- Socio-Technical Centre
The COVID-19 lockdowns have challenged conventional thinking about where we work and whether an office is required to support productivity. A range of benefits of Working From Home (WFH) has been reported in workforce surveys, including: increased flexibility, better work-life balance, and greater personal autonomy at work.
WFH has been linked to improved performance. The Leesman 2021 survey shows that 83% of employees found home-working enables productivity. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) celebrated the success of a productivity boost in the past year when people worked mostly at home. 88% of organisations are also saving money thanks to reduced real-estate costs. A majority of employees now report a preference towards WFH and would like to continue working from home even as more offices reopen.
Despite these positive claims, these benefits may well come at a cost. New findings suggest that the increased productivity that has been seen during the pandemic is likely underpinned by increased hours worked by employees (WFH often means that there is not a clear time structure). Digital overload affects employees’ wellbeing - this is a particular concern given that the public’s mental health has already worsened during the pandemic.
Opinions toward remote-working are increasingly polarized. Some have gone as far as to say that WFH has been “a failed experiment” and the alleged advantages are simply all an “illusion”. What lies behind this divergence?
Social divides of teleworking
Not everyone has the choice to work from home. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that 70% of employees in Richmond upon Thames have worked from home during the pandemic, whereas only 14% had done so in Burnley. The inequality between affluent and rural areas is just the beginning of the story.
People who earn less are not only less able to work from home, but also more likely to lose their job. Many jobs simply cannot be done from home. Your chance to have a successful remote-working experience also relates to your education, job type and position, even ethnicity.
These findings remind us how important it is to think about differences between people and how this might affect their experience; this can be a particularly hard thing to do when we are physically isolated. Apart from the socio-economic and occupational divides, people in different life stages or different personal circumstances may have different workplace needs and preferences.
Although some employees benefit from home-working, there are people left behind and their issues can be overlooked. Considerations should be taken for employee groups who are more vulnerable to the changes in where we work. Women, especially mums, and also young starters are disadvantaged, as detailed below.
The WFH gender gap
Reports show that more women miss the office than men do. But all sectors considered, more jobs are done remotely by women than by men. Although not every family can afford a dedicated home office, when there is one, it is more likely given to a male partner. Other types of domestic tensions are increasing during the pandemic as shown in some recent research, and they can do more damage to lower socio-economic groups.
Household inequality may be further compounded by parenthood. Although new parents are showing their preference towards flexible working, they typically report worse work-life balance at home than those with no children living with them. It is a bitter trade-off. But it can be worse for women.
It has been noted that there was an increased association between women and childcare during the lockdowns. Mothers feel more likely to be judged for not carrying out domestic duties. While this is not news, evidence collected during the pandemic further confirms the compromises women make. More mothers than fathers have considered downscaling or leaving their jobs. Some findings display four-five times more working hours reduced from new mums than their male counterparts.
This increasing gender gap in remote working can have a worrying long-term impact. Globally, women’s COVID-induced job losses are estimated to be 1.8 times more than that of men. Senior-level women reported more pressure and exhaustion during the pandemic than male managers, which may pose a risk for companies in losing their female leadership. And in general, more men than women are likely to return to the office after lockdown is over.
In time, women may be pinned to low- or middle-tier jobs due to the blending of work and family commitments. Research has shown that women are already trading their wages for a shorter commute time. The flexibility of remote working does feel like a trap for some at this point.
Junior employees’ struggle
Junior staff members appear to be at a greater disadvantage when a shared physical space is not available. Study after study has shown how the wellbeing of young adults is disproportionally damaged compared to the rest of the population.
A national survey during the first lockdown evidenced perhaps unsurprising results: adults younger than 30 years old are much lonelier. The study also showed that such loneliness is intensified by other reasons that youngsters are more likely to be representatives of, such as lower household income and lack of a partner. Plus, they also tend to make less effort to socialise with their neighbours.
In regard to work, around one-third of those aged 18-24 were furloughed or lost their job early into the pandemic. This same demographic then made up 63.1% of all jobs lost in the past year. Job security became on top of their mind for Gen Z workers.
While senior workers report feeling more at ease working from home, employees from younger generations reported a feeling of less accomplishment, worse work-life balance, and higher stress. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index survey shows that 61% of business leaders feel they are thriving in remote working, while two-thirds of new and single employees are struggling. The managers are also more likely to be out of touch with their vulnerable employees due to the missed impromptu encounters in the office.
Young people are less likely to have dedicated workspaces at home. This makes the remote working experience worse for them. But this is only one part of the problem. A physical workplace with senior colleagues around is claimed to provide better mentorship and informal learning. The “water cooler moments” offer newcomers important information-seeking opportunities.
Other advantages of co-location, such as trust-building, easy access to senior colleagues and chance or serendipitous meetings are important for people early in their careers. New starters need to interact and build rapport with their colleagues to form bonds and cultivate team morale, essential for supporting organisational culture and performance – this is often easier when you bump into new colleagues or overhear useful conversations.
Some organisations have worked to improve their virtual onboarding through techniques like frequent catch-ups and dedicated social sessions. It is unlikely that digital interactions alone, however, will be enough to fully replace face-to-face interaction and time spent co-located. Even if more junior colleague choose to return to the office wanting to learn, the reduced office occupancy and senior workers’ preference for staying at home probably may take away some of the opportunities and value.
There is no simple answer
There are clear divides between employees with different working situations, backgrounds and experiences. Over time we are likely to see winners and losers emerge from the different choices that are being made over where people work. There are no simple solutions to how organisations balance the competing individual and collective needs – e.g. the work pattern that helps a senior colleague realise greater personal productivity may deprive junior colleagues of development opportunities and weaken organisational culture.
A hybrid working model seems to be the favoured approach by most organisations, yet this can take a wide variety of forms. Key to getting this right will be engagement with staff to truly understand their needs and the nature of their work, together with building in adaptability.
And this requires patience. We are unlikely to make such profound change work first-time round, or manage to get the perfect balance to suit everyone - there will be trial and error along the way and we need to be open about this and the trade-offs involved.
This project - Adapting offices to support COVID-19 secure workplaces and emerging work patterns - is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.
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