Working at home during COVID isn’t the nirvana some companies are making it out to be. As the economy reopens, employers are considering many possible changes to the workplace and how their employees will work. But one thing is certain – the workplace will not go back to the way it was before COVID-19 struck, according to Sprott’s Linda Duxbury.

“All kinds of things will change and all we know for sure is they’re not going to go back.”

On June 17, Linda – Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business – inaugurated the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s (SSHRC) new series, SSHRC Talks, with her talk: Working @ Home.

A renowned expert in work-life balance, employee well-being, change management and telework, Linda is now researching the impacts of COVID-19 and the switch which had to be made across Canada to working from home.

A picture of Linda Duxbury standing with her arms crossed.

Linda Duxbury is a renowned expert in work-life balance, employee well-being, change management and telework – who is now researching the impacts of COVID-19 and the switch, which had to be made, to working from home.

“The first thing we have to do is stop saying we’re teleworking. We’re not teleworking. We are doing emergency work from home,” Linda said. “And, there is a fundamental difference there.”

“If we don’t recognize that then we’re going to think that what we’re doing now is what we should be moving forward with.”

She described the emergency work from home order as “death to work-life balance” since employees and their families are unable to use time or space cues to separate work and life.

“Those cues are gone. Your kids aren’t going to school, you’re not going to work, the traffic isn’t there. All of the time cues aren’t there, and you don’t have the spatial cues either,” said Linda.

Most employees are also juggling work with a range of other demands on their time, such as home schooling and caring for their children, as well as supporting their parents.

“Telework isn’t a substitute for daycare. It’s not a substitute for eldercare.”

Linda’s research shows that telework typically enhances productivity because the expectations are shared and communicated before an employee starts work outside the office. Teleworkers have a definite start and stop time, which is respected by their managers and colleagues alike. However, right now, many employees are squeezing work in around all these other demands on their time.

“Most of the people that I see who are productive, are so at a cost in terms of stress, anxiety, depressed mood, overload etc.”

Linda also compared the realities, discovered through her research, of regular teleworking versus the current state of affairs.

Under normal circumstances, telework is viewed as “a privilege not a right” and teleworkers are carefully selected.  They have remote access to everything they need to work productively. They have home offices which conform to ergonomic principles and they are supervised by managers who are trained on motivating, engaging and evaluating them. On the other hand, right now it is incorrectly assumed that everyone has the discipline to work from home and that all tasks can be completed remotely without a loss in efficiency. Also, many employees don’t have everything they need to work productively while they are away from their usual workplaces. Their home is their office regardless of ergonomics and many managers – who are overwhelmed themselves – have had no training on how to supervise employees that are working remotely.

She addressed the increased pressure currently on managers – especially middle managers – as they try to take care of themselves and their teams, while still adhering to the demands of senior management.

“The middle manager is essential, but the middle manager is burning out. We call them the buffer of toxicity. They are often in a no-win situation.”

Taking all this into account, Linda cautioned the employers who are contemplating having employees work from home permanently to not draw conclusions about telework from the current situation.

“What really worries me is people are taking this artificial situation, this artificial case, and extrapolating it to an ability to work from home for everybody,” she said. “What they’re saying is that ‘people are loving it’; ‘we have demonstrated proof of concept’.”

“No, you don’t have demonstrated proof of concept at all. There are so many holes.”

Linda wants employers to consider the research before making any decisions. For example, research shows that “proximity boosts productivity.” There are some jobs that do not require much interaction with colleagues, and in those cases, it can be argued that the office does little else than offer interruptions. However, many jobs require collaboration with others. Collaboration requires communication, and distance drags down the speed at which groups can successfully solve problems.

“Distance just sucks the lifeblood out of collaborative efficiency,” she said. “There is a power in presence.”

“The communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest and highest bandwidth connection is still the office.”

Linda’s research also shows that when it comes to employee well-being, it is important to let employees work when and where they want.

However, she did state that returning to office cubicles from Monday to Friday was not likely to happen either in the post-pandemic world and did not dismiss the notion of telework altogether.

“I’m not saying you can’t work from home sometimes. But I’m saying remember what the research has said, one to three days (of working from home) gets you the maximum effect.”

According to Linda, we are at a fork in the road in history and “everything is up for grabs.” It remains to be seen what the future will look like, but Linda’s research will surely help along the way.

She concluded her talk with some advice for organizations and a quote from Gandhi:

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Linda advised not to wait for the government to introduce and manage changes to the workforce, but instead to take the lead. She told them to take control, to help their workforce work in the way that best suits them and the organization and to continue to grow and evolve as we head into a new world.

Monday, July 27, 2020 in , ,
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