Mini Clubman and classic Austin Mini Cooper retro vehicle parked against the background of a house at the International Mini Meeting 2012 in Hungary.
PHOTO: Adobe

Recently, the multinational professional services network provider KPMG released research into the gradual return to work once the COVID pandemic has passed. While some companies have already indicated over the past year that they will continue remote working into the future, the assumption that it will be widespread and even desirable is a little simplistic. Instead, the research shows that many business leaders are having second thoughts and are now looking to bring a large number of their workers back to the physical workplace.  

Return To Normal Office Life?

The 2021 CEO Outlook Pulse Survey showed that CEOs no longer intend to downsize their physical premises with only 17% of chief executives planning to reduce office space, compared to more than two-thirds (69%) of those surveyed in August 2020. At the same time, just 30% said they planned to have the majority of employees working remotely 2-3 days per week. KPMG said the results suggested that bosses were more confident about a return to normal office life thanks to the "positive momentum" of COVID-19 vaccine rollouts.   

This, however, is not just about management, or a response to the suspicion that if workers are at home, they are not working productively. In fact, a great deal of research over the years has shown many workers say are very productive working from home.

 It's much more than that, though. A recent survey of more than 1000 remote workers by San Francisco based Joblist, an online job matching website for job seekers, shows that many workers are starting to find remote working difficult and even counter-productive. The research shows that:

  • 41.8% of respondents experienced a decrease in life satisfaction since working remotely.  
  • 53.5% of respondents checked their work devices more frequently outside of working hours than they did before going remote.  
  • 70.9% of managers regularly worked past normal office hours since working from home.  
  • 50.7% of respondents believed their workplace provided fewer perks since working remotely. Employees also find it more challenging to get noticed in the workplace while being out of the office.  
  • 38% of employees have gone out of their way to be noticed while working from home.  
  • Women were twice more likely than men to feel extremely invisible from their employers while working from home.  
  • 36% of remote employees had a “visibility strategy” such as making sure all of their projects kept moving, helping their colleagues with work and taking care of small details.  

Related Article: What Agile Teams Bring to the Digital Workplace

Lack of in Person Connections Creates Challenges

There are a number of practical considerations that both employers and employees need to take into consideration. Howard Sublett is CEO and chief product owner for Westminister, CO-based Scrum Alliance, a non-profit organization that supports the agile movement. He pointed out that when teams are more spread out while working remotely, they have far less bandwidth in terms of both communication and collaboration. When in person together, team members can actually see how people are feeling, without having to describe it. It's much easier to get an understanding of emotion and tone when people are face to face. This creates a number of problems that organizations need to overcome including: 

1. Online communication: It's no secret that it's much harder to collaborate via Zoom or other online services. There will always be the value of in-person, human interaction. While remote working conditions enable us to connect with colleagues, friends and family from all across the globe, they still inhibit our ability to foster human connection the same way we used to prior to the pandemic.  

2. Isolation: The stories people tell are even more important when we're remote. When you're remote, it's easy to feel isolated and alone in the work you are doing. Leaders need to actively seek out ways to help team members feel connected to the larger story of what we are all achieving together.  

3. Personal interactions: The water cooler'' or hallway conversations that spontaneously happen as people physically move about the space add texture to the dynamics of culture and collaboration. Though it's not possible to completely replicate that while remote, we certainly do try. Make online communication about something more than just work. Allow time for people to get to know each other in ways that would happen organically if we were all together in a physical space.  

“Some of the main challenges related to a lack of in-person connection include employee burnout and loss of motivation, company culture feeling like isn't the same and decreased productivity levels.,” he said. 

 “Schedule in a little chaos and fun. Invite teams to social events on a regular cadence, finding ways to integrate any former company in-person traditions within a virtual experience. Laughter is one of the best things you can do for your teams. Make time for fun." In remote work, the line between home and work is blurred. Workers are all on our computers much more than we wish to be, which can lead to online fatigue.  

Work Environment Challenges

There are three other considerations, Igor Avidon, founder of Los Angeles-based  Avidon Marketing Group, added. “As the whole world goes through a big crisis, everyone has to make several adjustments and sacrifices along the way, in order to cope with it. One of those adjustments is organizations and businesses having to switch to remote working and coming to terms with both the benefits and disadvantages of working from home. He points to three issues:

1. Lack of a good working environment: Work from home may provide employees with a satisfactory work-life balance but one of the most major setbacks of remote working is the lack of good working conditions due to various distractions.  

2. Lack of office equipment: In order to remain focused, employees need to have their own dedicated workspace but setting up a home office with a personal laptop, a high-speed internet connection, and other equipment such as printers and fax machines can be pretty costly and inconvenient for some people.  

3. Worker Burnout: One of the advantages of working in an office is that it helps to draw the line between professional and personal life. However, while working remotely has its benefits, some employees forget to clock out which leads them to work longer than they should and eventually results in employees.  

Privacy and Wellness Challenges

As a final thought, organizations need to be wary of the privacy implications too, Sharon Polsky president of the Privacy & Access Council of Canada pointed out. She argues that the novelty of working remotely is enticing for employees who can save money on clothes, lunches, and transit costs. But unfortunately, the power imbalance that exists in many employer/employee relationships paves the way for privacy intrusions.  

People’s awareness of mental health matters has increased through the pandemic, and many employers have leveraged that as justification for monitoring employees’ conversations on collaboration platforms. Specialized algorithmic software can be programmed to assess and report on workers’ sentiment level based on the word they use.  

Other employers have imposed monitoring software to be able to keep tabs on employees. Monitoring systems capture keystrokes; track activity to indicate whether employees are away from the computer and for how long; and take screen shots at random intervals — and send it all to a manager, or someone at head office, or a supplier company, to be evaluated and assessed.

In jurisdictions where monitoring performance is prohibited these systems are easily explained away as being necessary for employee safety or other non-performance-related reasons. “It’s the modern-day version of overlords watching people as they toil in the fields,” she said.  

She added: “It’s easy to justify monitoring employees to be able to intervene before someone harms themselves as others, but monitoring software seldom provides context. Monitoring can also be used to mete out punishments to employees deemed to be “not a good fit for that corporate culture. And since the automated decisions are made by secret intellectual property, it’s difficult or impossible to find out how the determination was made.”