If we thought that the debate about home working was lively before Covid-19, then it was nothing compared to now! People have been diligently working from home for the last few months as part of a big, unplanned experiment that has pushed many to their limits, for many reasons.

In determining how things are going, I read a lot of research, commentary and opinion about home working. It’s good to see a range of evidence and opinion, and to recognise that some opinions are presented as facts and we should all be wary of generalisations.

Here are some examples, and my views about keeping a balance when considering how to make use of all the advice, guidance and direction available.

“People can’t sustain working from home”

I was recently told, quite forcefully, that “everyone is tired of working from home” and they need to get back to the office. People talk about Zoom fatigue; how home workers were energised immediately post lockdown, but they’re now running out of steam and can’t sustain it; and working from home is just tiring and not as productive as being in the office.

It seems that people were carried through the initial lockdown period by adrenaline. Keen to ensure they continued to work well for their team colleagues / manager / organisation, they went the extra mile, worked longer hours, and put in extra effort. All this at a time when there was enormous uncertainty and anxiety about the virus and what it meant for the future.

As a consultancy that helps organisations deliver change, we know that change is hard. To be successful, change consumes huge amounts of energy, requires carefully crafted change management support and time. The Covid-19 lockdown happened with little notice and no time for an effective change management process before people were sent home. There was a level of understanding that this version of home working was unlike anything we’d seen before – accompanied as it was for many people by:

  • children needing to be looked after and/or home schooled
  • partners or home sharers working alongside us
  • inadequate facilities to ensure comfortable ergonomic working
  • a need to support friends / family who were shielding or vulnerable

There was no choice or involvement in the design of solutions – important aspects of change management. But in a time of crisis, decisions are made and people do as they are asked.

Thus began a big experiment – a way of working denied to so many for so long was now within their grasp, albeit in very sub-optimal conditions for many. Those that had always wanted to do some work from home (our surveys over 20 years typically show that most people would like to work 2-3 days pw from home) jumped at the chance and realised they could show what they were made of. Those that hadn’t really wanted to work at home got the chance to try it out. We were all in it together – and to large degree we still are – for now.

After the adrenaline fuelled period, some cracks are beginning to show. Our brains are wired for safety and are constantly alert to threats to our well-being. There’s been plenty of that to keep our brains on the edge for the last 4 months. Combined with this are the myriad ways in which working apart from colleagues produces stress on our cognition, from the need to pay more attention during video calls, to the lack of physical / social interaction, so important for human relationships.

These things literally wear us out, particularly combined with the need to home school and share space with our co-workers at home! I feel that part of the problem is that people had no idea how long lock down would last, but assumed it wouldn’t be too long. They mentally prepared themselves for a sprint rather than a marathon – and are now finding things more difficult, adjusting to a different period (perhaps with little change support) and with uncertainty as to whether they will be summoned back to the office.

Rather than assuming the solution to the current challenge is to return to the office, my belief is that we should be looking at how to sustain ourselves over the longer term – looking after ourselves, paying attention to what we need to be fully effective and sharing this with colleagues so that not only can we ensure our own performance and fulfillment, but we can support each other and find the very best ways to achieve our team goals. AWA advises clients to draw up “working together” team agreements. This helps to identify ways we can help each other to work together better. It may include things like:

  • an agreement to schedule Zoom calls for 45mins to provide breaks between calls
  • encouragement for people to take time for themselves during the working day to recharge
  • having a meeting free day of the week or only holding meetings during core hours, to leave the other parts of the day more flexible
  • having purely social activities or including social chat as part of meetings (and that’s ok)

Also, having regular 1:1s which focus on how people are coping and developing, rather than progress chasing and fault finding. The role of managers now more than ever is to provide the right conditions for people to do their best work, even under trying circumstances. Sustaining psychological safety and trust are critical, and although this is harder to do when we work apart, it is by no means impossible – we just have to pay attention and be more intentional.

“We are more productive in the office”

When researching knowledge worker productivity, academics concluded that it’s impossible to measure in any consistent and replicable way – because of the multiplicity of inputs and outputs involved. In the absence of any robust measurements, we have come to rely on self-reporting (and the views of managers) to determine how productive people are. Clearly some teams and organisations have specific aspects that can be measured in terms of deliverables / outputs, but these still may not be a direct measure of the effort and effectiveness of the people doing the work.

Survey results often show that “x% of respondents” (usually quite a high number) feel more productive working at home (or in the office). This is a feeling – a best guess – it is not a measurement. And yet these figures are often quoted as evidence of actual productivity levels.

When asked if we feel more or less productive, or how different factors affect our productivity, there is generally no context or description of what is meant by productivity. If I feel more productive today than yesterday, does that mean that I got more done, or that I had more energy, better discussions with colleagues, or what? Have I been more productive in terms of tasks completed (whatever the nature of those tasks) or do I feel that the quality of the work produced is superior than under other circumstances? The results are all subjective. And in any case, am I doing the right things that equate to the achievement of my personal or team objectives?

Another dimension is the degree to which people endorse their preferred choice of working when responding to surveys or discussing their performance. If we like working from home, we’re unlikely to admit that we are less productive than when we work in the office (and vice versa). As such this ‘evidence’ is laden with potential misdirection and should be treated as such – simply as a guide and an indication in terms of people’s preferences.

A final thought on productivity in the office. AWA has run staff surveys for several decades and we typically find lots of aspects of office life that affect productivity – from lighting / heating through noise / interruptions to lack of the right form of meeting / collaboration space. Years of workplace utilisation studies show that desks are unoccupied typically 40% – 50% of the time because they don’t fulfil the range of needs that knowledge workers have. So let’s not forget that the world that people are keen to go back to was far from ideal from a productivity standpoint. The much-missed serendipity and creativity sparked by personal interactions in the office come at a cost. So that we can occasionally bump into people and get information we might not have otherwise had, we have to work for the rest of the day in a noisy, distracting environment where the rest of our performance is potentially compromised. Is that a good trade?

“Everyone wants to get BACK to normal”

As has been said so often – work is WHAT we do, not WHERE we do it. The big work from home experiment has provided an opportunity to find the right balance for each person. The desire to go backwards (back to the office, back to normal), while understandable in many ways, feels counter intuitive when there is an opportunity to adopt a more progressive future model of work.

By refocusing on people development, we can give people real choice, to empower, to enable them to find meaning in their work (and not destroy meaning through clumsy management practices) and to facilitate better balance in their lives. While there is some evidence that millennial’s may be motivated more by meaning and purpose than financial reward, it is clear that doing work that matters and makes a difference is important for all generations. Hence organisations must re-frame work, shape it in the best way to deliver these aspects to secure and develop the best talent. Providing choice and flexibility to a generation for whom work doesn’t have the same meaning as for the baby boomer generation is vital for long term business transformation. Finally, many people are clearly tired after 4-5 months of working apart, particularly if they are struggling with things that make the home environment sub-optimal. We should therefore step up, identify the issues and tackle them proactively to create a better normal, not revert to an old one that’s arguably past its sell-by date.