The highly polarized conversation about whether to work from home or come back to the office at the tail of the Covid-19 pandemic primarily focused on the place of work and productivity. But it is so much more. And it is nothing new. The conversation about changes in the way we work has happened numerous times over the last hundred years. Just consider where the modern economy and the corporations are coming from. While the roots can be traced to antiquity, the boom started with the East India Trading company as the first modern company with shareholders. In America, the real boom was experienced after WWII.
The soldiers coming back from the war brought with them not only lots of manpower but also experience and skills to lead vast numbers of people and execute complex logistical operations. The size of the corporations grew, and there was a need for more people. More and more moved to the cities to be closer to where the action was happening. Regular commute became part of the game.
With the advent of commercial flying, another change to the business happened. It was easy to jump on the plane and fly across the country for a meeting to discuss business face-to-face. The corporations could become more global.
Then the computers came, and the way we work has changed again. Historically, most of the output from an enterprise was something tangible. Now, not only could the work be done on computers without the need of any factory, but also the results were intangible. And later on, with the Internet, the whole chain could go virtual. More and more jobs don’t require employees’ physical presence on the factory floor. When there is no apparent need, then people start questioning the practice. There seem to be options. And therefore, there is a choice.
Microsoft ran a study of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries to analyze various productivity and labor signals across their LinkedIn and Microsoft 365 platforms. They also approached experts focused on collaboration and workspace design, and the result is the 2021 Work Trend Index.
There are some key trends Microsoft research identified.
Flexible work is not going anywhere – over 70% of workers expect remote work options to continue in the future, while 65% are looking forward to more face-to-face interactions with their teams. Flexibility will be the king. This will require a shift in the way companies invest in the workplace. Even after a year of covid-19 related lockdowns, 42% of workers reported not having essential office supplies at home and 10% not having adequate internet connections.
Leaders are not in sync with employees – probably not surprisingly, 61% of business leaders reported thriving in the remote environment. In comparison, only 38% of those without decision-making authority make the same claim. Leaders also reported stronger relationships with colleagues, earned a higher income, and took more vacation days. Unfortunately, they are also less in touch with the individual contributors. They don’t have the ad-hoc meetings that often helped keep them honest and informed about what was going on in the teams. Workers then feel this disconnect. 37% of them reported that the company is asking too much of them in these difficult times. Those who struggle a lot are new employees who are with the organization for less than a year. Only 36% reported that they are doing fine, while 64% reported they are struggling.
The workforce is exhausted – productivity has remained the same or even increased when working remotely. However, it came with an associated cost. 54% of workers feel overworked and 39% exhausted. This also applies to digital exhaustion when employees interact with the world through technology and lack the real human connection. When compared February 2020 and 2021, Microsoft discovered that employees spend 2.5 as much time on virtual meetings, and these, on average last 10 minutes longer. Employees send 45% more chat messages per week and 42% more chat messages per person after working hours. Most of this communication is unstructured, unplanned, and everyone feels pressured to keep up and spend more time online.
Lack of interactions is endangering innovation – no chance encounters and more difficult collaboration across different groups of people. The individual departments and teams are becoming more siloed than ever before. Even close networks experience a slow decline in interactions, but for distant networks, interaction lowered significantly.
People are more authentic and that’s a good thing – on a positive note, we have learned more about the real lives of our colleagues. The work has become more authentic, more human. With closed schools, employees need to juggle work, childcare, and homeschooling. Meetings became interrupted by small children demanding the attention of their parents or pets getting in front of the camera. It is also easier to express our emotions while we are at home so for example 17% of workers have cried with a colleague. Now employees genuinely bring their whole self to work. These types of authentic interactions got some workers closer to each other than ever before. Work has become more human.
What employees want
FlexJobs survey of more than 2.181 remote workers showed that 65% would prefer to remain working from home even after the Covid-19 pandemic ends, 33% prefer hybrid arrangement, and only 2% would want to return to the office full-time.
For many, work from home also means the ability to relocate to a place better suited for a good living instead of an area close to the office. Among the most frequently quoted benefits of working from home were better quality of life, lower cost of living and less expensive housing, better climate, change of scenery, being closer to friends and family.
Lynda Gratton describes the shift in the case of Fujitsu Japan. Before the covid-19 pandemic, the survey among its employees showed that 74% considered the office the best place to get the work done. By May 2020, only 15% of the employees made the same statement, while 30% said the best place to work is at home, and 55% favored the hybrid model. There is no way things can go back to what they used to be since the employees’ expectations were reset.
On the flip side, the biggest challenges of remote work are overworking and inability to unplug, non-work-related distractions, technology problems and problems with the Internet connection, lack of real-time communication, video meeting fatigue, more difficulty to collaborate, interact and build solid work relationships.
Putting it all together
The remote work is here to stay. However, fully remote work is going to be an exception. It will be a competitive advantage in the short term. Those companies that embraced a fully remote work model will grab some employees who got used to it and don’t want to go back to the office. However, fully remote work requires such a significant change in the way we manage work and lead people that very few companies can do it truly well. The hybrid model, when employees work partially from home and partially from the office, though challenging in itself, is a good intermediate step that will allow companies, managers, and workers to adjust step by step. It is also more aligned with human nature as social animals.
What is your take on the topic? Do you believe the future is hybrid? Do you think the work from home will work long-term? Do you prefer to work from home or from the office?
Photo: coworkingbansko / Pixabay.com
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