A year ago, if you had asked almost any employer if their company had plans for the majority of its staff to work from home, you would have received strange looks and a rather firm “no” to you query. Certainly telecommuting has grown tremendously over the last few years, and the technologies that enable workers to accomplish necessary tasks from remote locations have proven themselves effective and valuable. And while the concept had gained a lot of traction, until the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into every employer’s plans for 2020, no one could have anticipated the necessity of so many working from home.
When the pandemic hit and businesses were told to shut down, employers were left with hard questions to answer. Among them:
How many of my employees can work from home?
How many of my workers must be onsite to accomplish their tasks?
If workers can’t be onsite to do their jobs, how many employees can we keep and how many must we let go?
Will those working from home be productive and disciplined?
Will overall productivity suffer?
Can our business survive with so many employees working from home and/or being let go?
Will it cost the company more or less money with so many working remotely?
Well, here we are, nine + months into restrictions and for some employers, these questions have yet to be effectively analyzed. Yes, in some communities workers are finally permitted to return to their offices as long as health and safety protocols are strictly followed and enforced. Those instances are still relatively limited.
Certainly some businesses have figured things out, predominantly at knowledge-based companies where the majority of workers can still accomplish the same tasks from home or other remote workspaces. But this didn’t happen overnight. Software, laptops and other tools had to be made available to employees, along with secure connections to the main office for reliable, effective work to continue. Many employers have now determined that remote work makes sense and instructed employees to continue to work from home through at least the first half of 2021.
Employees now having to work remotely were faced with a number of challenges and questions of their own, like:
What assistance will the employer provide to make the transition to working from home as seamless as possible?
How to integrate a regular work schedule into home life with the distractions of spouses, kids and pets?
If my spouse is also working from home how do we best allocate home based resources so we are both productive?
How to carve out work space in the home devoid of distractions to get work completed?
Do they have the patience, discipline, flexibility and creativity to make this new work environment functional?
Can they be as effective without the presence of supervisors, managers and coworkers or is their productivity dependent on their proximity to others?
Even with all of our connectivity tools for remote work, being separated from your cohorts is isolating. Yes, you’ll use all those communication tools, but you won’t be able to share a laugh or beverage in the break room, you’ll have less recognition of the visual cues provided by body language, and you’ll lose the immediacy that comes from being in the close proximity of the workplace.
Of course the environment in which you work will determine some of that balance. In situations like manufacturing, or other non-office environments, moving large pieces of equipment to workers’ homes is not an option, so those folks will – if allowed to under local conditions – go into their places of work as before. But there will likely be far fewer coworkers present, and those who are present will likely be a little further away than before. For these workers, the questions include:
Am I comfortable and as productive working with less supervision and fewer people around?
Will my coworkers potentially be a negative influence if they adapt a “while the cat’s away, the mice will play” attitude?
Are there systems in place to facilitate communication with those working from home should questions arise that can’t be answered on site?
How will roles of responsibility and leadership evolve with fewer coworkers?
Regardless of the industry, things like personality, dedication, work styles and methods of job execution are different for everyone, yet each of these factors influence how those who remain employed manage their jobs through this bizarre period of our lives. Some will fare better than others, as some will discover they are unprepared for the challenges ahead and will need to find other avenues of employment.
Look at it this way: We’re all presently taking part in the same great social, sociological, economic and cultural experiment. But data collection won’t be complete until the experiment/pandemic is over so we won’t have the complete analysis for quite some time. For now, the best we can hope for is to find ways to work through this hopefully temporary new normal and find comfort in a new balancing act.