Until a few months ago, working exclusively from home was mostly a privilege reserved for senior management, the self-employed, freelancers, consultants, and people who didn’t have full-time jobs. That wasn’t always the case, however. Starting as early as 1983, IBM was encouraging employees to work from home and already had over 2,000 remote workers. In fact, that entire decade saw a number of organizations like AT&T, American Express, JCPenney and General Electric implement programs that allowed some employees to “telecommute.” But with COVID-19, everything has changed, forcing the creation of a new remote workplace.
The evolution of the remote workspace
When you think about it, though, not having to travel physical distances to work is the natural evolutionary impact of technology. When you look at the way we shop on Amazon, or the way we’re entertained on Netflix, or even the way we order food with GrubHub or Uber Eats, it’s all built so that we’re not inconvenienced with physical activity. Why then has it taken the COVID-19 pandemic to make working from home both popular and acceptable?
While a lot of people blame the industrial revolution for dragging people out of their homes and into corporate offices and factories, the pandemic has shown us that we’ve had the technology to move back home for a while now. In fact, remote work was steadily gaining popularity until about a few years ago when pioneers like IBM recalled their remote staff back to the offices and abandoned the idea altogether.
The decline of the remote workspace
This could quite possibly be because the company was doing poorly and had recorded a loss for a number of years in a row. Similarly, Yahoo, Reddit, Bank of America, and Aetna, all recalled their remote employees over the last decade in an effort to turn things around. While there are a number of success stories that involve remote workforces (like Trello), they pale in comparison to the sheer numbers of the organizations mentioned above, starting with IBM, which had 380,000 employees at the time.
What’s even more interesting is that while this was probably an effort to be more like Google and Facebook, which were firmly against working from home at the time, the exercise hasn’t paid off for any of the above mentioned. IBM and Yahoo aren’t nearly as big names as they once were while Aetna and Bank of America continue to diminish.
New remote workplace during COVID-19
Fast forward to today and the world has turned on its axis as far as remote work is concerned. Not only is everyone and their grandmother scrambling to enable work from home for employees, but organizations that used to be against it are now considering it as a permanent option. Case in point, Facebook, that just announced it’s going to allow employees to work from home, not just during the pandemic but for the foreseeable future as well.
While it’s definitely disheartening to see that it took a pandemic like COVID-19 to push employers to make the change, change is often a good thing, regardless of where it comes from. Even something as simple as digital transformation, albeit a critical and necessary step, has seen a number of organizations drag their feet and contemplate whether it is really necessary. That is till the current situation unfolded and the choice was between “transforming” or going extinct.
Fear is definitely a good motivator and while not the ideal factor to be driving your organization’s remote transformation, we’re here and it’s now. One of the main concerns with remote work and a reason that a lot of organizations recalled their remote staff was lack of teamwork, collaboration, and innovation. Additionally, organizations like to think they each have their own unique brand of “office culture” that’s a bit difficult to enforce via Slack when nobody’s in the office.
With regard to collaboration, in particular, it is true that two minds are better than one. Getting people to work together and share ideas and innovate remotely, however, is a lot harder than it sounds. That’s why remote work is about a lot more than just a phone, a desk, and a computer. It’s about keeping people involved, engaged, and motivated, all while still maintaining a semblance of the official values and culture of the organization.
Remote work is quickly turning into a psychological battle that every employee and employer need to be ready for. While organizations spend a lot of money making the workplace “fun” with snack bars and pool tables, keeping employees engaged and involved remotely is another thing altogether. With a number of psychological concepts like “social facilitation” already in play, what it boils down to is going further than merely facilitating ergonomics and technology for remote work.
While we already know that employees that share a common vision and feel appreciated and involved are much more likely to perform better, COVID-19 changes that common vision quite a bit even as it creates a new remote workplace. This is why it’s important to not only address work-related issues but also real-world issues like the ones we’re all facing together right now. Additionally, organizations need to come up with “virtual” versions of not just the perks and benefits of the office, but of the office culture as well.
Remote silos and anxiety attacks
The issue of loneliness is actually a lot deeper than it seems and apart from people who already work from home and have found a way to balance it with regular life, the majority struggle. Office camaraderie, the ability to vent frustration to coworkers, smile at a friend, or even complain about an overbearing boss are all key elements of a healthy workspace. Offices also usually have support staff so you can focus on the job at hand and not have to worry about things like IT work or housekeeping.
In addition to loneliness, anxiety, isolation, and even possibly depression, working from home also blurs the lines between home and office. Historically speaking, a person’s home has always been a refuge and a place to get away from the hustle. Post-pandemic, however, there’s no escape anymore and the majority of remote workers feel the pressure to be available long past working hours. This is why it’s important that organizations ensure employees aren’t isolated and get enough rest and recreation to avoid burnout.
Add all the above to the fact that we’re in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic which has got everyone fearing for their lives and for the lives of their family. Pretty much a recipe for a mental breakdown. Remember, this isn’t a bunch of people who have opted to work from home, but a bunch of people who have no choice, with many not even able to leave the house. A recent study quotes a 7.2 percent loss in productivity in the U.S. due to remote work which shouldn’t happen since employees technically have more time on their hands.
COVID-19 and the new remote workplace: Social studies
The problem lies in the fact that the majority of us are social creatures who constantly need acknowledgment, approval, acceptance, and confirmation. While COVID-19 will go away at some point, the human race, resourceful as it is, needs to find virtual supplements for these very human needs. The last few months have already shown us what we’re capable of in terms of working from home and the future is going to see us fine-tune and polish the process to a point where hopefully one day no one will believe that we ever used to travel to work.
Featured image: Peakpx