In June this year, Facebook extended its work-from-home policy to include almost every staff member that does not fulfil a critical on-site role.
Later, in July, a Microsoft survey confirmed what we have all seen coming … working from home, or at least a hybrid version of the notion, is set to become a global reality for some time to come, if not permanent.
The pandemic has not only forced rapid adoption of technology and serves to feed the trend, but it literally sat us all down and stated, “this is how it is, for now”.
But there is a new normal. In its survey, Microsoft shares that more than 40 billion more e-mails have been sent between February 2020 and February 2021. Over the same period, meeting times have increased by 148% on its software and Teams chats rose by 45%.
Rival online platform Zoom saw 200 million daily meeting participants by May 2020, rocketing by 100 million just a month later. This, compared to 10 million in December 2019. Zoom’s revenues are up by 317% thanks to Covid.
Satya Nadella, chief executive at Microsoft, says: “Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work.
“Employee expectations are changing and we will need to define productivity much more broadly, inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing, to drive career advancement for every worker, including front-line and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today.”
“All this needs to be done with flexibility in when, where, and how people work.”
In its survey, the software giant found that 70% of workers want “flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65% are craving more in-person time with their teams. To prepare, 66% of business decision makers are considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work environments.”
Psychologist Louisa Niehaus says the return to office work post-pandemic or vaccination will play an important role in our lives.
“We are social beings. Work is not just about work, it’s about all those peripheral relationships. The catch-up at thecoffee machine, our insatiable curiosity about others. Who did what in office politics? We want to escape our homes and the drudgery that has become the four walls of home schooling, isolation and wearing your pyjamas.
“We want to be seen, to assert ourselves, to feel valued, important and part of a group.”
But, as Microsoft suggests, it may be in a hybrid form after all. Economist Dawie Roodt of the Efficient Group says that many of the trends we see now were already established before lockdown and that modern economies are more service oriented and “digitisable”, which favours working from home.
But he says current economic data is not enough to move beyond theory and capture all economic activities which, he suspects, is stronger than current data suggests.
“Working from home will likely continue to be positive for those with skills and there is no way we will return to a before corona scenario,” he says. But he warns that skills development in SA will play a critical role, along with infrastructure development like broadband, to better serve the way forward. Those with skills and equipment will prosper, but there is a significant risk of leaving the poor behind.”
Roodt adds that a hybrid model or spending a substantial amount of time working from home has seen a rise in productivity.
Microsoft’s survey echoes the same but adds that workdays have become far more intense, partly due to an incessant barrage of unstructured communication.
“The major headwind will be psychological in nature,” says Roodt.
“More technology enhances productivity, but it could be at the cost of mental health.”
Microsoft says in its survey that digital overload continues to climb. People are fatigued, says Niehaus.
“Digital fatigue has set in because there is no escaping being in front of a screen. We literally need to stay rooted; it requires a lot of focus and concentration. Every interaction online is like an in-depth meeting.
“During our face-to-face work, we rarely must be so ‘on form’ all the time. There are opportunities for down time, a chance to slump behind your desk, take a walk to a colleague’s desk and so on.
“Digital requires acute attention. You are a solo act, instead of being part of a larger entity. Too much screen time is difficult but the effort that is required with interactive screen time and online meetings and presentations is very draining and surprisingly demanding.”
Working remotely has cut many of us off from social cues, she says.
“Remote working and sometimes even online dating can make us feel disconnected and distant, or it can have the opposite effect of becoming overly familiar. We tend to lose our filters, as whomever you are engaging with is behind a screen.
“Therefore, leaders may be out of touch due to fatigue and the sheer effort required to read online cues and motivate from afar.”
According to Microsoft, business leadership has lost touch with employees, too, citing a 23% gap in the belief that remote working is allowing businesses to thrive.