ENDANGERED: The Office Workspace
By: Suveer Mehta
There is no turning away from the fact that the Coronavirus pandemic has changed many ‘normals’ as we know them and will continue to do so going forward. Some may last for a few months but others may potentially be everlasting.
One such change is working-from-home (WFH) for the vast majority of white-collar employees. In fact, as much as 69% of organizations in the US have opted for remote working in this pandemic. This trend of WFH however, was on the rise even before the pandemic, which is evident in the volume of articles that have been written on the subject pre-pandemic. Despite this trend, none of the advocates for the notion could have predicted the acceptance and wide-scale implementation that has recently occurred.
This shifted work scenery has its share of benefits. Perhaps realizing those, megacorporations such as Amazon have been marketing their jobs with WFH as a benefit. A study published in the Oxford Journal in 2015 suggests the benefits are significant. When asked to work from home, workers’ performance jumped 13%. Out of that, 9% was attributed to employees working more minutes and the remaining 4% was attributed to a quieter and more convenient workplace. Furthermore, employees when given a chance to choose for themselves on their preferred work location, productivity increased by 22% among employees who willingly chose to work from home.
After an in-depth study of the data and surveys of participants, researchers deduced work satisfaction to have increased among employees who chose to work from home. Psychologist Dr. Bradfort Bell, professor, and director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell University asserts remote working produces small but tangible benefits. All these positives along with the mass implementation, courtesy of the pandemic has led not just the corporate giants but also many smaller businesses make working from home a preferred practice. The study also shows the business saves $2000 per employee per year with this practice. Businesses are now taking note of the economic profits that can potentially be made. Barclays CEO, Jes Staley’s comment that “Putting 7000 people in a building is a thing of past” in the ongoing pandemic is a testament to the fact that organizations are wanting to make WFH a permanent change.
Despite the spotlight on the success and benefits of WFH, careful attention must also be given to the steep downsides. Scientific research on the matter is still very limited. Even though rightfully conducted, the study on hand can be termed anecdotal at best due to the limitations. The experiment was conducted on only 249 people, all working in the same office in the same country. There is no doubt that further research is essential on the matter. However, even this study concluded by saying WFH may be the way forward, noting that people working from home have a 50% lower chance of promotion.
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”. This quote by Sun Tzu, the 6th-century Chinese military strategist, perfectly illustrates the times we are in. Be that as it may, we must reflect on whether the opportunity really calls for this practice to be made permanent. Behind the numbers and increasing work productivity rates there are humans who are abolishing the social aspect of work altogether, which is a recipe for disaster. Businesses aiming solely for decreased fixed costs of office spaces and increased work rate must also realize the damage this practice may cause in the long run. Depriving an individual of the place in which they spend 8-9 hours per day and replacing it with remote working denies them of all social interactions they would have had otherwise. The employees choosing to work remotely fail to consider long-term concerns and focus instead on short term benefits. Perhaps a schedule with a mix of the two varying based on the employees’ comforts and preferences with a fixed portion to be spent in the office could be an effective solution.
This trend of completely moving away from offices has the potential to cause a bullwhip effect on many other aspects of average white-collar workers’ lives if it becomes the norm. A study in the Harvard Business Review explains WFH to have a detrimental impact on mental health. It further goes on to explain 3 components that WFH hinders with: The formation of trust, connection, and mutual purpose. The study also points out that employees may also develop anxiety and struggle due to office politics, worrying other employees may be going behind their backs to lobby against them. This norm would certainly shrink employees’ work rate in the long-run, which is seen to be increasing in the short-term.
In 2009, IBM took pride in claiming that 40% of their employees work remotely, only to reverse their policy 4 years later and attempt to bring their employees back to offices. On the other hand, Google and Facebook have always weighted on having a common workplace for their employees, the huge campuses in Silicon Valley go on to show just that.
Organizations need to understand the short-term gains do not triumph over the long-term well-being of their workers. Perhaps, they can take an example in successful organizations like Google and Facebook rather than learning it the hard way like IBM. Further research on the social aspect of WFH needs to be carried out before organizations decide to completely wind up their offices in search of economic profits, leaving the social lives of employees in jeopardy.
Working from home to promote work-life balance is great, however, it cannot become the new norm.