2020 will be remembered as the year that the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of people around the world to start working from home (WFH). It will also be remembered as the year when countless businesses switched on to the benefits of a distributed workforce.
But is it really the perfect solution to the workplace challenges of the future?
From a Human Resources (HR) perspective, many of the perks of a workforce operating remotely are counterbalanced by knock-on effects that may cause employers headaches in the long term.
So as businesses start to look to go back to the office, the arguments are being presented too as to how we move forward in a way that enables employee well being; here we take a look at the upsides, investigate the downsides and explore what’s to come:
The upsides of working from home
Let’s start on a positive note by considering how working from home has been a force for good since the emergence of COVID-19. Firstly, without the distractions of a busy office environment, worker productivity has been boosted significantly. In a recent article in Forbes, research of behavior among 30,000 workers in the United States was highlighted that uncovered a
47% increase in productivity during the first couple of months of lockdown.
That people are getting much more done day-to-day is always good news for any employer, but especially so in the current business landscape.
Away from the office, there are other benefits that are felt more by the business overall than by the workforce. Finance teams are suddenly finding that more people working from home means fewer in the office, meaning there’s a huge amount of unused real estate that can be disposed of in order to make significant savings. And with the number of people commuting and/or making business trips drastically cut as video collaboration tools come to the fore, the environmental impact of the business is similarly reduced – an excellent credential for any company wanting to publicize its commitment to tackling climate change.
The downsides of working from home
So finance is happy, and managers who track the productivity of their teams are happy. But this love of WFH may not necessarily be shared by HR professionals – or it seems, by employees themselves. The same research that discovered the increase in productivity also found that on average, American workers are starting at 8:32am and finishing at 5:38pm. While this may be good for the employer, this extra working time could easily lead to employee burnout as month after month of longer days begin to take their toll.
There’s a physical impact to consider, too, as so many people have ended up working at home on makeshift workstations like kitchen tables or sofas. Over a prolonged period, these compromised surroundings can generate a variety of strains and injuries, particularly around the neck and back. In April, the first full month of lockdown in some States, 92 percent of respondents to a survey of American chiropractors as quoted in the New York Times, reported an increase in neck, back or musculoskeletal problems among their patients.
And just as importantly, working from home long-term is beginning to affect employees’ mental health. British health organization Nuffield Health found in June that
80% of UK workers surveyed felt that working from home had had a negative effect on their mental wellbeing.
With no easy chances to talk to colleagues over the watercooler, or to work together and strengthen working relationships, it’s easy to see how employees can feel isolated.
All of these effects have the potential to cause HR teams serious issues in the months and years ahead. Without careful organization of home-working, there is likely to be an increased rate of workers being off sick, and may even face claims from employees who feel that their employer hasn’t taken appropriate steps to ensure their health and safety at work.
The way forward for your employees
So what’s the solution?
Well, obviously every company will have different priorities depending on the nature of its business and the make-up of its workforce. But put simply, it is possible to have your cake and eat it here.
A ‘hybrid’ approach to working arrangements that combines the best of both worlds presents the best all-round solution. This involves bringing workers back into the office a few days a week, on a pre-scheduled basis, re-shaping the office to manage workstation availability and sanitization; and reconfiguring the space to increase social distancing. That way, employees can cut back on the stress of commuting and get that vital face-to-face contact with employees, while the business can still make real estate savings and enjoy increased productivity with a space that encourages collaboration.
In a situation where HR professionals will be under pressure to satisfy a range of different stakeholders within their organization, the ‘hybrid’ way is a balanced approach that works for everyone.