Rethinking Work-From-Home After COVID-19

After the pandemic, workers and companies will have to decide whether or not to return to in-office work. Photo: Charles Deluvio
After the pandemic, workers and companies will have to decide whether or not to return to in-office work. Photo: Charles Deluvio

By Paul Vandenberg

The implications of working from home on costs, productivity, and work-life balance are just now being understood by workers and companies around the world. Will this new awareness transcend the pandemic?

The pandemic has been less catastrophic for office workers than for those in manual and customer-facing occupations. Many professionals, managers, mid-level staff, and assistants have been able to shift from the office to their home and connect to co-workers and clients through email, chat, document sharing, and video apps. For these workers, the pandemic has caused disruption to their work, but not termination.

In developed countries, about 35% to 45% of jobs can be done at home, according to recent estimates. The share declines with income to about 10% to 30% in developing countries. Therefore, while most workers cannot work at home, the share that can is not insignificant.

Working from home disrupts the way we work and the way we interact with other members of the household, including our spouse, kids, and elderly parents. Workers are at home for a greater portion of the day – for the whole day – and that takes getting used to.

How working from home impacts workers and employers will determine whether it becomes the new normal or whether we revert to the old normal once a vaccine is distributed. In either event, COVID-19 has forced upon us a grand experiment in working relations.

For workers, remote working has its pros and cons. It certainly saves commuting time, notably for those in metropolitan areas where the car is still king and streets get clogged during rush hour. An hour saved in the commute means a half an hour more work done and an extra 30 minutes of leisure.  Working from home can also provide fewer distractions, which can be good or bad. If concentration time is needed, it is good, allowing for focus and getting work done. Indeed, this was a key reason why workers opted to work from home in pre-COVID times.

But distractions and diversions can be beneficial. They make the office environment livable and indeed productive. Midafternoon we go to a colleague’s office to break the strain, to chat about work or golf or nothing. We bump into people in the corridor, remembering that we need to meet. We gather at the water cooler or the coffee stand and share ideas. There are “synergy effects” from face-to-face communication that are good for productivity and innovation.

One of the difficulties for workers in the initial months of the pandemic was the demarcation problem – they did not know when to quit, close the computer, and relax. The house is the office so the workday becomes the whole day. In the old normal, it was easier: you went home. The office was for work and home was for leisure. Many workers are now getting the message. They are being more disciplined, closing the email, and not agreeing to a video chat after dinner.

For many employers, work from home has always made them uneasy because of the monitoring problem. How does a manager know that a worker is working and not napping or snacking or otherwise goofing off? The argument has been that managers should monitor output, not hours at the desk.  This, of course, is easier said than done.

Knowledge output may be harder to monitor than physical output and so managers revert to the assumption that a worker at his desk must be producing. A worker at home might not. The problem can be minimized with closer monitoring and frequent communication between manager and staff.

There are economic benefits for employers. Additional time working, instead of commuting, increases output. Also, if working from home is practiced on a sufficient scale it can reduce rental costs as employers transition to digital space, reducing the need for physical space. This can work even if all workers do come to the office, just not all at the same time. It means moving away from designated desks. I use this desk today but tomorrow, when I am at home, my colleague will use it. Laptops, shared file storage, and the paperless office makes these arrangements feasible.

One of the difficulties for workers in the initial months of the pandemic was the demarcation problem – they did not know when to quit, close the computer, and relax.

So, what will the new normal look like?  We probably do not know yet but here are three possibilities.

Reversion to the old normal: It may be that we return to the old normal, where most people, most of the time, go to the office and work there. This will likely be because workers need the home-office demarcation and otherwise feel stressed, overworked, and isolated when they do not go to the office. Managers, for their part, need to see their staff to be convinced they are producing.

Radical new normal: In this scenario, the grand experiment was an eye-opener and a success.  Workers like the benefits and can minimize the downsides. Employers devise agile monitoring systems and appreciate the rental cost reductions.

Blended new normal: We go back to the office but not all the time. Work is blended, part office, part home. Maybe two days in the office and three days at home, or a week at home then a week at the office.  Office space is transformed as desk sharing becomes the norm.

The first and third scenarios are the most likely. We might also conjecture that developing countries might be more likely to revert to the old normal than developed countries. This may be because housing is more cramped and in poorer condition in the developing countries, there may be more family members around who create distractions, and the status of “going to the office” might be more pronounced. The hybrid model is more likely to be adopted in developed countries and it could take various forms. It could be three days a week at home or three days a month.

The only certainly is that COVID-19 has made us aware of the possibilities – and consider the implications for costs, productivity, and work-life balance. More office workers and employers may see it as a do-able work option and use it more frequently. How frequently is the key unknown.