After more than a year in which millions of office workers around the globe were forced to work from home for months and did so (mostly) successfully, businesses are faced with the following question: Does 2021 herald the end of the physical office?
Down-scaling or even closing physical office spaces might look like the way of the future, but a University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) study found that the future of work more likely lies in a blend of remote and office-based work.
USB MBA graduate Mandi Joubert conducted the research at the height of South Africa’s national lockdown to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus and found that while employees experienced many positives in working from home, they missed the interaction and support of an office environment.
She said previous studies had shown that employees with flexible work arrangements, able to blend office and remote working, had higher levels of engagement than employees who were either firmly office-based or worked exclusively remotely, and the lockdown had provided the ideal “laboratory” to investigate this among a group of employees forced to work exclusively from home.
“Globally it is anticipated that Covid-19 will have far-reaching impact on the future of work and especially remote working. The rapid change in ways of working forced by the spread of Covid-19 provide opportunities for organisations and managers to redesign their workspaces and physical footprints to accommodate new ways of working, both in flexitime and ‘flexiplace’, enabled by new technology.
“However, the research also showed that participants were not ready for a complete shift to remote work – a physical office space to allow face-to-face personal interaction within teams and within the broader organisation will remain a requirement.”
“A combination of office- and home-based work in future could be the best route to greater employee engagement, productivity and performance, benefiting both the individual and the company.”
Joubert recommends companies consider blended and flexible working arrangements, enabling employees to work from home or remotely for two to three days a week.
Employee engagement – where employees feel connected to their work, are energised, mentally resilient, dedicated and involved – is important, she said, because it has been shown to influence customer satisfaction and profitability, and because it is seen as the opposite of employee burnout, which in turn impacts negatively on business results.
Joubert’s research echoed the findings of the Global Work from Home Experience Survey which found that 76% of respondents would want to work from home at least one day per week, an increase from 31% before the pandemic.
Some companies that have seen the benefits of remote working are already implementing lessons from lockdown, she said, with one employer in the study introducing more flexible working arrangements and remote working options once employees could return to the office when hard lockdown restrictions were eased.
Another had closed down a satellite office during lockdown because of the cost-savings achieved by having teams all work from one office, on a rotation system where they worked partly remotely and partly in-office.
“These are positive signals of employers seeing the benefits and acting on them, but they would also need to weigh up the cost savings of reducing office space against the costs of properly equipping staff for remote working,” Joubert said.
Her research showed that companies providing the resources to work effectively from home significantly contributed to a positive experience and greater productivity. These included access to computers, internet connections, company networks and data, as well as physical resources such as office chairs, with one participant reporting that their employer had delivered office chairs and headsets to all their staff.
Organisational culture also makes a difference – employees’ work-from-home experience was much more positive when managers’ expectations were clear and they felt they were trusted to get on with their work. Employees valued companies that provided support such as online platforms for regular team check-ins and forums for information sharing and to raise concerns and complaints.
Joubert said participants said they experienced improved work-life balance, with the flexibility to attend to family, personal and work commitments as they arose, as well as time and costs saved on commuting.
While there were distractions in working from home, participants said these balanced out with the lack of the usual office distractions.
The key disadvantage was the lack of human interaction.
“Video calls and online meetings were a positive for keeping in touch with colleagues but didn’t replace in-person interaction – the informal workplace chats that are part of the social nature of work, that provide encouragement and motivation and often get things done more efficiently than formal meetings, as well as the non-verbal cues, body language and facial expressions that aren’t always possible to read in online meetings, especially with many suffering Zoom-overload and getting into h habit of turning off cameras,” Joubert said.
Working exclusively from home means “eating, sleeping, working, living all in the same space” and the lack of variety and human contact became “mentally and emotionally demoralising” for some participants, while the volume of online meetings can become overwhelming.
“There is a negative impact on communication and opportunities for spontaneous collaboration when people are not all working in the same space, where it is possible to get quick answers, solve problems quickly in person rather than waiting for response to emails or messages, or call quick meetings or brainstorming sessions to work out a problem.”
Joubert said it was especially significant that remote working, where the focus was mainly on the job of one’s own team, caused employees to feel they had lost sight of the company’s “big picture”, of what was happening in the business overall.
Working full-time from home also meant that employees lost out on the informal training, learning and mentoring that happens between junior and senior colleagues in an office set-up.
“All of these downsides of a lack of physical, face-to-face interaction were the key reason for participants want to alternate home and office work. None preferred a 100% full-time return to office-based work, but they definitely wanted some office time at least.
“Ideally, they wanted to be able to manage their own diaries and schedules and how they achieved set targets and deadlines.”
Joubert’s recommendations for managers and companies considering new ways of working in a post-Covid-19 world include:
- Review existing flexible work arrangement (FWA) policies and consider allowing employees to work remotely for 2-3 days a week, or alternatively allow employees to manage their own time and only work from the office when needed.
- Exclusive work from home is not encouraged, as regular human interaction is beneficial for employee engagement.
- If an FWA policy is adopted, expectations and deliverables should be clearly communicated.
- Prioritise employee wellness and introduce formalised wellness programmes. Ensure that employee wellbeing is being practiced as well as preached. Prioritise diversity and inclusion.
- Reconsider physical office space. Reconsider the amount of office floor space needed in accordance with the applicable remote work policy.
- Allow dedicated opportunities in meetings to focus on employees and their wellbeing instead of only focusing on operational discussions.
- Adopt a policy of cameras on during meetings to ensure employees can benefit from non-verbal communication and are able to pick up on social cues.
“The sample size was small, with 14 participants, but they did represent nine different industries and different organisational levels. The circumstances of a global pandemic brought with them particular anxieties and uncertainties, companies weren’t necessarily well-prepared for a sudden shift to remote working, and employees had additional challenges such as a lack of childcare and domestic support which might not be there in more normal circumstances.
“On the plus side, the weight of the findings is strengthened by the fact that all participants were able to report on their remote working experiences ‘in real time’ rather than theoretically or after the fact, since they were all working from home at the same time and in the same context of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
She said the results of the study made it worth exploring the relationship between remote working and employee engagement further.