flexibility? That is not limited to a remote environment. That could be a hybrid working arrangement. Do you need collaboration, and can this be accomplished in a distributed environment?
Ultimately, the best arrangement is the one that meets the needs of your organization and people, builds connection and community, allows freedom and flexibility, works for everyone and can be maintained for the long haul.