Working from home can be a grind: what we miss about the office
Article3 mins16 June 2020
If there are some things we have learnt from the recent COVID-19 lockdown, it is the décor of our work colleagues’ living rooms and the contents of their bookshelves.
The sudden migration of millions of Australians into their makeshift home offices, has also provided both individuals and organisations the most thorough understanding ever of the pros and cons of working at home.
One of the largest surveys undertaken in Australia so far on the mass transition into the virtual workplace has found that most of us found the initial transition to remote working easy. But as the months rolled on, many were yearning for a return to office life.
“Our data is telling us that there are things about working from home they really like. They like not having to commute, for instance” says Chris Alcock from the strategic workplace and change management consulting service Six Ideas by Dexus, which undertook the survey of more than 6,500 Dexus customers from a mix of organisations, roles and locations.
“But they also miss their colleagues and the interaction that happens in the office,’’ he says.
While 78 per cent of the respondents said they enjoyed working from home, 80 per cent also missed the office, 89 per cent missed their colleagues, and nearly half said they were working longer hours. With 40 per cent of the respondents citing the lack the social interaction as the biggest challenge of working at home, other challenges included the blurring of the boundaries between work and home life.
“You lose a fair bit when you don’t have the office. You can replicate most of this online, but it takes extra effort, discipline, skill and expertise.”
Working from home can be hard work
Kai Riemer, a Professor of Information Technology and Organisation at the University of Sydney, says the lockdown has changed our perceptions of working from home.
“The interesting thing is that before the pandemic, working from home has always been one of the main arguments that people would give for why they wanted to work from home is a better work-life balance,” says Riemer.
“That might be true for certain people who find it hard to commute or have carer’s responsibilities. But for most people, what we have now, is that work-life balance is actually worse.”
Riemer also notes how many homes, many which are open plan, are not properly set up for office work, nor is having numerous household members being on different Zoom meetings at the same time.
“It is much harder to be disciplined and draw a boundary around work when you’re at home. It’s much easier to self-exploit and work more. There have been studies in the US which show people work up to three hours more each day now that they’re at home,” says Riemer.
Then there are the endless Zoom meetings.
“In many organisations that have a strong meeting culture, it’s way too easy just to create another Zoom meeting when working remotely. So, people get stuck in Zooms all day at the expense of actually having the time to do their actual work,” says Reimer.
“In the office there is always the extra hurdle of booking a meeting room, which almost curbs the number of meetings that are being scheduled. Now, with the push of a button you can create another meeting, which is a real problem, this meeting creep,” he says.
Working from home not so productive for organisations
“What’s really interesting is the question about productivity,” says Alcock.
“Many people are saying they feel as or more productive at home as they are at the office, but when you ask people what productivity actually means to them, the typical response is about getting the job done.
“But it doesn’t necessarily translate to organisational productivity. An organisation is more than just the sum of people doing individual tasks. It’s about knowledge creation, value creation and sharing ideas and innovation,’’ he says.
Alcock says the recent lockdown “is just accelerating an existing trend and on top of that it’s helping people understand what is possible”.
The other thing that came out of the survey is while there’s more interest in doing more work from home, it’s not absolute.
“Organisations shouldn’t feel pressured to arrive at a binary solution of one or the other. This is a perfect time to explore opportunities for how the work is done best," he says.
“Consider how strategic advantage is gained from harnessing innovation through both curated and incidental collaboration.”
Alcock says the solution will be in finding the “right blend” between working from home and in the office.
“It’s going to be so different for so many organisations. It will depend on many factors. The point is that now we have a demonstration that working from home has some applications for some people some of the time as a perfectly viable way of working.”
That doesn’t mean that the office is going to fundamentally change.
"All the drivers that have led us to where we are now in our major cities are still completely valid," says Alcock.
Loss of proximity makes everything an effort
Riemer explains that virtual work and the loss of proximity makes it more difficult for organisations to coordinate their employees. In an office environment, managers can just walk around and have several very quick conversations to check in with people.
“Everything now is effort. That whole overhead grows, and it just eats into your time,” he says.
“That is why offices are still important, because proximity makes coordination easier and proximity also creates more opportunities for informal sense-making and for the exchange of ideas, and that’s not going to go away.”
But, like Alcock, Riemer says that working from home does have its place.
“If you can divide between the two places, I think that is ideal for many people.
“If you’re just stuck at home like now, it creates a lot of productivity problems around coordination, overhead, effective team supervision, people being lonely and wellbeing issues.
Maintaining a team culture in an organisation is much easier in proximity.
“You lose a fair bit when you don’t have the office. You can replicate most of this online, but it takes extra effort, discipline, skill and expertise,” says Riemer.