By: Ellipsys Technology
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Working remotely and even working from home is not a concept introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2009 IBM allowed 40% of its 386,000 employees in 173 countries to work
However, in 2017, when revenues fell IBM management called back thousands of
employees to the offices. Similarly, Bank of America, Yahoo and AT&T had to recall staff working at home back to the office as these companies felt that creativity, innovation and serendipitous solutions were suffering as well as employee loyalty reducing as employees working remotely felt marginalised.
What COVID-19 did, however, was to remove choice from the equation. Most
countries, including South Africa introduced very strict lockdown protocols to prevent or at least reduce or slow down the spread of the virus, forcing many companies to close down their offices and enforcing work from home restrictions. Currently, there is no evidence as to when the need to work from home will fall away and longer and longer timelines are being projected.
So, what prompted companies like IBM, Yahoo and even Cover Magazine to have applied work from home approaches when there was no pandemic enforcing it? There are the apparent benefits of working from home, which include:
- Reduced office space requirements for the employer;
- Reduced costs for the employer for coffee, water, electricity, sanitation etc.;
- Reduced parking space requirements resulting in saving for the employer or employee dependent on the agreements and provisions;
- Reduced commuting for the employees, resulting in reduced costs and time saving;
- Shorter breaks required by the employee;
- Less time lost on illness due to exposure to other ill employees.
However, many work place challenges don’t disappear, they simply move around, like the mythical balloon being squeezed. Whilst employees working from home might not require space at the office for the restricted period, they need to create a dedicated space at home from where to conduct Zoom, Webex or Teams meeting in a professional manner as possible. And if the employer is not planning to make working from home part of their ongoing strategy the empty office space must be retained until the employees do return to the office.
During the time that the employee is working from home the costs of the data
connectivity, electricity, sanitation, water and so forth could move to the employee, which might not be offset by the expected saving in travelling costs. And while the employee might be saving time by not commuting, some employers might expect that time to be for their benefit. If the employers do provide compensation for the employees’ additional costs, it will result in many employers doubling or significantly increasing their operational costs.
These challenges were, however, not the main drivers for the early adopters of work from home strategies to review their strategies or to recall the workers. The main drivers were:
- Inefficient communication;
- Loss of creative interaction;
- Perceived reduction in performance; and
- Concerns for employee wellness.
Fortunately, technology has come a long way since the early days of working from home where the only tools available were teleconferencing facilities that limited the number of dialled in users, emails and one on one phone calls. Most communication packages now offer video conferencing, screen sharing, whiteboards and instant messaging. Although video conferencing tools don’t replace a warm handshake it does allows users to see each other and read those ever-important facial expressions that improve non-verbal communication. Being able to read an audience during a presentation is always preferable to doing a presentation where all the users are muted and you feel completely disconnected, but by inserting breakpoints in your presentation and opening up discussion the audience engagement and interaction can be improved.
Improving Creative Interaction
Similarly, communication tools with screen sharing, whiteboards and other
collaboration tools are improving the ability to share in the creative process and track ideas. Whilst these tools won’t replace the spontaneity experienced at the metaphorical water cooler in the office, it does improve the sharing of ideas and complimentary problem solving.
The challenge of managing efficiency and performance has always been a tricky
one in the insurance industry, even when supervisors and team members were
co-located. Measuring the efficiency of a claim’s technician is complicated when the types of claims assessed and managed differ or where the frequency of claims are unpredictable. Increase the ambiguity of employee performance by placing the insurance consultant in a remote location where connectivity issues, stability of electrical supply and domestic factors increase the unknown variables and managing consistent performance becomes very challenging.
It is important that the employee’s performance against quantifiable KPIs be transparent and visible and that the employee can compare their performance against the KPIs over a period of time and against team members with the same deliverables so that they can quickly and easily identify where they need to improve or highlight where a measurement is outside of their control so that it can be addressed fairly. It is important that the employee be challenged to maximise their efficiency but they should not be surprised with a negative performance review when they have been pushing beyond their capabilities and been hampered by factors outside of their control. It is also important to increase the frequency of performance reviews when the employees are working from home to ensure constant feedback and adjustment.
Focusing on Wellness
The emotional wellness of employees working from home during this pandemic
must be treated as a very high priority by management and the reality of employee burnout must be considered and support provided to employees to ensure good mental health. The World Health Organisation defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that’s characterised by feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion, negative or cynical feelings related to a job, and reduced professional efficacy. With employees working from home the boundaries between home and work are being blurred. Employees would normally have a very clear transition from work life to home life at the end of the day when they leave the office and return home. Without that transition, work simply continues and employees don’t implement boundaries to separate their “home” time from their “work” time. If the employee has a dedicated space to work at home, they should force themselves to leave this space and if they don’t, they should engage in a formal “end of work day” ritual to make the emotional transition from work to home life.
Management must respect these boundaries and should not expect employees to be available during traditional home time periods. In return, employees must respect their work time, and apply the same discipline and rigour to managing their time as if they were at the office. The human need for interaction and stimulus must also be considered during times of isolation that the pandemic has forced on workers. Besides the financial fears of job loss and economic uncertainty there is also the fear of getting COVID-19, losing loved ones, feelings of helplessness, frustrations and many other stressors that are pushing everyone to the edge of reason with a lack of support systems to help employees cope with these feelings. Employers should consider virtual team building exercises like quiz games, murder mysteries or just online get-togethers to allow employees to deflate from the stress. Employers should also consider formal life coaching and support plans for all staff to assist them in managing the stress that they are experiencing.
COVID-19 is going to extend the work from home lifestyle for the foreseeable future. And while applying technology might solve some problems, the deepest impact is going to be on ensuring employee wellness.