Working from home… Love it or hate it, everyone has an opinion. Either you’re on team dress-from-the-waist-up for your Zoom calls, relishing the extra hour in bed before your workday starts, or you’re tearing your hair out trying to find a quiet corner in your home, hiding from the children and counting the days till you’re able to return to the office.
While many businesses in countries with advanced COVID-19 vaccination programmes are grappling with the complexities of a return to a workplace something like the pre-pandemic ‘normal’, it’s common cause that SA will have a longer wait before so-called ‘herd immunity’ can be achieved. And then there’s that big question of whether bosses actually want to continue paying the big bucks for expensive office space when the great work-from-home experiment has shown clearly that staff can actually get the job done without having to be physically present at their desks.
A recent BBC article illustrates the contentiousness of the issue. It says that some businesses are embracing the concept of a completely new world of work, citing file-hosting service Dropbox, which went ‘virtual first’ in 2020 and is hailing the benefits of ‘non-linear work days’ and ‘employee experience’. Tech giant Facebook and insurance company Aviva are opting for a hybrid model that maintains some of the old status quo, but offers greater flexibility and independence for staff.
Then there’s Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon, who called remote work ‘an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible’ when he addressed a Credit Suisse conference in February. Bloomberg also reported in April that Google parent company Alphabet Inc had told staff to prepare to return to their desks by the beginning of September, and that anyone who wants to continue working from home requires prior approval; while Amazon has called for an ‘office-centric’ return to work.
So where does that leave SA? Marissa Brouwers, industrial psychologist and past president of SA’s Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology (SIOPSA), is adamant that no matter the preference of bosses or their workforce, the face of the world of work will never be the same – neither here nor globally.
Pointing to the description of the pandemic by the Harvard Business Review as ‘the most significant social experiment of the future of work in action’, she says the use of the word ‘experiment’ suggests an environment in which the business world tries out potential solutions until the best options are identified. And, she stresses, that best option will look different for different companies and industries – with a return to the office a certainty for some.
‘However, I don’t believe there will ever be a 100% return to in-office work, even when it’s feasible and safe to do so,’ says Brouwers. Organisations that do want to see their employees physically back at their office desks bear a hefty responsibility to create a safe office environment – especially until the country’s vaccine roll-out plan gathers pace and South Africans begin feeling more secure about leaving their homes and working at close quarters with others once again.
According to Brouwers, there are certain questions that employers should consider when formulating their back-to-the-office plans, including how shared office space can be made safe and more attractive; how to help staff be more responsible, confident and reliable in terms of thinking about safety as well as work efficacy; what can be done from home, perhaps more effectively; and whether there could be a best of both worlds.
Interestingly, a 2020 survey conducted during the Level 4 lockdown by workplace specialist Giant Leap found that ‘86% of people wanted to go back to the office’, with the option to work remotely at least one day a week. For them, the initial gloss of the remote work scenario had already worn thin, and they were struggling with the lack of work-life balance. Respondents reported feelings of isolation and difficulty carrying out team tasks, with many saying they missed colleague interaction. This corresponds with a WEF finding that cites blurred boundaries between work and home life, and feelings of loneliness as major issues.
Cape Town Central City Improvement District chief executive Tasso Evangelinos, meanwhile, is on record as saying that working from home goes against human nature in many ways. ‘People get lonely when they are isolated,’ he says. ‘The office offers laughs, sharing, caring, problem-solving, support – all of which are extremely important to people as we are social creatures. Many people are feeling the impact of solo working. The novelty of not having to commute is starting to be replaced by a need to move, have somewhere to go in the morning, someone to talk to – the need for a change of scenery.’
Aside from considering the ramifications of a returning workforce whose fears, depression, anger and anxiety have all been amplified by the months of lockdown, and who will need access to mental-health resources, there’s also the practicality of ensuring their personal safety – and satisfying all the legal requirements. Jean Paul Paulynice, CEO of Empowering Confident Youth, is quoted by Forbes as saying that it’ll be critical for business leaders to not only take the requisite steps to reduce risk to their staff, but to also communicate these so that employees are fully aware of what’s being done to secure their safety.
According to HR professional and business consultant Lin Grensing-Pophal, flexibility is key for managers and HR teams preparing staff for a return to the office. In an online piece for HR Daily Advisor, she notes that ‘while the shift from in-office to remote work was sudden and wholesale, the transition back to the office is likely to be more gradual and piecemeal’. In fact, she adds, some teams may never return full-time.
‘It’s not a realistic solution to accommodate the in-office advocates by forcing everyone back into the office. Companies will need to be creative in how they manage teamwork.’ Grensing-Pophal adds that companies need to allocate budget to new as well as improved virtual collaboration tools into the future, as well as to the bandwidth and equipment to support these tools.
David Seinker, CEO of the Business Exchange, a shared office space provider, says that flexibility, rather than work-from-home, is the panacea. Their business model is built on the premise that ‘the nature of work is changing, and the days of the traditional office are numbered. The COVID pandemic just accelerated the adoption of a new way of working’.
A hybrid model, says Seinker, (whereby staff work from the office on certain days of the week and remotely on others) is a viable solution that also has significant benefits for companies concerned about being tied down by long, inflexible leases.
‘There’s an X-factor that is critical to business success and innovation – serendipity,’ he adds. ‘Productive encounters and causal interactions are not the remit of a physical space, but rather the result of nurturing a workplace culture that values and prioritises communication.
‘Devastating as the pandemic has been, both socially and economically, there is also reason to feel optimistic about the ways in which countless organisations and individuals have adapted, pivoted, made a plan and simply got on with it. The importance of resilience is the real lesson COVID-19 handed us, and that’s reason for optimism, regardless of where we’re working from.’
The SIOPSA’S Brouwers concurs, cautioning employers that they can – and should – look to futuristic ideas for the ‘new’ work environment. This could include video conferencing, remote collaboration spaces such as virtual whiteboards, and autonomous yet flexible working models.
‘Ultimately it is up to all of us to think and be creative; to play and find ways of working that work for us, with novel and forward-looking ideas about our connection to others and the safe use of shared space,’ she says.
With tentative predictions of a global return to work in the coming year, Grensing-Pophal cautions that companies are running out of preparation time. ‘That might seem like a long time for someone missing dining out or international vacations,’ she says. ‘But, for managers and HR teams, it represents a short window of time to prepare for the return of staff, whatever form that eventually takes in the post-COVID-19 normal.’