Coronavirus is forcing us to work from home – we’re totally unprepared to do so

According to psychologists, the average socialised adult will find working from home rather difficult.

 

 

The outbreak of COVID-19 has inadvertently triggered a global-scale experiment in working from home. What we learn during this time of crisis could help shape a future of work that might have been inevitable, health crisis or not.

The amount of people opting to work remotely has been accelerating all over the world. The US Federal Reserve says the share of labour force that works from home has tripled in the past 15 years, thanks in large part to the ubiquity of technology and the increase of its effectiveness, but also due to the growing metro living costs.

As you read this, millions of people all over the globe are seeking refuge/self-quarantining/social distancing in homes. In order to keep an income, these people will be working from home for the foreseeable future. For some, it is their first taste of remote work.

This, unfortunately, is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that less than 30 percent of Americans have the capacity to work from home. And for those that can and do, life isn’t in perfect balance.

A 2016 paper titled ‘Does Working From Home Work?” explored the idea. A team of economists studied Ctrip, a Chinese travel agency that assigned a small portion of its call-centre staff to work from home. The move initially looked like a win for both the workers and the company; employees worked more, employee turnover was reduced, and the workers said they were happier with their job. The company saved $1,000 per employee with a reduction in office space.

However, when the policy was then rolled out to the entire company, things got ugly. One complaint overruled everything; the employees were lonely.

Lost creativity and reduced companionship will hurt a company, but the gravest threat remote work poses to companies is the severing of social bonds that are necessary to productive teamwork. Google conducted a research project several years ago on its most productive groups and found that one quality trumped them all – “psychological safety”. Team members achieve psychological safety when they are assured that they will not be embarrassed or punished for speaking up.

 

Many of the actions and behaviours that don’t feel like work in the office are actually what spur us to be our most creative and productive selves.

 

As it turns out, online communication isn’t exactly healthy in terms of psychological safety. Bill Duane, a former Google engineer who now works remotely himself as a consultant and researcher, believes that office banter, bad jokes, sycophantic corporate ramble and other forms of communication dismissed as unproductive are actually, according to him, “the carrier wave for psychological safety.”

Many of the actions and behaviours that don’t feel like work in the office are actually what spur us to be our most creative and productive selves.

But what about the status quo already failing millions of people? Jobs are increasingly squished into downtown areas without affordable housing, pushing workers’ homes out far into the suburbs. The modern commute, an hour a day spent away from loved ones in a machine coughing fumes into the sky, is a psychological and environmental blight that raises fossil-fuel emissions and provokes depression.

Finding a way for people to work closer to home—even if that place is a coffee shop or co-working space—could be the key to a work-life balance.

Remote work, in its current state, is simultaneously a lonely medium of work that saps creativity and a godsend for egalitarianism, one’s social life and the planet itself. This chaotic picture is proof that the concept itself is still in its infancy.

A pandemic might not be the appropriate time to determine what kind of labour conditions are optimally effective, but the next few months will likely shed some light on the future of work, and could even prove to be a lesson to companies on how to build a culture and environment that better supports its remote workers.

 

 

 

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