What happens if we continue to work from home?

For those of us who work in offices the working from home situation during the pandemic has produced a variety of views. It would seem that for the majority they prefer to not be in an office and to have more free time and that for some it is proving to be detrimental to their mental health.

I have pondered this issue at length since the government stated over the weekend that they would like us to go back to the office with no actual lawful ability to do so. They also said we should wear masks in shops, have so far not made that mandatory which appears to defeat the point when you are talking about English people. The Scots are following their leader at every step and in Scotland the pandemic is being handled in a much clearer fashion with the right measures tweaked at the appropriate times, but in England it is all a bit of a muddle. There is a distinct lack of trust in the capability and truthfulness of our government and just saying ‘go back to the office’ is not going to cut it.

So, here are the pros and cons of continuing to work from home and without any premeditated biased I was surprised at how slanted the list is. I have worked in office environments for many years so my views are obviously dictated by a certain amount of institutionalisation.

Pros

With fewer car journeys, less public transport use and more open city centres the environment must surely benefit. To accurately measure that we would need to take account of energy use in all of the individual houses as people work from home (especially in the winter), but my suspicion is that there is an environmental benefit to people not travelling to city centre offices.

From a pure widget perspective it is likely that productivity is increased. With fewer distractions than in an office there is a sense of having to sit in front of the screen as you are remote which you would not feel when around others who can see what you are doing. For example, you are likely to spend less time making a coffee at home because you are aware that you should be working whereas in an office it feels perfectly natural to go make a coffee, have a chat with someone and take your time.

Flexibility is easier from home because individuals are more likely to work a little extra to get something done and of course they have saved time with not having to travel to the office and back.

Workers save money on fuel or train / bus tickets and car maintenance etc. Clothing costs also go down and it is highly likely that less money is spent on food when away from the home. Also, employers have the opportunity to save money on office space in the long term and to seriously reduce their building costs overall.

Mental health is subjective of course, but for many people being able to work alone and in a familiar environment at home is beneficial.

Cons

I noticed that the pros for working from home are very much based on now rather than what has come before and how the future will change if we no longer travel to offices to work. One very important aspect to remember is that many people are viewing working from home as an easy transition to make because some organisations have seen cost savings and efficiencies. That, however, is to completely ignore the fact that we were working in offices until early March and we are still only in July.

Take yourself forward 3 years and ask yourself how new employees are hired in a world where everyone is remote. Their productivity (widgets) can be measured, but what about their leadership qualities, their desire to help others and their general approach to work? Many office-based industries rely on meetings, discussions and face to face interaction to get things done. Can that be replicated remotely? I am far from convinced it can.

On the subject of meetings, how do the cafes, restaurants and other establishments who currently sell food and drink at lunchtimes and in the evenings to office goers survive without these people? Would face to face meetings in public establishments become so rare that all of these places just stop existing? Work events in restaurants, the trip to the local shop at lunchtime to get a sandwich, the discretionary purchases made in a jewellers during a break in the middle of a stressful day? It would require a complete change, or disintegration, of so many establishments we currently visit.

I read an article the other day that talked about subconscious relationships and how they can be as important as those with our families and friends. Apparently your emotions are buoyed by being in a setting with a group of people who are in familiar positions. That person who sits next to the photocopier, the people you bump into when going to make a coffee etc. By all accounts it makes a positive difference, even if you do not notice it, and so does being in more than one location. Think about it, if you work from home you are effectively in the same location all of the time apart from when you go out for a meal, a drink, exercise, visit friends, go to the supermarket or to the shops. These are all very temporary moments and you return to that one place which is not just your home anymore. It is also not just your office. It is where you spend almost all of your time. There is considerable evidence that we perform better when in multiple locations for extended periods of time and especially when a routine is involved because it allows you to mentally separate the various aspects of your life. And we should also consider those who live on their own- it’s easy to be happy over IM or email, but colleagues in an office would more readily be able to spot if there is something wrong. It takes me back to when I had to use a work BlackBerry and was receiving messages literally 24 hours a day- I don’t want to go back to that feeling when at home.

Physical fitness should not be ignored either. When I am in the office I can average 9,000 steps a day, but at home that drops to 4-5,000 including a dog walk at lunchtime. I do wonder how much collective weight the human race has put on over the past 3 months and from the people I know, and myself, I suspect it is a lot. Imagine most people working remotely at home and the potential health impacts of that- it isn’t about doing two stacks of exercise a day, just being more stationary throughout a day will add a few pounds and make exercise much more difficult.

I mentioned improved productivity in the pros and that is likely true overall, but there will always be those who take advantage of remote working to do as little as possible. Widgets and stats can be counted, but almost every other aspect cannot and this is an area where an office environment helps. Those who have a tendency to do as little as possible, we all know some, have fewer places to hide when they are in an environment working with people earning the same money and doing the same job they do. People don’t like to see others doing less work.

Conclusions

I admit to be biased in this area because I don’t particularly like working from home, but I have tried to think of every aspect I can.

Perhaps more than anything I am struggling to consider the long term if the majority move to remote working, and like so many things I write I think about the impact on my children. So many people I know, including myself, met their partners at work and without this the opportunities will be lessened to get to know people over time. Of course times have changed with Tinder etc, but I can’t help envisioning a future where people are naturally more remote, more lonely and generally a lot less sociable. Is that a good thing just to save driving to the office?



Categories: Articles

4 replies

  1. Good thoughts. I’ve read several articles on this now. I don’t have the same situation as you, but I know that the situation with the virus is affecting me more than the work is right now. My psyche is not normal, so none of the other variables are reliable. I’ll keep thinking about it.

  2. You mentioned travel from home to work and back. It’s almost impossible to maintain social distancing on public transit. Regardless of masks, if we want to keep this virus in check until vaccines arrive, we want to limit the need for public transit.

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