What We're Learning From Work From Home

June 17, 2020 John Rossheim

5-minute read

woman working on laptop

The first half of 2020 has brought disruption of historic proportions to organizations in all industries. But as the pandemic and the reckoning on racial justice play out, many employers have begun reopening and even rehiring. So it’s time for employers to start acting on what the disruption is teaching us, to see what we can create out of it. A good starting point is the abrupt shift of tens of millions of office workers to remote work.

“Six months ago, if people asked to work from home, we’d hear a lot of pushback and questions: ‘Do we have the right technologies, what are the costs,’ ”says Buck Rogers, North Carolina vice president of Keystone Partners. “Now people have moved on to, ‘What’s the best way to do this?’”

What are the tradeoffs with a physically isolated workforce?

Work from home (WFH) has its ups and downs for workers and for their employers.

Unless a company goes out of its way to micromanage, employees working from home are better able to avoid counterproductive interruptions and manage their own time than they were in the office. That can benefit everyone.

When an entire workforce is remote, there’s a leveling effect that gives a boost to less visible team members. “We used to write off people who joined in-person meetings remotely,” says Rogers. “Now we’re including more people more effectively.”

But there are limits to what can be communicated in a video call. “There are conversations that you’ll go into in-person that wouldn’t happen online,” says Heather Deyrieux, president of HR Florida State Council. This makes the case for at least occasional in-person meetings when public health conditions permit; 95% telecommuting offers advantages over a 100% remote policy.

What does WFH reveal about productivity?

A big question for employers has been: How productive are our employees when they work from home?

Some have been surprised by the answer. “Managers thought they wouldn’t get as much productivity from workers at home, but they’re discovering that they’re getting the same level, or more,” says Deyrieux.

Sapience Analytics has found many of its clients’ employees have actually spent more time working since they started telecommuting, compared to before the lockdown. Average employees at two clients in the software and services industry are spending between 36 and 90 minutes more time working each day; at a financial services client, employees are working 84 additional minutes. Whether these employees are actually producing more is a separate question. 

With widespread work from home, employers should remain mindful of the potential for overwork. “Some people feel they have to always be on,” says Deyrieux. That’s not healthy, and it’s counterproductive if people burn out. “It’s up to managers and teams whether to formalize limits on who’s working when.”

The extraordinary psychological pressures of 2020 are bound to affect the productivity of us mere mortals. “We have to keep in mind that people will have ebbs and flows in productivity, even more so with the stress on everyone now,” says Deyrieux. “It’s important to have a standard about how time is tracked, but employers need to be flexible.”

Should employers look at WFH as a policy that employees should be grateful for?

Labor market forces will eventually determine whether work from home is an equitable compact between employers and workers.

“Work from home is still a perk, even though many have been forced into it,” says Deyrieux. And WFH does offer personal advantages to at least some workers. According to an Azurite Consulting survey of 3,500 U.S. respondents, 37% of employees said they have an improved work/life balance now compared to pre-COVID-19; some 24% said their work/life balance is getting worse. 

But there is another way to look at it: Employees are doing their employers a favor by not taking up expensive commercial real estate, by adapting their homes to office use, by winning cooperation from other household members, and so on. Employers should recognize that contribution and reward it where appropriate.

What can WFH teach us about how HR policies and benefits play out for diverse workers?

Work from home is exposing biases, both at work and on the homefront. WFH might even create new opportunities for discrimination to creep in.

Since the COVID-19 lockdown, men are much more likely than women to submit papers to conferences or journals, says Ben Waber, CEO of Humanyze and a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab. “A hypothesis is that women academics are expected to take care of the kids, so there’s less time for their work.”

WFH may exacerbate inequalities that have long plagued some demographic groups in the workforce. “Black people and women historically have less access to professional networks, which can cut off opportunities for advancement,” Waber says. “Work from home can make this problem worse.”

Employers need to take a close look at the intersection of WFH with diversity and inclusion. “Companies moving employees to full-time WFH should do so cautiously,” says Waber. “Are there disparate impacts? We have to actively root them out.”

Perhaps most important, organizations must beware of a perennial danger to a WFH workforce: Out of sight is out of mind. “This is the time to prove to your team what you’re doing for them as people,” says Deyrieux.

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About the Author

John Rossheim

John Rossheim writes about healthcare, diversity, recruiting and human resources.

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