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As COVID shut down state after state and pushed workers into their homes, I hoped that we were on the cusp of a nation-wide shift towards accepting remote work but I feared that we were playing a rigged game that pro-WFH (work from home) proponents were doomed to lose. In many companies, the last few months have offered data that smash assumptions that remote work was inefficient and validated those who previously believed that remote work was feasible. But amidst the success stories and articles predicting the death of brick and mortar, there have also been challenges. Some organizations have declared that the COVID-induced WFH experiment conclusively proves that a return to the office is necessary. This article is therefore intended to address those leaders whose commitments to collocation are now as strong, or stronger, than they were in January. I realize that the data for any particular company may show that the last few months were inefficient but this time has also been a terrible experiment! Work from home may actually be a viable option, even if Spring 2020 was a total disaster. Here are a few reasons why the past few months may have been misleading and my thoughts on what you should consider before demanding collocation forever more.
I would start by asking how much technical support you gave your team to create ergonomic and technologically adequate work environments in their homes? While many companies have offered to reimburse employees for everything from extra monitors to better desk chairs, leaders focused on an imminent return to collocation, and worried about the bottom line, may have considered such accommodations frivolous. Quite to the contrary, additional monitors have been shown to increase productivity and while many ergonomics solutions focus on long term musculoskeletal damage, even short term “muscle soreness” can have a negative impact on a person’s effectiveness. As anyone who has overdone a workout and then attempted to concentrate at work the following day can attest, fatigue and soreness can be very distracting! The introduction of so much video conferencing has also increased the need for relatively modern graphics cards, processors, and webcams in industries that previously cared more about the ability to run Excel. Adding in poor lighting and myriad other small details that a diligent employee would address for a permanent solution, there should be no surprise that some individuals have struggled to equal their in-office productivity from their leisure-oriented home setups. [Edit 6/5/2020: In recognition of this exact challenge, Google has announced a $1,000 allowance for employees to outfit their home workspaces.]
Assuming that your teams had access to all of the processing power, monitors, chairs, and other equipment they might have wanted, I would ask next whether your employees are fortunate enough to have home situations that permitted any degree of focus over the past few months? Speaking as a particularly privileged person in a double-income-no-kids household, even my husband and I have been challenged to share our home while trying to work simultaneously. Our house is wonderfully laid out for living space but one of us must move into a bedroom if we both have calls and wish to keep our conversations separate. If we were moving to a permanent work from home solution, we could shuffle furniture around but my husband actively wants to return to the office so we have held off on making such dramatic changes. We also have two cats and they have recently been on a mission to determine how disruptive they can be without opposable thumbs or a shared language. After one of my cats picked a loud fight with the other, walked around crying for five minutes for no reason, walked all over the keyboard, and bumped the webcam off the monitor during a single call, I can confidently say that the answer is “very”.
But two adults and two cats, even in a small house, is no challenge at all compared to sharing a space with half a dozen roommates or any children too young to be left alone all day. I know many people who work from home full time and NONE of them are simultaneously responsible for full time child care. Parents have had few, if any, resources available to them over the past few months, leaving them juggling childcare and remote work to the best of their ability. Before declaring a parent “unable” to effectively work remotely, they should be offered an opportunity to be a remote worker instead of being a remote-working-teacher-parent. You may have to wait a few months to attempt such an experiment but this delay only further emphasizes the poor conditions this crisis has created for effective remote work.
Perhaps most disruptive of all, however, is the mental health impact of a global pandemic. While many of us struggle to truly grasp the implications of losing over 100,000 countrymen and women, hundreds of thousands more are in the throes of personal grief or struggling under the weight of a changing reality. Quarantine can have a devastating effect on mental health, even without a worldwide crisis, and asking individuals whose limits are being tested by daily survival to step up and deliver business results at the same level they achieved six months ago may be unrealistic. No employee should be expected to bring their best self to work after the loss of a family member or close friend. Sharing a mental health crisis with millions of other Americans in no way diminishes the potential severity of the effects. There are very real consequences to living through a pandemic and reduced productivity in a business setting may be one for your employees. Such an effect might have been equally incapacitating in the office but there was no opportunity under most shelter orders to test this hypothesis.
Given the nature of the “COVID-induced work from home experiment”, I think it is safe to say that if working remotely has worked for you and your team over the past few months, working remotely will likely be effective for you under any conditions. If your team has struggled, however, I implore you to remember that valid experiments include controls to separate out confounding factors. The last few months have been nothing but confounding factors. From poor ergonomic setups to the challenges of unplanned space sharing, effective remote work might require changes impossible to make during the shelter orders or the near future. But in many cases, the emotional challenges brought on by this pandemic have far outstripped all other factors and only time will heal these wounds. So before ruling out remote work for your teams, please take the time for a true experiment. Wait until the emotions have ebbed and childcare is available. Address the ergonomics and provide the necessary equipment. Isolate the variable and let your team demonstrate the reality in a more “typical” setting. They might just surprise you.
Postscript: Business owners whose largest concerns are whether to continue allowing remote work are in a fortunate position. While many leaders are focusing on the mental and physical wellbeing of their teams, sometimes this orientation can feel at odds with the survival of their businesses. For more on this difficult balancing act, check out Lisa Levesque’s latest article.