NATIONAL NEWS - Although some people are not keen to go back to a physical work place after working from home, a local survey found that the future of work will probably be a blend of remote and office-based work. People miss the social interaction and support offered by an office.
Working from home has not made the office redundant even if it looks as if downscaling or even closing physical office spaces would be the best option, according to a study by University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) MBA graduate Mandi Joubert.
Did people miss the office?
She conducted the research during the height of South Africa’s national lockdown and found that while employees were positive about working from home, they missed the interaction and support their offices provide.
Previous studies indicated that employees with flexible work arrangements that blend office and remote working, had higher levels of engagement than employees who were only office-based or purely worked remotely.
The lockdown provided the ideal “laboratory” to investigate how a group of employees felt when they were forced to work only from home. The global opinion is that Covid-19 will change the future of work, especially remote working, substantially.
Flexitime and flexiplace
The spread of Covid-19 also provided opportunities for businesses and managers to redesign workspaces and physical footprints to adapt to new ways of working with technology making provision for flexitime and flexiplaces.
However, Joubert points out, the research also showed that participants were not ready for a complete change to remote working. They still want a physical office space for face-to-face personal interaction with teams as well as the broader organisation.
“A combination of office- and home-based work in the future could be the best route to greater employee engagement, productivity and performance, benefiting both the individual and the company,” Joubert says.
Joubert’s research are similar to those of the Global Work from Home Experience Survey, which indicated that 76% of respondents would prefer to work from home at least one day a week. This is an increase from 31% before the pandemic.
Being forced to work from home highlighted the benefits of remote working. One employer in the study had already introduced more flexible working arrangements and remote working options when employees could return to the office.
Another closed a satellite office during lockdown to save costs and get teams to work from one office on a rotational system that included working partly remotely and partly in the office.
However, employers should also compare the cost savings of less office space against the cost of equipping staff for remote working, Joubert said.
Another important take away from her research was that employers that provided the resources to work from home significantly contributed to a positive experience and greater productivity. Resources include access to computers, internet, company networks and data, as well as physical resources such as office chairs.
Joubert says organisational culture also makes a difference. Employees found it easier to work from home if managers had clear expectations and trusted them to get on with their work. They also valued employers that provided support, such as online platforms for regular team check-ins and forums for information sharing, as well as raising their concerns and complaints.
Participants reported improved work-life balance, with flexibility to attend to family, personal and work commitments as they arose. They also appreciated the time and cost they saved on travelling to work.
They also found that the lack of the usual office distractions mitigated the distractions at home.
The key disadvantage of working from home was the lack of human interaction, participants said. Video calls and online meetings, while good for keeping in touch, did not replace in-person interaction.
“The informal workplace chats that provide encouragement and motivation and often get things done more efficiently than formal meetings, as well as the non-verbal cues, body language and facial expressions that are not always possible to read in online meetings. Many reported Zoom overload and getting into the habit of turning off cameras,” Joubert said.
In addition, working only from home means “eating, sleeping, working and living all in the same space” and the lack of variety and human contact became “mentally and emotionally demoralising” for some participants, while the number of online meetings could also become overwhelming.
Remote working also caused employees to feel they had lost sight of the company’s “big picture”, while they lost out on the informal training, learning and mentoring that happens in an office environment.
After completing her research, Joubert recommended companies consider blended and flexible working arrangements that enables employees to work from home or remotely for two to three days a week. She recommended that employers:
- Review existing flexible work arrangement policies and consider allowing employees to work remotely for two to three days a week or allow employees to manage their own time and only work from the office when required.
- Ensure that the policy clearly communicates expectations and deliverables.
- Do not encourage work from home only, as regular human interaction is good for employee engagement.
- Prioritise employee wellness and introduce formalised wellness programmes.
- Prioritise diversity and inclusion.
- Reconsider physical office space according to the remote work policy.
- Allow dedicated opportunities in meetings to focus on employees and their wellbeing.
- Adopt a policy of keeping cameras on during meetings to ensure employees can benefit from non-verbal communication and are able to pick up on social cues.