Why We Don’t Believe “Work From Home” Will Be the New Normal
In every meeting or conference we attend, it seems to me that a lot of the experts are passionately arguing and advocating for what we call the “New Normal”. One can’t fault them for it, either. We live in strange times. If we were to write a story about a dystopian society, this exceeds many plots, and as the old saying goes, the truth is stranger than fiction.
There’s a quote from a show which goes something “the costliest and the most disruptive of disruptions happen when the small things that we take for granted every day stop working”. It is quite apt for the circumstances. The pandemic has disrupted the daily processes we used to take for granted, our concept of workplaces being one of them.
If we go back to our experts, the general consensus seems to be that this new normal is here to stay, especially for knowledge workers. We are going to work from the confines of our homes. Even after we emerge from the pandemic, WFH (work from home) could be the new regular. But what if we’re putting too much emphasis on the here and now? Could work-from-home not be the new normal?
Why Is WFH Being Projected To Be The New Normal?
Let’s start right here in 2021 where there are a number of reasons why WFH simply works better. Because of these factors, WFH could initially (at least) seem like a better alternative to the “new normal.” Here are a few of the reasons why.
It Works Better For Parents
WFH works very well for moms and dads, especially single parents. Though you may have to deal with the occasional distraction or dancing child in the background of your morning Zoom meetings, WFH offers parents the ability to attend to their children personally. This is a good thing for both children and parents.
Additionally, if you are a single parent, working from home potentially saves you money by cutting out the costs of child care. For new parents who are still learning the ropes, having both mom and dad at home helps, especially during these often difficult times during the pandemic. WFH forces parents to be in the same physical space as their kids. In today’s digital age, that directly translates to more direct care, and a closer bond with children when they need it most.
Increased Work Focus: An Unexpected Side Effect Of WFH
One of the things many people are particularly surprised about is the significant benefits offered by WFH in terms of productivity. Ironically, we are able to focus on tasks much better, barring distractions (and, yes, people) at the office. For the past year, we’ve been forced to not just understand remote environments, but to actively create situations with greater productivity.
In the post-WFH world, you have to work in an environment that optimally suits you and also helps you to manage your time most effectively. In many cases, this increased focus translates to increased productivity.
We Want It To Work
This is one of the most critical aspects when it comes to the sentiment towards WHF. It’s hard to argue that circumstance doesn’t affect the outcome. Simply put, we don’t have much of a choice at this point in time – it’s either WFH or not work at all. Therefore, we want WFH to work, because our livelihood often depends on it.
It is true that WFH works great for some people. There are clear positives to working from home, both for individuals and organizations. We completely agree with this particular point.
But when it comes to WFH becoming the new normal? There are significant obstacles and pitfalls that would accompany that.
Why WFH Won’t Be The New Normal
We see at least a few different reasons why we believe that WFH won’t be the new normal. At least not for most.
Physical Proximity Matters
Physical proximity is an important aspect of how we both learn and work. There are various aspects and behaviors that we have inculcated, making it difficult to work in a setting where there is no physical proximity.
For instance, think about communication. There’s that (in)famous statistic that states 93% of our communication is non-verbal. Having face-to-face interaction engages elements of body language that don’t come into play in the same fashion during a video meeting. This non-verbal communication is arguably just as if not more important than communication that takes place over email.
LinkedIn Learning’s workplace learning report 2021 sheds some light on the effect WFH is having on employees. The report stated that 31% of employees say they feel less connected to the leaders of their organizations and 37% say they feel less connected with their team. These are the numbers after a year of earnest effort on everyone’s part to make WFH work.
We also learn a lot through interactions, and through informal communication. Various studies also point to how people working in the same room are able to solve complex problems faster than virtual teams. This underscores the importance of having a physical workplace and the interactions that come with it.
It’s Potentially Too Difficult To Hire & Integrate New Team Members
New employees are perhaps the ones who struggle the most when attempting to take on the complexities of work in a virtual workplace.
If you ask around, you’ll hear a great many people saying that they have never actually met the people they are working with, in person. Interpersonal contact, as noted above, is all but impossible to achieve in the present.
Additionally, integrating new employees becomes a big problem for employers as well. How do you go about getting someone to appreciate the depth, scale, and complexity of the business? How do you instill the core functions behind the structures and processes in an organization that keeps it all going, all virtually?
Experiencing the more intangible aspects of an organization, like its culture and values, is far more difficult in a virtual setting. Learning the ropes of the organization becomes that much more difficult for someone who already has their work cut out for them.
Difficulties In Setting & Maintaining Work/Life Boundaries
This is likely something anybody who is currently working remotely can relate to. Going to work and coming back home used to give us time to switch between mental modes. Our daily commutes gave us time to process and set aside the personal aspects of our lives and get into “work mode”. With the “always-on” mentality that many of us have adopted over the past year, these boundaries are now almost non-existent.
A cursory search offers a number of studies that show that we are now working longer hours. A Harvard Business School study of more than 3.1 million people across 16 cities says that the length of the average workday has increased by 8.2%. A NordVPN study paints an even more exhausted picture; finding that the average workday was lengthened by 2 hours (3 hours if you limit the finding to U.S. employees).
Distractions Are Real
If you think you’re the only one who finds themselves more distracted than before, think again. Distraction is real. A little bit of online shopping or a quick episode of your Netflix series during work hours is not an uncommon practice. While we may be working more hours than we previously were, we are less focused than before, living in a world of distractions.
Distractions are also the result of having to attend to the other duties at home, not just social media and shopping. With children and other members of the family also staying in, we are increasingly being called away from work to engage in natural interactions of occupying the same space as others. Naturally, this affects how long it takes to complete a task.
The impact of spontaneous interactions, offline conversations, and watercooler chats built around creativity and innovation cannot be understated. Studies show that casual conversations – the kind of things you talk about with your coworkers around the water cooler – increase creativity and productivity among employees.
Innovation often comes from the random flights of fancy that we embark on. And of course, there are certain triggers for these. Perhaps a casual mention someone made about something totally unrelated to work. Or something that was discussed on the sidelines of a meeting. Regardless of the many ways in which these conversations take place, how do you replicate these in a virtual environment?
It is our opinion that when it comes to working from home, there’s more to lose than gain. However, cost-benefit analyses can vary from person to person. We conceding that there are some people or roles that are simply better suited for a WFH approach, but it can still be argued that isn’t entirely.
From burnout and other mental health issues to productivity figures, we’re already seeing objective numbers that suggest that WFH might not be the optimal approach. When such a time comes, it’s very likely that many employees will vote in favor of going back to the office, not WFH. Although, in some cases, a hybrid approach may be adopted.
As a result of the pandemic, we are indeed rethinking our relationship with work and the workplace. However, like all things in life, there’s more gray here than there is black or white. Hybrid work arrangements will become increasingly common, with employees getting more power to decide where they work from and how they work, depending on context. This may be the type of change most people can get behind. But as for WFH? Once the pandemic is no longer forcing us to stay apart, it’s more likely to become a footnote than the “new normal.”