Four issues to consider when deciding to bring employees back to the office?
All Covid-19 restrictions in England could end from 21st June. Many organisations are grappling with whether to bring their employees back to the office. The noise of opinions on this topic is deafening, so at Teamvine, we have sifted through the noise and reviewed the leading academic research to identify the four issues you as a leader should consider when deciding to bring employees back to the office.
1. Where will your employees be most productive?
An old-fashioned idea persists that without constant supervision, employees will slack off and be less productive. This does not play out in the data; recent studies by leading academics worldwide found that remote working during lockdown had boosted productivity by 13%. Time saved on commuting is likely a strong driver of this efficiency. In 2018 Britain’s spent 54 minutes a day on average commuting to work (Business Insider). This does not even consider the additional time spent packing and unpacking either side, time spent on appearance, or disrupted/ delayed travel. This significant increase in time gives your employees the ability to work longer or more time to deal with household work (therefore reducing distraction during working hours). The gain in efficiency is especially true of Gen X and Gen Y. Evidence suggest that 61% of those in Gen X and Y who work from home were not only more focused on productive work, but they actually put in additional hours to accommodate management requests.
There are some factors however that can undermine this productivity enhancement. Do your employees have a suitable workspace at home? Do they have room for a desk or are they working at the kitchen table? Do they have quiet or is there call competing with noise from young children or older relatives? Do they have the required hardware (e.g., laptop/ monitors), internet connection and technology quotient (a measure of competency with technology), to work effectively remotely? With sufficient support from their organisation many employees will be able to overcome these barriers, but if you believe they are insurmountable for your workforce then you may need to bring them back to the office.
According to Obend (founder of pentacle, a virtual business school), the gains we could achieve from widespread working from home are impotent and the pros certainly outweigh the cons. He goes on to say, “in the long run, I think it’s huge. Imagine: we go to something like 20% of our days are spent working from home. That is 20% less commuting. That is also the ability to live further out of our city center’s, to re organise our lives and have some quiet tranquility, so yes, I think its an enormous benefit”
2. Home vs Office, which best supports employee’s wellbeing and equal opportunities?
The isolation that employees have felt since March 2020 has undoubtedly had a negative impact on employee wellbeing and mental health. Obend is highly concerned about feelings of isolation and loneliness due to the absence of physical personal interactions. For many, their workplace was a vital source of social interaction, sense of community and belonging. One US consultancy company that is entirely remote says that isolation was their biggest source of staff turnover. It leads to disconnectedness, low morale, and diminished productivity.
Remote working can also disadvantage some employees. Professor Lynda Grattan of London Business School, argues
“Inequality … becomes visible with remote work, its hard to be productive when you’re in less-than-ideal living conditions, like a cramped flat”.
Then, there is the fact that certain aspects of our lives that used to be separate- work, friends, family, are all now happening in the same space. This recipe of ingredients leads us to the self-complexity theory which illustrates that people have multiple aspects, context dependent social roles, relationships, activities, and goals and how we and that variety healthy. When these aspects are reduced, we become more vulnerable to negative feelings!
There are however many benefits to remote working. Whilst those with insufficient workspace are disadvantaged, remote working significantly increases the flexibility for parents with young children. Many are more comfortable in their own home, where they have more control over their space, are less self-conscious and feel less exposed. There is less “performativity”, were employees stay longer at work to indicate they are working harder.
Additionally, when assessing what is best for employee wellbeing, it is important not to equate the challenges of lockdown with the future for remote working. Many will, incorrectly, look back on the feelings of isolation they experienced during lockdown and think that is what remote working entails. In truth, remote working allows people to spend more time with family and friends, and still see colleagues at occasional social events.
It is unlikely we will have a definitive answer on whether it is better for wellbeing to commute in or work remotely. The best course for leaders is to talk to their employees and consider the factors above which will affect their experience.
3. Which meetings need to be in person to have the best discussions and ideas?
Video calls have been a lifeline during Covid -19. Yet they come with significant challenges. In a recent article by Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor at Instead, and Marissa Shuffer, an Associate professor at Clemson University, claimed being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat. Video chats mean we need to work harder to process nonverbal cues, like facial expressions, tone/ pitch, and body language. Paying more attention to these, consumes a lot of energy. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not.” The dissonance from conflicting feelings is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally. To compound the situation, it has been reported that delays in phone or conferencing systems of only 1.2 seconds made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused. Silence is another challenge. According to Petriglieri, “silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you become anxious about the technology.
According to Shuffer, if we are physically on camera, we are very aware of being watched. “When you are on a video conference, you know everyone is looking at you, you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you have to perform. Being performative is nerve -wracking and more stressful.” Its also very hard for people not to look at their own face, if they can see it on the screen, or not to be conscious of how they behave in front of the camera.
Add to this the fact that video conferences from home face distractions from other household members or pets, a heavy reliance on technology with little support, and wide fluctuations in internet service levels.
Faced with the challenges of video conferencing, leaders should ask these questions: what can I do to mitigate these challenges and promote constructive dialogue in those meetings? What new behaviours and processes need to be developed to enable this? If this mitigation does not solve the problem, what are the meetings that are so important as to require people to commute. Likely they are those which require employees to bounce off each other creatively, where a flow of conversation is critical and the “full presence” of all those involved is required.
4. Do your employees have sufficient Technology Quotient to work remotely?
“You’re on mute.”
How many times have you heard that in the last year? The switch to remote working has unveiled a deficit in employees TQ (Technology Quotient). To work remotely, employees must be comfortable with email, video conferencing, file sharing and collaboration tools (such as Microsoft Teams, Slack or Google Workplace), have sufficient internet connection, and be able to trouble shoot standard tech issues. If your employee currently lack these skills and you do not have the facilities to teach them remotely, you may need to bring them back to the office until these skills are obtained. If they do lack these skills, upskilling must be a top development priority. We are living through one of the most rapid periods of technological advancement in human history. The efficiencies unleashed from having a workforce that has a high TQ will only become more of a differentiator between organisations.
We hope you have found this summary useful and wish you luck in charting the course ahead. If you would like to hear more about how Teamvine can help you with the challenges of remote working, please book a demo using the link below.