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The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has sent the international community home. It is no surprise that the respiratory disease, which spreads through respiratory droplets and close, prolonged personal contact, has led to a global call for physical distancing, effectively closing all private & public businesses, governments and gatherings — except essential services like pharmacies, hospitals and grocery stores.
Physical distancing measures coupled with the evolving obligations to maintain the health and safety of the public have placed large expectations on organizations who needed to quickly adapt to the changing environment. In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 had forced corporate organizations, some who had never adopted a work from home culture, to close their doors, move a majority if not all of their workforce home, and make it work.
Clearly, with physical distancing measures in place, this is not a normal work from home situation. A majority of workers are suddenly forced into a remote working environment where there is no place to physically gather and connect with individuals outside of the home. To compound this new normal, schools are officially closed, which means the kids are home. There is a lack of mobility and freedom to move around openly because of quarantines, public lockdowns, and the fear of spreading COVID-19.
However, running in parallel to these physical distancing measures is the slow unravelling of the factory model: this idea that if you weren’t in the factory you weren’t doing your work. The sudden spread of new technologies that have enabled online sharing environments like Skype, Zoom, Slack, Trello, and Microsoft Teams has also subsequently allowed companies to transition their workforce and workflows to a virtual environment. Obviously, no one envisioned that COVID-19 would be the catalyst that drove the revolution of distributed workforces. Nonetheless, that’s what is happening today.
Limitations of the Traditional Work Environment
Flexible work options — which include compressed 4-day workweeks, working from home, and telecommuting — have had a slow evolution even though more organizations are offering the option. This is because of the prevalent but unspoken stigma associated with working from home and flexible work options. Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer reaffirmed this stigma best in a memo to the company in 2013 when she ordered all home-based workers back to the office:
“We need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. We often sacrifice speed and quality when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”
Organizations, to some extent, still hold onto this belief that if an employee is not physically present in the office, it will directly and negatively impact performance. This is a persistent and pervasive perception in environments where remote work is uncommon or reserved for only particular members of the workforce. It originates from the factory model mentioned earlier and ‘the norm of work devotion’: an all or nothing commitment that makes the quality of an employee’s work and the amount of time they spend at it their defining quality. It is what creates the mindset that employees will be penalized for taking all of their vacation time or declining overtime. It plays into the reluctancy of working from home even when an employee is sick or mentally and emotionally fatigued.
Beyond these mental pressures, there are a number of elements in the traditional workspace, whether open concept or not, that are also constrained and that restrict autonomy. In an office environment, employees are essentially forced into physical co-locations with their peers. Washrooms are shared spaces, the temperature of the office is controlled, desks are chosen for an employee — meaning not everyone will get that window seat — and even socializing and movement are at times constrained and judged negatively.
It is the compounding of this controlled environment and strained perception of employee success that makes working in a traditional environment, at times, difficult for employees. An MIT study found that bosses are “less likely to attribute character traits like ‘responsibility’ or ‘dependable’ to home-based workers”, which can impact job performance reviews. The idea is that if direct managers are not consistently overseeing their employees, they will not be as productive.
However, COVID-19 has essentially thrown that notion out the door, and technology now exists to help facilitate virtual work environments that would have never been possible 10 years ago. Technology in fact has advanced so substantially that some companies have given up traditional offices for co-working spaces. Companies, like WordPress, have even gone as far as to allow 100% of their workforce to operate remotely.
Now, obviously there are industries where remote working just is not possible. The service industry is a strong example where millions of employees simply do not have the luxury of working from home. For software and technology companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google, transitioning their workforce to a virtual environment is simple, but for employees of retail and dining, remote work is not an option. However, for organizations where virtual work is now the new normal, hopefully, this time will demonstrate to employers that productivity is not only possible in a dispersed environment, but highly achievable.
Is Distributed or Remote Work Effective?
Perceptions do not always dictate truth, and despite the negative perceptions of virtual work environments, a number of studies have demonstrated the astonishing productivity growth of working from home. Stanford Professor, Nicholas Bloom, designed a test where 500 employees of Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, were divided into two groups: a control group who worked in the office and another who worked from home. At the end of the two-year study, it was found that:
· Work from home employees worked a true full-shift (or more) versus being late to the office or leaving earlier.
· Employee attrition decreased by 50% among the telecommuters. They took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days, and took less time off.
· The Company saved almost $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing the amount of HQ office space
Other studies have shown similar results, indicating that, compared to their office-based counterparts, remote workers are actually more productive. A study by Airtasker — which surveyed 1,004 employees, half of which were distributed — found that remote employees worked “an additional 1.4 more days per month [roughly 17 additional days a year]” and were unproductive for an average of only 27 minutes in comparison to office workers who averaged 37 minutes.
These findings are not surprising. In an office environment, there are more distractions, including conversations and meetings with peers and managers, lunch breaks, coffee breaks, and office events. Whereas, working from home is more isolated, leaving employees ample time to be productive. In addition, when working in a virtual and distributed environment, the results of an employee’s input are very apparent. If an employee has neglected to do their work, it is noticed almost immediately. This is because managers and employers are finally looking at the work itself in its purest form rather than the individual as a whole. It strips away the bias that might have been present if the employee showed up to work everyday on time, dressed well, asked important questions in meetings, but overall contributed very little in terms of productivity.
In addition to productivity, working from home has also been shown to increase employee satisfaction. The American Psychological Association found that, if implemented right, a virtual working environment can improve an employee’s productivity, creativity and morale. In the best scenarios, it can allow an employee to easily balance their health, wellness, and mental-wellbeing with work while implementing scheduled meetings and other technologies that would allow them to stay connected to the broader team.
Eventually the COVID-19 pandemic will end, offices will reopen and employees will return to work. However, in its wake, once the dust settles and routine returns, there will be a workforce who now knows it is possible to embrace remote working and who will expect the potential for that flexibility. It will be important for employers, particularly for those who have stayed in the more traditional camps, to be able to pivot to meet employees half way and embrace this new normal without the stigma that has been associated with virtual and distributed environments.