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Whatever happened to the work from home dream?


Remember pre-pandemic, when everyone wanted to work from home and forward-thinking workplaces offered flexitime because it helped with employee retention, motivation and wellbeing? In this post, Stephanie Davies, asks whether the work from home dream has now become a bit of a nightmare.

Disappearance of work/life balance

Unless you are a key worker, we are all now home workers. How’s that working out for you? 

Not very well according to some of the latest surveys. Somewhere along the way, the work from home dream – onesie at the desk, leisurely breakfast, perfect work/life balance – has turned into a nightmare. Shangri-La turns out to be shite for many. Employees who work from home are spending longer at their desks and facing a bigger workload than before the pandemic hit.

According to data from the NordVPN Teams, British workers have increased their working week by almost 25% and, along with employees in the Netherlands, are logging off at 8pm. Other research from remote team-building firm Wildgoose found 44% of UK employees reported being expected to do more work over the last year. 

Workers are also taking shorter lunch breaks, working through sickness and report being ‘always on’ as the split between working and leisure time blurs. And then there is the misery faced by those poor souls expected to homeschool and work at the same time. 

Work from home dream

This was not how it was supposed to be. 

For decades workers have strived for a life where productivity sits perfectly alongside meaningful leisure time, with no loss of income. In the 2007 bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek, author and entrepreneur Timothy Ferriss suggested that employees negotiate remote-work contracts and then move to countries with low living costs. These ultra-remote workers could do their jobs in highly efficient bursts, enjoying lavish lives of leisure the rest of the time. 

This dream is still being peddled. Last year, the government of Barbados launched the Barbados Welcome Stamp scheme, offering international visitors the chance to work remotely from the island for up to a year. A similar scheme has been introduced for remote workers keen to live in Madeira.

Despite the hype, somewhere along the way the drive for remote working lost momentum. In 2013, a Yahoo HR memo explained: “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” It encouraged workers to be together physically. 

Other tech firms curtailed their telework programs and enticed workers to stay in the office with coffee shops and gyms and sleep pods. But then the pandemic happened and the work from home game was back on.  

The grass isn’t greener

It has not been a gradual, organic experience. Instead it’s been a steep learning curve for millions. While there are many who do not miss the commute and value the time and cost saved, increasingly those extra hours not spent on a train or bus are spent doing work tasks instead. 

The grass is not greener, it seems, and from my own experiences talking to clients, it’s becoming clear that we are missing the interaction and collaboration of office life.

In terms of productivity, the bonding value of face-to-face workplace interaction is only part of the equation. In offices where work is knowledge-based, there are advantages of having a central space. Assigning and monitoring tasks and progress is easier and colleagues are more thoughtful about the volume of work they assign to each other when you can see the whites of each other’s eyes. 

Remote workspaces are abstract, making it easier and less consequential to overload each other and delegate. Interactions that were previously snatched discussions at the desk or in the corridor become email chains or Zoom meetings that require scheduling. Spontaneity becomes lost in process. Creativity and collaboration get stifled.

Reports of the demise of the office are exaggerated. It will return, in a different form. Perhaps as a satellite location where people meet to collaborate. Perhaps somewhere people go two or three days a week. Whatever guise the post-pandemic office takes, one thing is assured. Home workers will be glad to get out of the house and go there.

Stephanie Davies

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