There was a time when concepts such as social distancing, lockdown, and work from home (WFH) were considered as a possibility in a distant future or a dystopian sci-fi. But Covid-19 made these terms a living and breathing reality for all of us. While adapting to lockdown and social distancing mandates, customers have learned to stay at home and shop online. At the same time, majority of global workforce, across industries, has learned to work from home.
WFH was once considered an employee benefit, which was sparingly doled out to those who were in dire need or had truly earned it. Few companies had a digital infrastructure in place to support WFH for their entire workforce. And even when WFH was offered to employees, neither HR nor line managers viewed it as an ideal work arrangement.
There was always an element of doubt regarding the employees’ engagement, availability, and productivity while they were working from home. This changed dramatically in the year that the world battled Covid-19. While 2020 has been a disruptive year in almost every sense possible, it has definitely begun a new era of workplace norms and culture. And WFH is very much ready to graduate from being the forced, ‘new normal’ to being a ‘new beginning’.
Increased Productivity: The biggest benefit of WFH for employers as well as employees, was a marked increase in productivity. An HBR study found that employees were able to spend 12% less time in meetings and 9% more time in handling customers and external partners. WFH also made employees responsible for their own schedule, increasing their involvement in activities considered to be value adding for themselves and for their organizations.
Adoption of New Technologies: According to a Deloitte survey, more than 75% of office workers adopted at least two new technologies, as the lockdown began and they were forced to work from home. WFH not only expedited the digital transformation for industries, across the board; it also drove employees to get past their personal technology adoption barriers.
Flexible Work-hours and Work-life-balance: Work-hour flexibility is inherent to WFH, even when employees are expected to be available online within specific timeframe. The increased flexibility in schedule also creates a greater feeling of work-life-balance. While pre-Covid-19, WFH was generally availed by employees when they had domestic responsibilities to attend to; the now normalized WFH has allowed them to manage work and personal life more effectively.
Inclusive Job Market: Inclusion and diversity in the job market is something that employers have always struggled to provide and aspirants have desperately wished for. Mandatory WFH dissolved geographical barriers almost overnight and allowed companies to hire global talent, remotely. The market also became more open for women seeking second career opportunities or part time roles, freelancers and contractual workers, as well as persons with disabilities.
Saved Time and Costs: WFH also meant tremendous savings in terms of time and costs. Employees saved precious hours which were earlier spent in transit to their workplace. Additionally, personal overheads such as food and childcare also reduced. At the same time, employers were able to realize cost savings in terms of transport allowance, office rent, and other overheads as things went digital.
But where good things happened, normalized WFH also came with some inherent risks.
Increased Isolation: Office work environment definitely offers increased opportunities for social interactions, collaborations, and networking. Even though with WFH people continued to work effectively using emails, calls, Zoom, and MSOffice; the social element of inter-personal interactions took a dip. Employees experience a general increase in feelings of isolation and loneliness as they continued to WFH for months.
Risk of Overworking: The same Deloitte study that recorded increased technology adoption during WFH, also reported 38% office workers experiencing negative impact on their wellbeing. As work-hours became flexible, so did the risk of over-working. Employees started logging off late, skipping lunch breaks or even calls of nature. The newness of WFH wore out very soon and employees were left struggling with their overworked schedules and potential burnout.
Therefore, WFH, while replete with benefits, have its own set of shortcomings which has forced employees as well as employers to rethink its effectiveness. As the Covid-19 restrictions have become relaxed and economies are beginning to recover, WFH is no longer a mandate. Employers, all over the world, have thus opened up their offices and employees are moving back into the office space (sometimes eagerly, and sometimes grudgingly).
It goes without saying, then, that WFH is clearly not a new normal. Given the chance and opportunity, millions of people are still willing to give the work-from-office a try. But there is also a sizeable chunk of the workforce that has come to appreciate the benefits of WFH and willing to continue working remotely.
For organizations all over the world, this makes WFH a new beginning. Employers are looking at WFH with new eyes and evaluating its many benefits in monetary terms. Many organizations have rolled out WFH opting policies for their staff and are investing in technologies that can make WFH sustainable and value adding in long term.
If unplanned WFH can result in improved productivity and increased cost savings, imagine what planned and voluntary WFH can do? That is the question which the post-Covid-19 HR managers and organizations are brooding about today, and that’s what will shape the future of work tomorrow.