By Rachel McIntosh
Well, folks, it’s been over a month since coronavirus quarantines began–and there’s a whole lot of new normal going around: instead of bars and restaurants, people are eating at home; instead of going to shows, people are live-streaming concerts from home; Tinder dates have turned into FaceTime calls, and family gatherings happen in virtual Zoom rooms. Work wise, attending an online conference is now the new norm.
Perhaps the most significant new normal that many of us have experienced, however, is a serious reduction in commuting time to work.
Instead of spending 25 minutes or more driving or riding the bus, many members of the workforce–particularly in the tech world–have shortened their transit time to work to something between 1 and 3 minutes, or however long it takes to migrate from the breakfast table to the home office (unless the breakfast table also happens to be the home office.)
For many, the first couple of days and weeks of working from home were a crash course in serious multitasking: those with children at home–particularly young ones–struggled to establish routines and balance between staying on task and staying sane.
Now, however–roughly seven weeks into the quarantine–it seems that routines are starting to settle into place; with lockdowns continuing indefinitely in many parts of the world, many have argued that working from home could continue even after the pandemic is over.
” Not all businesses have been willing to consider” working from home until the pandemic hit
Indeed, most of the developed world has been equipped with the ability to enable working from home for a number of years at this point–however, in spite of a number of studies that have shown that employees are more productive when they work from home, a number of companies have been reticent to make the shift.
However, crisis begets innovation: as author and philosopher Yuval Harari told RFI, “people don’t have the motivation to try and experiment, and then some crisis comes and forces them, and afterward, everything changes.”
“[…] People may be working from home, universities shifting courses online, this can certainly remain even after the crisis is over,” Harari said.
Indeed, David Mansell, co-founder and director of NEM Ventures (which has always been a completely remote firm), told Finance Magnates that the COVID-19 quarantine “had created an opportunity that not all businesses have been willing to consider or accept until this unfortunate pandemic.”
“Individuals have realized that those at home are not idly watching Netflix.”
Indeed, “with work-from-home guidelines likely to continue in many countries across the world in the medium term, I believe that we are likely to see a significant shift in attitudes towards the policy by both employees and employers,” he continued.
“Many companies are beginning to realize that the same, or even higher standards of team productivity can be maintained by employees working from home, meaning there is no longer the same fear held by employers of lost revenue by embracing the policy.”
Indeed, the “perception has changed,” Mansell said. “Individuals have realized that those at home are not idly watching Netflix–one friend outside of the blockchain space has told me he has ‘never worked so hard in his life.’”
Operating virtually has benefits beyond productivity
In addition to the productivity boost, companies who have primarily utilized work-from-home models have also noted a number of other benefits.
Mansell told Finance Magnates that “setting up NEM Ventures to operate remotely was a conscious decision based on a few fundamental principles.”
Firstly, Mansell said that “we did not want to restrict our talent pool to a geographical location”–by allowing workers to remotely commute, NEM Ventures had access to a global talent pool, rather than a strictly local one.
Working from home offers a number of obvious benefits, but not without a specific set of pain points
But of course, working from home isn’t necessarily all sunshine and roses–there are certain considerations that must be taken into account, and companies must adopt these considerations into their management styles.
Indeed, “for those that have not utilized remote working previously: look after your team members,” Mansell said. “While it may seem that working from home or remotely is the dream, it has specific personal pain points.”
For example, “that 30-minute drive to and from the office which was seen as an annoying commute was actually a clean break between work and home life; being at home can make you available to your family when you feel pressured to be working, and asks the question: when does the day start and end?”
“These are new pressures for most people, and a leader needs to be aware of them,” he explained.
Keeping up morale is particularly challenging in periods of extended social isolation
Additionally, working from home can contribute to feelings of isolation–particularly during periods of more generalized isolation–like, for example, a pandemic.
“There is the underestimation of the social aspect of working in an office environment,” Mansell explained.
For all of the clever strategies that companies may be adopting to keep team morale up, in-person contact just isn’t something that can be completely replaced online: “having a coffee over video conference is not the same as the offer from a colleague to buy you a drink and catch up.”
“Water cooler conversations and the rapport they build are underestimated in terms of building team unity. These conversations and workloads need to be managed, or you end up with people at either end of the spectrum: people avoiding doing work, as well as people never stopping work and damaging their home life.”
Working from home requires “modern and emotionally intelligent” leadership
Therefore, “to make this a success, we needed to give our colleagues all the tools they needed to perform and ensure that expectations were set and met,” Mansell said. “We can offer flexibility in terms of hours and a mature attitude toward individuals’ work-life balance. In return, we ask for a delivery-based focus, a good work philosophy, and free and open communication.”
In other words, the transactional nature of the corporate world requires greater levels of mutual trust and respect when it comes to allowing employees to work from home: “the challenges on a corporate level are around trusting your employees, and leading them in a way that enables them to deliver, no matter if you’re physically in the same office,” Mansell said.
This kind of emotional intelligence is especially important during times of crisis–however, even without a crisis, ensuring that employees are happy and healthy is, well, good for business.
Maintaining mental health and morale is crucial
Of course, there may be situations in which working from home simply isn’t possible, practical, or desirable for a management perspective–but the same may also be true from an employee perspective.
“For employees new to working from home, the current situation is likely to have more of a diverse impact on long term work practices,” Mansell remarked.
“While many people may wake up to the advantages that remote working offers, equally there is likely to be a segment of the population who find the policy does not work for them in terms of social contact and other issues,” he continued.
And indeed, the lack of social contact that working from home has caused in the lives of some individuals has been rough on mental health, and as a consequence, may have hurt productivity. Therefore, from an employee perspective, it may be important to build additional intentional practices to improve and maintain mental health; from a management perspective, it’s important to support employees in creating and maintaining these practices.
“Communication is one key pillar: regularly talking to friends, family, and team members can help us stay grounded during these challenging times and provide us with an important outlet to express our own feelings.”
Additionally, “regular exercise is another important area which cannot be overstated; replacing a morning commute with an early morning walk or run is an effective way to fit exercise into your daily routine, and help create that division between work and home life.”
Once habits are formed, it’s just business as usual
And even if employees prefer to work in an office setting for mental health-related or other kinds of reasons, it might be quite some time before workers are allowed to return to their office buildings.
In the meantime, the world is continuing to ‘figure it out,’ day by day–though, in most cases, things are getting easier as time goes on.
“The challenges involved in working remotely tend to occur at the onset of operations when systems and processes are still being ironed out,” Mansell said. “Once processes become habitual, the typical difficulties involved in remote working (fragmented communication, technical issues, team connectivity) tend to be resolved quite quickly.”
“There are, of course, occasions where face to face communication is important, and even as a remote working company, we usually try to schedule several meetings a year where team members can come together for key projects,” Mansell said.