Experts– real ones and my social media friends alike– keep arguing over something they call the “New Normal.” I can’t fault them for it, either. We live in strange times. I keep thinking I’ve woken up in a dystopian novel!
There’s a quote from a show which goes something like this. “The costliest and the most disruptive of disruptions happen when the small things that we take for granted every day stop working.” The pandemic has disrupted the daily processes we used to take for granted, our concept of workplaces being one of them.
If we go back to our experts, the general consensus seems to be that this new normal is here to stay, especially for knowledge workers. We are going to work from the confines of our homes even after we emerge from the pandemic.
But what if we’re putting too much emphasis on the here and now? Could work-from-home not be the new normal?
Why are some people projecting WFH as the new normal?
In 2021, work-from-home simply works better (at least initially) for a lot of people.
It works better for parents!
WFH has been a godsend for moms and dads, especially single ones. Parents get to attend to their children personally: this is a good thing for children and parents. If you are a single parent, working from home potentially saves you the cost of full-time babysitters or daycare. For new parents who are still learning the ropes, having two people at home helps. WFH forces parents to be in the same physical space as their kids. In today’s digital age, that translates to more direct care.
Increased work focus: an unexpected side effect of WFH
Oddly, we’re more productive at work when we’re at home. We can focus on tasks much better, barring distractions (and, yes, people) at office. For the past year, we’ve been forced not just to understand remote environments, but to actively create situations with greater productivity.
In the post-pandemic world, you have to work in an environment that suits you optimally and also helps you to manage your time. In many cases, this increased focus means that at least as much work gets done as was the case before the pandemic.
We want it to work
This is the most critical aspect with regards to WHF. We do not have a choice right now. When it’s either WFH or not work at all, we want WFH to work.
And it does for some people. Working from home offers clear positives, both for individuals and organizations. I completely agree with this particular point. But when it comes to WFH becoming the new normal? Already, the idea’s foundation is starting to crack.
5 reasons WFH won’t be the new normal
1. Physical proximity matters.
Physical proximity helps determine how we work and how we learn at work. Various aspects and behaviors we have inculcated make it hard to work in a setting where we aren’t close to each other. Think about communication. There’s that (in)famous stat that says 93% of our communication is non-verbal. Having face-to-face interaction engages elements of body language into play. Arguably, that’s just as important as communication that takes place over email.
LinkedIn Learning’s workplace learning report 2021 throws some light on the effect WFH is having on employees. According to their study, 31% of employees say they feel less connected to their leaders and 37% say they feel less connected with their team. Is that the best we can do after a year of earnest effort on everyone’s part to make WFH work?
Studies also point to how people working in the same room solve complex problems faster than virtual teams. This underscores the importance of having a physical workplace and the interactions that come with it.
2. It’s too hard to hire and integrate new team members.
New employees are perhaps the ones who struggle the most to make sense of the complexities of work in a virtual workplace. Ask around, and you’ll hear people say they have never met their coworkers in person. Integrating new employees becomes a big problem for employers too. How do you get someone to appreciate the depth, scale, and complexity of your business and the structures and processes in an organization that keeps it all going, all virtually?
Inculcating the more intangible aspects of an organization like its culture and values is far more difficult in a virtual setting. Learning the ropes of the organization becomes that much tougher for someone who already has their work cut out for them.
3. Work/life boundaries start to crumble.
Zoom calls in boxers and kitchen-table offices provided an enormous break at first. You could review the spreadsheets for your boss at 10, then toss in the laundry at 11. But going to work and coming back used to give us time to switch between modes mentally. We had time to process and set aside the personal side of our lives during the commute and get into work mode. These boundaries are almost non-existent today.
We are working longer hours now that we’re at home. A Harvard Business School study of more than 3.1 million people across 16 cities says that the length of the average workday has increased by 8.2%. A NordVPN study paints an even worse picture. It found that the average workday was lengthened by two hours (three hours if you consider just the U.S.)
4. Distractions are real.
If you think you’re the only one more distracted than before last spring, think again. Distraction is real. Online shopping or a bit of Netflix during work hours is not an uncommon phenomenon. We are less focused than before, and we are living in a world of distractions.
Distractions also come from having to attend to the other duties at home and not just social media or technology. With children and other members of the family staying in, we are increasingly being called away from work to tend to our families. We naturally take longer to finish the tasks on our to-do lists.
5. Innovation suffers.
I can’t overstate the impact of spontaneous interactions, offline conversations and watercooler chats on creativity and innovation. Studies show that casual conversations– the kind of things you talk about with your coworkers around the water cooler– increase creativity and productivity among employees.
Innovation often comes from random flights of fancy. There are triggers for these: Maybe a casual mention someone made about something totally unrelated to work. Or something that was discussed on the sidelines of a meeting. How do you replicate these events in a virtual environment?
We lose more than we gain by working from home. That said, however, cost-benefit analyses can vary from person to person. Some people thrive, but most won’t unless they’re able to make it to the office 2-3 days a week. From burnout and other mental health issues to objective productivity figures, we’re already seeing objective numbers that suggest that WFH might not be the optimal approach.
When such a time comes, it’s very likely that many employees will vote in favor of working at offices, not WFH. The stress test comes when there is an option between both.
We are indeed seeing a rethink in terms of our relationship with work and the workplace. However, like all things in life, it is more there’s more gray here than black or white. Hybrid work arrangements will become increasingly common, with employees getting more power to decide where they work from and how they work, depending on their context. This is a change we should all be for! But as for WFH? Once the pandemic is out of the way, it’s more likely to become a footnote than the “new normal.”