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Is the Working From Home Honeymoon Over?

Published September 25, 2020 (last updated February 24, 2021) -

Back in March, businesses across Australia scrambled to set up their employees so that they could work from home for the first time. The transition from traditional office to virtual workspace wasn’t wrinkle-free for anyone. Every IT team in the country was suddenly swamped, helping employees troubleshoot as they set up their first remote connections to the office and upgraded their home computers. But sooner or later, the whole team had set up a makeshift home office in the spot with the reliable Wi-Fi and settled in.

And it wasn’t long before employees and managers alike started to look on the bright side. The lack of a commute is a major savings in time, and even a major traffic snarl can’t mess up a meeting now. The rent is still due on office space, but the bills are a lot lower now that lights and computers are switched off. No more arranging for childcare, no more awkward small talk by the office coffee machine . . . do we really need to go back to the way things were?

If that’s what you’ve been thinking, you’ve probably wondered whether all your employees are on the same page. The answer, says Stanford University’s Nick Bloom, is a resounding no. “We surveyed individuals, and twenty percent of people never want to work from home, and twenty percent want to do it full time, and the other just over half are some mix,” he says.

However people may feel about working from home, it’s going to be a part of life throughout the time of the pandemic. Bloom estimates that sixty percent of American workers are now working from home, with Australian workers likely at around the same level. But what about afterward, when the one-fifth of workers who love working from home have tasted freedom? Bloom proposes a compromise: have all employees come in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, working from home on Tuesday and Thursday. Having all employees come in on the same day makes sure working from home doesn’t stand in the way of teamwork, but there’s no need for workers to come into the office to write a report or fill in a spreadsheet.

You’ll likely hear a lot of proposals, in the coming months and years, for “hybrid models” like Bloom’s. They’re already being discussed in various forms. Possibly different teams will come in on different days, or some workers will be fully remote. The idea is to have some of the flexibility of a remote workspace while still having the sense of a team, and the ability to match names to faces. But there’s a downside, according to Mark Mortensen of Insead Business School. In a hybrid model, “everyone isn’t on a level playing field,” he says. If some workers don’t have the privilege of working in the same place or on the same day as their manager, they become less visible, literally and figuratively. And managers can gloss over invisible workers when the time comes for performance reviews or raises.

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Mortensen doesn’t think the hybrid model is hopeless, but he’s worried about how it will be implemented. Workers will need access not only to their managers, but to their entire team and to other departments, so equitable scheduling will be a challenge. “It takes a little bit more intentional thought, and intentional planning and processes, to make sure these pieces line up,” he says.

Another researcher, Ethan Bernstein of Harvard Business School, was also wary of the hybrid model. “I’m a little pessimistic,” he says, “that as we run back to the office . . . we might actually lose the magic of what we found in this work-from-home experiment period, and we might not get the benefits of having all been in the office before.” A safe, socially distanced office space will not, he believes, help workers develop the social “weak ties” that normally bind coworkers. Now that social interactions happen only when we put deliberate effort into them, they’ll rarely talk to coworkers who aren’t close friends or teammates, so they won’t develop the same strong idea of what’s going on in the rest of the company that they had when they had water-cooler chats or office happy hours. To Bernstein, it’s not worth it.

Whatever happens to the office of the future, says HR specialist Jenny Brice, it’s going to have far-reaching consequences. “If a job can be done from anywhere, will jobs stay in Australia?” she wonders. Many international companies have permanently shuttered offices and told employees to work from home indefinitely, cutting facilities costs and leaving employee expenses at the top of the budget. In her opinion, it now makes more sense than ever to outsource low-skilled white-collar work to cheaper employees offshore. She foresees global inequality rising as a privileged few of skilled employees work from home, saving money, as both unemployment and costs rise elsewhere.

Whether employees continue working from home, move back into socially distanced offices, or figure out a hybrid model, office life may be radically different for years. It might never be the same. That’s good news for your dog, and maybe for your company’s budget in the short term. But we’re just beginning to glimpse the broader economic consequences.

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Employsure is one of New Zealand’s largest workplace relations advisers to small and medium businesses, with over 5,500 clients. We take the complexity out of workplace legislation to help small business employers protect their business and their people.

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