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Home Canadian News Making work from home work better: Jennifer Moss

Making work from home work better: Jennifer Moss

It’s now nine weeks into lockdown and you’re on your hundredth Zoom meeting.

It’s early and you just want to turn off your video, but you can’t, so you log in and try to stay focused. You miss your coworkers. You miss how fast you could work through problems in person. You miss sitting at your actual desk at work.

But for now, it looks like this is your world — indefinitely. 

For a good portion of the workforce, this sounds like a dream come true — they were built for the work-from-home life.

For another part of the workforce, this sounds like their worst nightmare.

With recent announcements from Twitter, Shopify and OpenText among others, announcing their work-from-home forever policy, some of their less enthusiastic work-remote employees are wondering: how this will work for them? 

Draw of going digital first 

It may seem like this decision to switch to a permanent work-from-home policy was made rather rapidly, but in actuality, this plan has been in the works for years. But for whatever reason — inertia or habit ¡ it never became a top priority until now.

Like so many other industries, the pandemic forced a pivot. And, with one taking the leap, like dominoes, the rest fell in line. These companies and others now don’t need to fear that they are taking a competitive risk either from a culture standpoint because now “everyone’s doing it.”

Not only are there decades of research, promoting flexible and work remote scenarios as chalk-full of benefits for our happiness and well-being, but there is also strong research that promotes how healthy it is for the environment.

So, when the lockdown struck, companies like OpenText started to gather data. Over two months of working from home, as productivity levels remained steady across 95 per cent of its 15,000 employees, it was suddenly a much easier decision for them to decrease their real-estate footprint by 50 per cent. That will result in a cost-savings of $65 to $75 million USD per year. 

Shopify was also quick to reduce its physical footprint by securing only 25 per cent of its current office space. As a result, both companies are redesigning their current offices to become digital-first workplaces.

Obviously, it benefits companies right now to save money where they can, but this decision remains risky. Without long-term data, they can’t determine whether productivity will remain high over time.

When you have a giant variable, like a pandemic, it can’t be compared to times when it’s business as usual. And, while some people thrive when they work from home, others experience loneliness, isolation and burnout. 

Not everyone likes to work from home

There are a myriad reasons why some people like working from home and others don’t. But two major reasons can be linked back to industry and persona. The former is based on ease.

For tech employees who just need a laptop, internet and power, they can pretty much work from anywhere. Particularly for those who aren’t client-facing or have to spend their days engaging with others. For all those roles, including myself as a speaker and writer, all I need is my computer and some quiet. 

Industries that don’t fare as well working remote happen to be in education, which is a huge sign that e-learning may be challenging to retain and attract teachers to the profession if it continues to move in this direction.

Right now, teachers are working from home at the exact same numbers as tech companies. And they aren’t happy about it. In a large survey of nearly 10,000 employees, 95 per cent of the teachers surveyed said they never want to work from home and some teachers said that they used to want to work from home, but they have now have zero interest.

So, there is a major difference between someone working in marketing, tech, consulting and those types of sectors than someone trying to get 30 grade one students to pay attention on Zoom. 

Secondly, from a persona perspective, some people love to go to a physical place to work. They really enjoy the interactions with coworkers. It makes them more creative; they are energized by the activity.

A fascinating research experiment by Google found that when they slowed down the food line slightly during lunch hour, it led to more innovative and creative meetings. Employees would chat about a project and then proceed to eat together and solve problems. These are the serendipitous moments that happen when ideas collide at work.

For some people, their personas are driven by these moments. My husband is a great example: his title is chief happiness officer, so you can imagine how hard it has been for him to work remotely without being able to engage in real life conversations with his team.

He is an extrovert, which means in the workplace, he draws energy from people and it motivates him. For others who are more introverted like me, we are fuelled in other ways, so it isn’t as necessary to be in that space with others. 

Can we make WFH optimal? 

It should be noted that I am hopeful that these work from home policies will benefit employees in the end. It may take some trial and error, but if these organizations consider well-being in their strategies, they will get to a balanced approach to being a digital first company.

To ensure well-being is baked into the strategy, leaders need to ensure they haven’t swung the pendulum too far in one direction and as a result, ignore the needs of all employees.

They will need to poke holes in their strategy by asking:

  1. Have we analyzed how this could be a potential risk to our equity and inclusion strategy? Does it leave out specific groups currently in our workforce, and anyone seeking to become part of our team? 
  2. Is our entire workforce set up to work from home effectively and easily?
  3. What about space?  For example, what if one of our employees works in a studio and they recently added a baby to that space? Where will they work? Are they forced to work out of the home? Are there easily accessible co-working spaces for them?
  4. Have you analyzed sustainable productivity loads? New research claims that employees are working 30 per cent more each day to hit their same productivity goals. Is this just a pandemic problem, or will this remain part of the work from home scenario? It will be important to monitor this data because before long, the echo pandemic will be chronic stress, exhaustion and finally burnout in our workforce.
  5. Can we cover all the resources and tools a person needs to work effectively from their homes? Do they have proper chairs, desks, internet speed, etc. The money saved from downsizing on the commercial real estate could most certainly make up for those costs.
  6. It will be important to remember for leaders, this isn’t a “gift” to employees so they shouldn’t feel like they are indebted. This is a policy change and will require monitoring and data gathering and assurances that success for everyone is a priority. 

Research shows that the happiest, most engaged employee is one who goes into the office once per week. This makes it all the more important for managers to still meet with their team in person when possible.

Employers should provide ways for employees to access time together when work life returns to normal. If employees are local, that could mean gathering in person bi-weekly or monthly should be commonplace. Having in-person meetings between supervisor and employees is still something that should remain in place. Perhaps quarterly or even more frequently. In general, balance will be key to pulling off this massive shift and when that happens, everyone will be happy. 

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