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What is the future of working from home post-pandemic?

Work from home model has forced us to learn many lessons along the way during the pandemic
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The work from home model was adopted by many industries at the start of the pandemic to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Not every industry could make that change because of the type of work they do. Health care workers, construction workers, truck drivers (just to name a few) all had to stay the course with their working environments and take additional protective measures being put in place. 

But, how will the work from home model look once the pandemic is over?

Nita Chhinzer is an associate professor in Human Resources Management at the University of Guelph and she said work from home was a knee-jerk reaction for a short-term solution.

"People didn't have the proper tools they needed to work from home, they were still learning about online meeting technologies, there was still a lot of confusion about when we would be brought back into the workplace, so we really treated work from home as a very temporary thing." said Chhinzer.

Now that we flipped the calendar to 2021, many people have been working from home for ten months.

"We're not really sure on when or if there is an end in sight. We saw a big rush on things like proper desks, ergonomic chairs, and finding space to work and really there was a steep learning curve we were on that caused a lot of stress before that is no longer really a big stressor for us." said Chhinzer.

The stress is still there though. It's just shifted to how it's affected people who are now working from home.

"The stressor for us now is this prolonged exposure to the stress we're under with the uncertainty of the environment around us," said Chhinzer, "as well as the pressure cooker situation we are in at work which is beginning to be the tipping point of burnout for a lot of workers." 

WORK FROM HOME WON'T LAST FOREVER

New research has shown that executives actually believe that working exclusively from home is not here to stay.

"They feel that it is detrimental to developing an organizational culture and creating that sense of belonging at work. Executives are saying that this might be challenging for creativity and innovation at work because we don't have that opportunity for informal dialogue." said Chhinzer. 

People are starting to feel isolated and are losing the meaningfulness of their work. 

"Especially people who get a lot of meaning from their relationships that they establish at work. Managers are also suggesting that this is becoming a performance-management nightmare. It's not only hard to evaluate whether someone is performing well or not but also to help identify who may need help and how."

Research prior to the pandemic showed that working from home actually came with penalties associated with career progression. 

"Now, we are in a situation that the majority of us who are knowledge workers are working from home and managers are really confused of what to do," said Chhinzer, "I don't think the work from home situation will be here exclusively as a work from home situation going forward because companies need to see us, develop us, and evaluate us. All of the research has consistently aligned with this." 

IS THERE ANY POSITIVES OF WORKING FROM HOME?

Some of the pro's of working from home include reduced travel time, increased productivity, and distraction-free dedicated workspace.

"We do have increased productivity because a lot of people do reallocate their time for commuting and putting that into their work. We have dedicated workspace that is distraction-free whether if that's at home or at the office especially those that don't have young kids - working from home can be a distraction-free workspace."

BIGGEST LESSONS WE HAVE LEARNED AS MANAGERS AND EMPLOYEES

Work from home employees isn't a case of an 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' situation.

"We can use the tools that are available for us to not just work from home, but essentially work from anywhere, anytime." said Chhinzer. 

Workers will now have the platforms and software required to do the work at home in a safe and confidential way.

"If we aren't feeling well, we can now complete our work off-hours or in a different way. That's really becoming this trend from work from home and there's much more acceptance now that we have the tools that we need should we have to stay at home because we are sick, should we have to stay at home because there is something is happening in the office, or should we have to ask to stay at home some of the week where that may be a fair tool for us."

Chhinzer sites an example of banking employees suggested that they could not work from home given the work that they do. 

"They quickly pivoted and realized, 'yes in fact it is possible' with a hybrid model, we need to bring people in one or two days of the week and they can work from home for the remainder. It's just awareness that there is collaborative time and independent time and may be isolating those two parts is helpful." 

WORKING FROM HOME INVOLUNTARILY VERSUS WORKING FROM HOME VOLUNTARILY

Most of the data about work from home studies are mostly conducted for when we have volunteered to work from home instead of a mandated work from home situation like we have seen throughout the pandemic. 

"The big change in research is all of the research to date has been educated around people who are working from home because they requested it. Many of us are working in involuntarily work from home situations," said Chhinzer, "the other challenge here is that we've had prolonged exposure to working from home 100 per cent of the time and we know that working from home increases productivity (...) that productivity has only been steady in short periods of time."

There are studies that are currently being worked on that will outline the effect that involuntary work from home has had on mental health and to further that how burned out some employees have become. 

"What we haven't looked at what that change in productivity means for burnout, mental health, and commitment to work in a one-year period and a longer year period. Those studies are only now beginning to come to fruition, new research coming out will be looking at a mandated work from home and also what that means in the long-run for organizations," said Chhinzer. 

WHEN SETTING AGENDAS ADD-IN INFORMAL TIME FOR TEAM BUILDING

When we hold meetings, we shouldn't just strictly focus on the formal items that we need to get through to improve the workplace. Chhinzer adds that it's important for workplaces to focus on some of the informal items as well to help build a stronger team.

"When everything is so programmed and our time is so scheduled, there's no time for free-flowing thought, collaborations, or finding opportunities for interdisciplinary activity. It's not part of the social structure of remote working," said Chhinzer.

Some companies have made attempts to create these environments, but Chhinzer said that with the research that she has seen from executives and managers that it has been overly successful.

WHAT THE WORKPLACE WILL LOOK LIKE POST-PANDEMIC

The change in workplaces was always only supposed to be a short-term solution but given how serious the COVID-19 pandemic has been on a global stage, it has turned into a more long-term solution until mass vaccination takes place.

"I think the future is a hybrid model," said Chhinzer, "where there may be a likelihood that we are required to come into the office x numbers of days of the week and not on other days of the week."

One idea that has been floated around among other HR thought leaders according to Chhinzer is more of a bubble model.

"Where perhaps it's this idea that certain departments come in on certain days because those are the groups that collaborate with each other."

Chhinzer said that if that model is followed, it comes with a shift in managerial mindset.

"This will reduce the stigma associated with working from home and accepting it a lot more as one of the modes to complete work but not exclusively as the mode to complete work (...) this will allow companies to still bring people back in the office to bring in that collaboration, the organizational culture, the sense of team building, the informal conversations, and the opportunity to do performance management effectively."

One of the challenges that Chhinzer is cognisant of during the stay-at-home provincial orders that have been put in place are parents who have young children learning from home online.

"The children and spouse are also working remotely and that creates a challenge. That's very different than if we go into the office and we are all part of the same subculture, working on the same types of work, working in the same type of environment, so I think that will be a short-term challenge."

The orders under the Reopening Ontario Act have been extended from Jan.20 to Feb.19. 




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