How Covid-19 is re-writing the rules of the workplace

ONCE a luxury for a privileged few, now a reality for millions – Covid-19 has revolutionised working from home at staggering speed, writes Dr Matthew Davis of Leeds University Business School.

Dr Matthew Davis

The statistics speak for themselves: in 2019, 5% of the UK’s workforce was mainly working from home (WFH) – by May 2020 that percentage stood at 44%.

WFH used to be a benefit typically reserved for older, more experienced or professional workers. In the space of a few weeks, it became the new norm as the country locked-down.

This will have been many people’s first experience working somewhere other than an office – how might this affect them?

The good news from pre-lockdown research is that we know that people who WFH report being more satisfied with their job than people working in offices and get promoted as frequently.

Even better is that these workers are rated as more productive.

Not only that, but people who WFH also report greater commitment or loyalty to their organisations.

This is partly down to the greater autonomy that people experience over how and when they work, and the flexibility to balance work and home commitments.

This, together with things like less rigid schedules and lower commuting times means that people WFH typically report better work-life balance and lower stress.

This is all positive and it seems that during lockdown most organisations have managed to move staff to home working easier than they expected and feel that productivity has held-up.

So, is the genie is out of the bottle, do we need offices if people are happier and as productive at home…?

Unfortunately, the gains from WFH don’t come entirely without risks. People who WFH often report working longer or antisocial hours.

We also frequently hear people who WFH complain that they find it difficult to separate work and home, to switch off from email and to physically “get away from the office” (particularly when the office is, say, your kitchen).

It also looks likely that how much you WFH is important - job satisfaction starts to drop once they work more than 15 hours per week from home.

Once you go beyond 2.5 days a week WFH, relationships with colleagues also seem to take a hit.

Being out of the office is linked to a sense of missing out on professional opportunities and networking.

This suggests there may be a tipping point at which the flexibility and other benefits of homeworking may be offset by difficulties such as maintaining work relationships and loss of face-to-face interactions.

Maybe you can have too much of a good thing….

For companies this matters, as personal relationships are linked to trust and information sharing, key for innovation, quality and more.

Leeds University Business School research has shown the impact that changes in physical distance and location make to social networks, advice seeking and knowledge sharing.

Other research shows that technologies such as email and video conferencing help to mitigate this (although not entirely) and people can struggle to understand “who knows what”.

This can slow decision-making or prevent people getting the information they need.

Lockdown is not normal and neither is WFH at the moment. Some of the costs to companies and their staff – such as product innovation and staff burnout - may take time to show.

People who are enjoying WFH may grow bored and yearn for the routine and interaction of the office.

It seems unlikely that everyone will willingly go back to being in an office full-time.

There will be trade-offs between what’s best for an individual and for their employer.

Employees will need a reason to “go to work” and that means offices need to change.

This is exciting - it allows us to rewrite what it means “to work” and to think again about how we balance work and home-life.

The home working revolution is perhaps just beginning.