12 August 2020 Thought Leadership
As the Covid-19 pandemic escalated rapidly to its most critical state in March this year, millions of employees across the UK and Ireland found themselves working remotely from home. Whilst major advances in technology made it incredibly easy for most teams to work effectively from home, many businesses are in the process of beginning to transition their employees back to the workplace in some form or another. The question is – are they ready for the return to the office?
A recent study carried out by the Harvard Business Review found that whilst many business leaders anticipated that performance would take a dip during the early days of lockdown, employees actually adjusted to working from home quickly and were as productive as normal.
Given that numerous pieces of research conducted over the years had found that productivity almost always suffers following any large-scale economic change, it would have been prudent to predict that the same might have happened as a result of Coronavirus. The fact that many employers feel that their staff have worked as effectively from home in the midst of a global pandemic with no productivity loss, therefore, is quite remarkable.
Some employees even found themselves financially better-off as a result of working from home, due to savings made on eating and drinking out, as well as daily commutes or fuel costs, while others felt that their mental health was vastly improved having been able to spend more quality time with family or by simply making remote working fit around their new routines.
Given this newfound proven success of working from home, then, should those businesses that can easily remain ‘virtual’ do so? Should companies be following suit of the likes of Twitter and Facebook and consider making working from home a more permanent option for staff?
There are a number of arguments opposed to the idea of continuing to work remotely – such as the loss of 1:1 interaction for a start, be it with colleagues, suppliers or key stakeholders. We shouldn’t underestimate the positive knock-on effect and the opportunities gained by face-to-face collaboration and networking in the business world.
Many have found that their work has overtaken their home life space, with every room being taken up with someone sitting at a laptop. For those sharing accommodation, it has proved incredibly challenging as each person tries to carve out a workspace in already confined living conditions. Who really wants to work, live, sleep, eat in the same space each day and how might that impact mental health and social interaction?
Another major obstacle that organisations might face should working from home become the permanent normal is the on boarding of new employees and the recruitment of talent. It is naturally more difficult to give new employees a clear and accurate insight into a company’s vision, strategy and culture whilst working virtually, and it is also challenging for them to build a strong rapport with their new colleagues and business associates. Companies might struggle to foster relationships and tap into the local talent pool when recruiting for new roles within their businesses. There is also more to lose for those new employees yearning to build meaningful workplace relationships and find mentors who can help shape their career pathways and share their learning.
A recent survey carried out by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Ireland found that whilst people have enjoyed the autonomy and freedom that came as part of the working from home package, they have concerns about a negative impact on their mental and physical health in the longer-term. Negative points that were expressed included a lack of time to exercise, loss of sleep due to work-related stress and irregularity of working hours. Many of those who have worked from home have indicated that they seem to be working more hours not less.
There is a lot to be said about embracing a positive attitude in the physical workplace where mental health can be discussed openly and businesses can take proactive steps to address the wider wellbeing of their employees.
In recent weeks we have seen an employee-driven trend across many of Northern Ireland’s major employers in starting to re-open their offices following significant staff demand. Kevin MacAllister, regional lead in NI for Big Four firm PwC, explained that the decision to re-open their 1,000-capacity office had been guided by staff demand and the office is currently occupied by around 100 employees.
Similarly, IT firm Novosco also has some people back in their Titanic Quarter site, following a staff survey which suggested that about a third of employees wanted the option to come into the office. The firm has said it now expects to be operating using a hybrid arrangement of home and office working going forward, which is a view being adopted by a number of other businesses.
At Lanyon, we have also opened up our office for the team and enjoyed the interaction, creativity and engagement that physical interaction brings.
There is clearly an appetite among some of the workforce to bid farewell to the makeshift home office and get back into their proper place of work, whilst others will prefer to ride it out remotely for as long as possible. Regardless, there is no doubt that the workplace will look very different for quite some time to come and alongside that, there is an exciting opportunity to create and test new blended ways of working.
Working from home: Are employees ready for a return to the office?