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The future of the office and WFH

A forced rethink of the office and work as we know it is underway.

In the collective effort to protect ourselves from the Covid-19 pandemic, capable businesses have quickly shifted to working remote and implemented a digital first mindset. Both employers and employees have learned that working remote is, in fact, possible and that it must be recognized as a viable alternative to office-based work.

Google and Facebook have both stated that in the future it’s unlikely ‘most employees will work from the office on a daily basis’. And Tobi Lutke, CEO of Shopify, commented that office centricity is over and that the company will keep offices closed till 2021, allowing most employees to work remotely on a permanent basis after that. He adds: ‘COVID is challenging us all to work together in new ways. We choose to jump in the driver’s seat, instead of being passengers to the changes ahead. We cannot go back to the way things were. This isn’t a choice; this is the future’.

In stark contrast, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, appears unenthused about permanent work-from-home. In a recent New York Times interview, Nadella said that switching from office work to work from home will simply be ‘replacing one dogma with another dogma’ and he questioned the effects of work-from-home on burnout, mental health, connectivity and community building. ‘One of the things I feel is, hey, maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?’, he asked.

We’ve heard lots of rhetoric from corporate HQ, but what about the workers on the ground? What do they think? For some, the transition is welcomed. It makes spending time with our families easier and all the hours saved commuting can be put to far better use. For others, it’s a shock to the system, a loss of normalcy. It’s particularly devastating for younger workers, whose identity, social circles and activities are often deeply intertwined with work and the office environment.

What can we learn from the past?

In 2013, Marissa Mayer (then CEO of Yahoo) made a decision to ban working from home. A leaked internal memo described the reason for the decision: ‘For Yahoo to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together’. The decision ignited debate on both sides with some praising it as the right thing to do and others declaring it a return to the stone age.

Intrigued by the decision, James Liang (co-founder of Ctrip, China’s largest online travel agency), Nicholas Bloom (Eberle Professor in the Department of Economics at Stanford University) and a team of researchers set out to scientifically assess if work-from-home policies encourage employees to ‘shirk from home’ (waste productive time in bed, on the couch and in the fridge) or whether it is an essential element of our modern working lives. Motivated by increasing office costs and high employee turnover, Ctrip wanted to understand if a work-from-home policy would impact employee performance before scaling the policy across the entire company.

The nine-month experiment, which compared both work-from-home and office-based employees at the company’s Shanghai headquarters, found that:

  • Performance of at home workers increased by 13% over the course of the nine months. At home workers worked more minutes during each shift, were more productive per minute and took less breaks and had less sick days.

  • Staff turnover for the home-workers, decreased by almost 50% compared to the control group.

  • The home-workers also reported substantially higher work satisfaction and less “work exhaustion” in a psychological attitudes survey. There was no change in the performance of the office-based control group.

Ctrip’s management team was so impressed by the success metrics they decided to scale the work-from-home policy across the whole organization. The original home-workers and the control group were both offered an opportunity for new work arrangements. What was unexpected though, was that 50% of the home-workers changed their minds and returned to the office and 75% of the office-based control group—who had initially requested to work from home—decided to stay in the office. Why? Quite simply: the people who worked from home were lonely.

If the Ctrip study shows one thing, it’s that although working from home reduces operating costs and increases productivity, it’s less enjoyable for workers. In the midst of Covid-19 how do workers feel about working from home? Data from a recent DART & maru/Blue research poll shows: Of the 24% of Canadians now working from home, 21% love it, 23% like it, 38% say it’s fine and 18% downright hate it. When asked about productivity, 47% say they’re about as productive at home as they were in the office. And 23% said they are more productive. When asked about what they missed most about being at the office 58% said they missed personal interactions with colleagues. And when asked if they will continue working from home after offices start to open back up, 23% say they’ll likely stay working at home, 23% say they want to work from home a significant amount of time but not full time, 17% say there’s no way they will continue working from home. So what happens next? At this point, it’s too early to tell how things will evolve. As we work-from-home for longer periods of time will our feelings shift from positive to increasingly negative? Will feelings of stress, loneliness and isolation make workers want to return to offices as soon as possible—if for nothing more than human connection, a place to go and water cooler gossip? Or will the office become a thing of the past? What we do know is that in the short-term—with productivity holding (for now), significant operational savings and a global pandemic keeping everyone at a distance—working-from-home isn’t going away. For those that do return to the office, it will look a lot different than when they left. With this in mind, here are some considerations for businesses on how to keep workers, productive, happy and healthy and make the experience of working from home more enjoyable. Companies that take the health and wellness of their employees seriously will not only earn goodwill and improve performance, but also establish competitive advantage. Establish formal policies Define work hours, meeting times and communications guidelines. e.g. no communication before 9am or after 6pm and firm, time-boxed meeting lengths to avoid video conference fatigue. Schedule daily communication black-out windows where workers can fully disconnect and exercise, stretch or practice mindfulness. Movement is critical for attention, mood stabilization and memory. As our homes morph into our offices, creating boundaries is more important than ever.

Prioritize wellness Clearly outline and direct employees to where they can access health and mental wellness services. Invest in ergonomics Provide workers with the necessities required to do their job properly and comfortably. e.g stand-up desks, ergonomic chairs, external monitors, headphones and even plants. Promote healthy food choices Consider providing workers with healthy food and snack subscriptions that are conveniently and safely delivered to home. Create community Think beyond Zoom happy hours and rethink how to keep everyone in the loop, enable collaboration and celebrate important milestones like business wins, promotions and birthdays.


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