Are We Even Remotely Close to Returning to Business as Usual?

Thursday, July 9, 2020 - 14:25
AIM Blog - We Even Remotely Close to Returning to Business as Usual?

In a survey conducted in 2019, it was found that 99% of workers would choose to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their careers.

It seemed that whether organisations liked it or not, due to the worker demand, the future of work would unequivocally be remote. Then COVID-19 struck and suddenly many of us were forced to work remotely, and to conduct the entirety of our work remotely on top of that.

This was the big silver lining for proponents of remote work, as it proved its viability across diverse industries and functions, tore down the stigma that working from home is an excuse to be lazy, and demonstrated that the traditional office is bordering on antiquated (that’s not to say that there still isn’t significant value gained from shared workplaces). As early into the pandemic as March, one survey found that 74% of companies planned to permanently shift at least 5% of their workforce to remote positions post-COVID.

There should be no debate about this; we know the benefits of remote work. For employees, it can mean greater flexibility, the opportunity to spend more time with their families, and the freedom to choose where they live regardless of work. Meanwhile, organisations can be rewarded with reduced overhead costs, improved diversity and talent, and increased productivity from employee engagement.

It is also 100% true to say that there are pitfalls with remote work: more than 1/5 remote workers say they have difficulty clocking off when their day is meant to be over; according to The Guardian, many employees, especially those who are new to remote work, “are increasing their output to compensate for the lack of visibility offered by an office, and to reassure their colleagues and bosses they’re online and working”; and over a third of Australians report feeling too scared to take sick leave at the moment. Without significant adaptation, we are clearly on a collision course with widespread burnout.

And to add one more cruel and ironic twist of the knife, it is expected that people returning to workplaces will experience enormous mental strain as they adjust to a hybrid of familiar (the commute, the office, conversing with coworkers) and strange (wearing masks/PPE, maintaining social distance, having their temperature read daily).

For obvious reasons, you can’t simultaneously avoid the risk of burnout from remote work and avoid the risk of cognitive dissonance from returning to an alien workplace. A potential solution to this, one that many people are already implementing, is to split their time between home and the office. Assuming that the two risks associated with each situation do not compound or exacerbate one another, it’s a fine idea. It would be a method of maintaining a healthy work-life balance, which we know to be of great importance to career success and general satisfaction.

Unless, that is, you ask business scholar Stewart Friedman, who founded the Wharton Work/Life Project almost three decades ago. To his mind, the very notion of work-life balance is flawed. Friedman says:

It’s a misguided metaphor because it assumes we must always make trade-offs among the four main aspects of our lives: work or school, home or family (however you define that), community (friends, neighbours, religious or social groups), and self (mind, body, spirit).

As an alternative to choosing between these elements of life, Friedman suggests that individuals focus on trying to synergise these separate parts with one another (e.g. inviting family and friends to assist you with a work or study problem, and vice-versa).

Organisations should take note of this ideology and assimilate it into their post-COVID strategy. There is no avoiding the fact that some employees will strongly desire a return to the office, some will be determined to keep working from home, and some will want to do a bit of both. Rather than fighting this in whichever direction, organisations should seek to fully integrate in-office and out-of-office work situations with one another and strive towards effective collaboration between the two. This could mean investing in emerging information and communications technology or discovering how team leaders can best motivate their staff from a distance. It could also mean building a new company culture that isn’t based around geography.

Throughout this pandemic, one of the most oft-repeated question has been: when are we returning to business as usual? The answer is quite likely never. The world has changed, for a myriad of reasons, not just COVID-19, and progress continues as it always has. The future is coming.

But it’s important to remember that remote work was always the inevitable future; COVID-19 merely pushed the calendar forward.