Life After Lockdown: Work-from-home becomes a norm, but companies must address arising downsides

Ratziel San Juan - Philstar.com
Life After Lockdown: Work-from-home becomes a norm, but companies must address arising downsides

Philstar.com's Life After Lockdown is a compendium of references on Filipinos' shift to a new normalcy during a coronavirus pandemic.

MANILA, Philippines — Before the coronavirus pandemic happened, companies enticed would-be applicants by featuring the option to work remotely on job postings.

With employees recently forced to work from home (WFH) in accordance with COVID-19 social distancing measures, doubts over benefits of remote setup began to arise.

  • Working from home was previously linked to increased performance and lower quit rates, based on Nicholas Bloom's 2015 paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics entitled "Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment."
  • However, we have no reason to expect the same productive outcome during a lockdown, according to a co-author of the study.
  • “Everyone assumes I would be gushing over the global rollout of working from home... Unfortunately not,” said researcher Bloom, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

Why the idea is being reconsidered: The advantages of remote work as we knew it before the lockdown have been reduced or eliminated altogether by complications arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

  • A less-than-conducive work environment at home spells a "productivity disaster for firms," as described by a Stanford economist.
  • Factors like children, space, privacy and choice—all controlled in previous research on WFH productivity—have gone out the window.
  • Disruption in work-life balance has remote workers facing isolation and burnout.

What are the recommended prerequisites for a successful WFH program? Children under the watch of a school or daycare, a home office (not a bedroom) where entry is prohibited during work hours, privacy from distracting elements, and personal choice to work remotely.

  • Mandatory work-from-home coincides with closure of schools, forcing working parents to take on double roles during their home shifts now unlike before the lockdown.
  • Choice is important. Even with the option to work from home, the test subjects of the above study – workers at a Chinese travel company – still asked to return to the office even if it was inconvenient.
  • “The answer is social company,” Bloom explained. “They reported feeling isolated, lonely and depressed at home. So, I fear an extended period of working from home will not only kill office productivity but is building a mental health crisis.”

Effects of long-term work-from-home setup: Absence of these crucial elements has blurred the lines between work and home.

  • A survey by graphic design-company Canva found respondents in the United States experiencing symptoms of workaholism like losing sleep over work stress, skipping meals because of work, guilty when leaving before colleagues, guilt or anxiety when not working, difficulty disengaging from work and working over a 40-hour week.
  • Even before COVID-19, people have experienced issues with prolonged remote work, according to social media management software company Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2019.
  • Struggles of remote workers include unplugging after work, loneliness, collaborating and/or communication, distractions at home, being in a different timezone than teammates, staying motivated, taking vacation time and finding reliable wi-fi.

An important workplace goal as cities reopen: Companies and employees need to adjust in order to make WFH productive and sustainable as long as the COVID-19 crisis remains.

Here's one science-based proposal from an Israel-based think tank that balances safety and productivity.

What can employers and managers do?

  1. Respect "right to disconnect"
  2. Provide regular employee feedback
  3. Increase communication
  4. Prioritize health benefits
  5. Reimburse remote working costs
  6. Extend financial assistance
  7. Ask for employee feedback
  8. Initiate online social activities
  9. Modify KPIs and/or working arrangements 
  10. Ensure your team's needs are met

What can workers do? The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants recommends:

  1. Establishing a work routine
  2. Designating a workspace
  3. Maintaining work connections
  4. Establishing work-life boundaries

“Saying yes to every chore because you’re at home and agreeing to every work assignment because you aren’t sure when your workday ends is a sure recipe for stress and frustration. Allow yourself to reflect on what’s on your plate at home and at work, and negotiate with your partner, family and co-workers when you feel overstretched.” 


What’s next? It remains uncertain how long we’ll see WFH as the new norm, with employers still divided on whether remote working options will stay for the long haul.

  • “A majority of U.S. employers expect to continue their remote work policies and, to a lesser extent, flexible work arrangements after the COVID-19 pandemic ends," consulting firm Willis Towers Watson reported, citing its survey.
  • This was in contrast to Society for Human Resource Management's survey, which found that “[a] majority of employers believe much work from home will end after the threat of the coronavirus pandemic passes...It's not a trend they anticipate will last, though: All but 5 percent said they expect their workforce to return to pre-crisis levels within six months.”

If anything's for sure, the coronavirus and resulting in a mass WFH will permanently result in a “fundamental shift in where and how work is done.”

  • “We're hearing that in the next 12-18 months—until there is a vaccine for the virus—I think we'll see a much higher proportion continuing to work from home. Many employers are questioning if work needs to be done the same way it was done before,” Willis Towers Watson North America Managing Director Adrienne Altman said.
  • Indeed Hiring Lab economist AnnElizabeth Konkel said that “wfh” is one of the fastest rising search terms with more job seekers shifting toward these options during the crisis.

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