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January – July 2021

Is working from home the new workplace panacea? Lessons from Covid-19 for the future world of work

By Prof Mias de Klerk, Mandi Joubert and Hendrikjan Mosca

  • JAN 2021
14 minutes to read

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Working from home: the new norm under Covid-19

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and the various lockdown measures and restrictions imposed by governments all over the world (including South Africa) to try and contain the spread of the virus have transformed the way people work – probably forever. Whereas before Covid-19, organisations allowed working from home as a convenient alternative or companion to the more typical culture of being in the office, remote working became the norm for many businesses when national lockdown measures drastically curtailed people’s movements. Even with the easing of restrictions, many organisations have not thrown open their doors again to their full staff complement in a bid to return to the way things were.

There is evidence that flexible working arrangements can lead to improved employee health and wellbeing, stronger engagement and commitment, higher productivity, a better work–life balance, and time and cost savings (the result of employees not having to commute to the office). Adverse consequences, however, include reduced teamwork and collaboration, a tendency towards overwork, work interfering with family activities, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and heightened stress. When the work-from-home model is mandatory (as it was when Covid-19 lockdown measures were imposed), employees may feel the adverse effects more acutely than if they were able to exercise more discretion in terms of where and how they work.

While much has been said about the advantages and disadvantages of flexible, remote working, views have often been loosely expressed or have constituted survey results that have not been subjected to proper scientific scrutiny. There is a clear need for the effects of remote working on employee motivation, performance and morale to be more rigorously examined so that organisations can design the optimal working environment for the short and longer terms.

According to the literature, organisational culture – which is reflected in the demands an organisation places on its employees and the support it provides – is a strong determinant of employee engagement in a remote working context. Employee engagement manifests as employees’ ability and willingness to dedicate themselves, both physically and psychologically, to the tasks at hand. Not surprisingly, their level of engagement is a function of employee experience, which is how well (or otherwise) employees fit into the organisation’s cultural, physical and technological environments.

The purpose of this study was to explore the impact of forced flexible working arrangements (or working from home) on employee engagement and employee experience during the Covid-19 pandemic and to elicit employee expectations regarding flexible working arrangements in the (post-pandemic) future.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the various lockdown measures and restrictions imposed by governments all over the world (including South Africa) to try and contain the spread of the virus have transformed the way people work – probably forever.

How the study was conducted

The study was qualitative in nature and involved two independent researchers gathering information from a sample of respondents in South Africa during the period 27 March to 17 August 2020 when working from home (for non-essential workers) was strictly enforced under the country’s lockdown rules. The sample comprised individuals from a range of industries (such as financial services, transportation, construction, IT and education) and organisational levels (executive, senior, middle and junior management) who worked exclusively from home during the period in question, but not before. Semi-structured interviews were conducted (via Microsoft Teams or Zoom) to gather the data, with questions focusing on respondents’ remote working experiences.

What the study revealed

The main findings from the study can be grouped under four themes:

  • Working from home is possible and even welcome, but it can be challenging. For many of the respondents, working from home required significant adjustment. While initially they welcomed the idea of remote working because it brought flexible working hours and the general convenience of being in a relaxed environment, challenges soon started to emerge. Some people reported that they felt out of touch with organisational dynamics, the market and clients, and developed ‘cabin fever’ because they were unnaturally confined for long periods of time. Others found the physical home environment challenging because of inadequate space in which to work, noise, distractions and interruptions, especially from children who were unable to attend school due to strict lockdown measures.

A number of respondents indicated that their motivation and ability to work from home was heavily influenced by the demands that their organisations placed on them and how much support their organisations gave them at the time. In this regard, organisational culture had a big role to play in how effective the work-from-home model was. For example, an organisational expectation (even if implicit) that employees should always be available online – even after hours – induced both stress and fatigue and resulted in their tending to work more hours than they would have at the office.

Not surprisingly, those respondents who had had much or even some experience of working from home were able to adapt more easily to enforced remote working than those who had always been office bound. However, as the months passed and respondents settled into their new routine, their initial problems and anxieties began to dissipate. Some people loved the new approach to working, saying that they were far more focused and productive.

  • Working from home produces paradoxical outcomes. Increased flexibility was high on respondents’ list of benefits of working from home, as it allowed them to arrange their days to accommodate both work and home/family responsibilities and to take time out (for a coffee break, for a walk or for quiet reflection) if they felt they needed to. Other major benefits cited were time and cost savings because there was no need to commute to work or regularly refresh their business wardrobes.

Paradoxically, however, their new-found flexibility sometimes made it difficult to efficiently carve out time for work and leisure pursuits, respectively. Pre-Covid, the drive home after a working day (although a source of frustration) created a barrier between the office and home. However, when confined to their homes, employees found the end of the working day less clearly defined and work often encroached on traditional family time. For many, getting the work–life balance right proved to be surprisingly difficult.

Another paradox was that, while the home environment had its fair share of noise and distractions, several respondents reported that they were less distracted and more productive than they had been at the office where there were regular interruptions and the constant sound of phones ringing and general chatter.

Notwithstanding the advantage of being free of a noisy and disruptive office environment, working from home made it difficult for respondents to feel connected to their colleagues and to collaborate effectively. At times, work became very task-oriented because it was difficult for colleagues to interact at an emotional level and feel a sense of camaraderie. Furthermore, the inability to walk into a colleague’s office for a quick discussion meant that decisions were often delayed because a more circuitous route had been followed, such as an extensive email exchange.

  • Working from home affects employee engagement and employee experience, but not uniformly. Respondents reported that working from home certainly impacted employee engagement, as revealed in their comments about energy, enthusiasm and immersion. For example, while some people said they had higher energy levels because they were sleeping more and/or were generally more productive, others said they felt physically and emotionally drained because they found it difficult to switch off from work. Similarly, reports of enthusiasm and immersion levels were mixed, with some people feeling energised and excited about making a meaningful contribution, and others finding their work and general contribution less meaningful, which was debilitating. While the sharp dichotomy in responses was somewhat surprising, it was evident from the interviews that employee engagement is not a static phenomenon but fluctuates in line with prevailing circumstances.

Working from home also had a profound effect on how respondents interacted with the organisation’s physical, cultural and technological environments. A key finding was that remote work does not simply involve the relocation of office work to the home; it involves changing the inherent nature of the work itself and the expectations surrounding it. Respondents indicated that they were able to make the transition more easily if they had the right type of (including technological) support from the organisation.

  • Working from home will remain a preferred option for many into the future. With many people being forced to work from home in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, virtual communication and remote working have become standard practices in many companies across a wide range of disciplines. Despite the ever-present risk of ‘Zoom’ overload and fatigue, many organisations have cut costs and become more efficient by embracing digital communication. In support of this, most respondents expressed a desire to continue working remotely – not exclusively, but for some of the time, such as two to three days per week. This would enable them to enjoy both the stimulation and personal contact provided by a formal office environment and the flexibility and concentration offered by the home environment. Interestingly, only 3% of respondents said that they would be prepared to abandon the office altogether and work from home exclusively.

Remote work does not simply involve the relocation of office work to the home; it involves changing the inherent nature of the work itself and the expectations surrounding it.

The work-from-home option is clearly here to stay

The study revealed that working from home represents a viable alternative to working in an office, provided it is not relied upon exclusively and employees achieve an effective balance between work and home commitments. Getting the formula right requires some resourcefulness on the part of employees and some creativity and investment on the part of organisations. The adoption of the work-from-home strategy by thousands of employers and employees when Covid-19 made its untimely appearance in 2020 has revealed important insights into what drives employee motivation, performance and effectiveness. Had it not been for Covid-19, the findings from this particular study would not have been nearly so illuminating.

In today’s world, when lean cost structures, productivity and digital solutions are among the key drivers of business success, work-from-home arrangements look like they are here to stay – not as a panacea for traditional workplace challenges but as a way of encouraging employees to optimise their time and resources. Organisations will therefore need to sharpen their skills in managing employees remotely, clearly communicating their expectations in respect of quality standards and outputs, and also providing the necessary forms of support.

  • Find the original article here: De Klerk, J., Joubert, M. & Mosca, H. (2021). Is working from home the new workplace panacea? Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic for the future world of work. South African Journal of Industrial Psychology.
  • Prof Mias de Klerk is head of Research at USB. He is a professor in Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at USB, and Director of USB’s Centre for Responsible Leadership Studies (Africa).

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