Working from Home: What would be the post-COVID-19 new normal?

By Prof Rakesh Belwal

Working from Home (WFH) has become an essential norm in this COVID-19 infected world. Employees working in different sectors globally are facing different situations in this environment. While WFH has emerged as an albatross around their necks, to a few it is a blessing in disguise, offering them the chance to operate out of their ‘comfort zones’.

But what proportion of people welcome WFH and what proportion don’t? This pilot study was conducted to garner the opinion of a broad section of professionals from across the world on the benefits – as well as the downsides – of WFH. Individuals were approached using LinkedIn and requested to share their free and frank opinions using the SurveyMonkey app.

One key proposition of the probe was: Working from home offers a degree of respite to some, but effectively shackles others to their workstations more than during pre-lockdown times.

Out of 25 respondents, WFH did not make any significant changes in the work-life of five. This group was comprised of a content developer, a manager of an online store, a business development manager, an IT advisor, and a business consultant. For the rest of the respondents, WFH led to an increased and irregular commitment of time, demanding sitting for more than usual or more than 12-13 hours a day.

It emerged that not only the screen time increased but also the demarcation ‘where work ends and personal time begins’, got blurred. An interesting perspective offered by many was that WFH did away with the need for getting dressed up, driving through traffic back and forth to work, and the resultant savings in travel cost and time.

This transition in the business process from business as usual to WFH was largely facilitated by the Internet-based IT.  Webinars, phone interviews and zoom chats replaced in-person meets and field visits with the aid of the Internet connection, smartphones, and laptops.  This change also benefited those who have been working from home even before the COVID-19 inflicted lockdown. It offered them much needed time to indulge in hobbies which otherwise were difficult to pursue during the normal days.  Crucially, it was an opportunity for nature to rejuvenate as roads were emptied of traffic,  factories became inoperational, and airplanes remained grounded.

For some in Business Development, it is not easy to work from home.  Whilst there is greater attendance in online meetings, there are fewer opportunities for problem-solving in a true sense as more time is wasted and solutions remain only a stopgap.

Another key proposition of this preliminary probe was: Does the commitment to work from home induce mental health issues, anxiety, depression, fatigue, peer pressure, and the like?

Eight out of 25 respondents said they were comfortable and relaxed while WFH. Others reported some discomfort but no one expressed any serious issues in the short run. One of them said, “Apps like Zoom and Slack have made meetings and collaboration very easy; however, the inability to meet colleagues makes one bored quite often.” This isolation from peers, aggravated by the challenging economic situation, is causing anxiety and depression, noted another. Handling increased workloads or conference-calls with less sophisticated home-based gadgets and low-speed internet can also cause a lot of stress and frustration, said two others.

Some of the respondents said they developed coping strategies to alleviate the mental and physical strain. For example, one participant said he started exercising at home six days a week and is motivating other group members to do so too. Another resorted to physical activities, meditation, and a daily virtual conference with office colleagues to interact and give them some tips.  One person decided to embrace the same schedule of a normal workday that began right after breakfast. He explained: “I have created a separate area in the house where I go and work. I step out of it every 1:30 to 2:00 hours, have beverages with my spouse, and then head back.” Those living away from cities in remote locations inform that they enjoy walking, running, or cycling in the open.

Some of the adverse effects of WFH are uncertainty, poor sleeping patterns; reduced concentration; strain on the eyes, loss of energy, and anxiety; and less time for self. One of them remarked: “Personally, my mind is more affected by the quarantine than WFH. I am used to WFH. But I have been hearing from my friends that they are unable to concentrate at home —with all the distractions from family, house chores, etc.” Some were stressed not solely due to WFH; Salary cuts impacted motivation levels as well.

WFH brought about a mixed basket of challenges and opportunities to employees. A couple of them reported a gain in productivity and focus.  “The time that was usually spent during lunch hours, small breaks, loitering in the corridors or attending unnecessary meetings and discussions, is now spent in front of computers.”  On the flipside, one respondent worried that the increase in concentration, focus, and productivity due to fewer distractions and remaining glued to the PC for long hours can be potentially harmful to health.

An academic saw only positive benefits accruing from the WFH regime: “The peace of mind and the improvement in mental health brought by WFH was invigorating. Since there was no peer pressure, productivity and satisfaction increased, and costs of visiting the campus decreased significantly.”

Some were keen for WFH to continue in the future as well. “Being at home is good for me, my family, and my colleagues,” remarked one participant.  “It’s more relaxing as you are with the family and feel safer,” said another. “I am happy at home – but some of my colleagues are stressed,” noted another.

Although people initially faced some difficulties while working from home, they adapted quickly later. “With better understanding from family members and better coordination with colleagues, it became smooth thereafter. This is the new normal and will hopefully remain so. We have to find new ways to relax and accept this new reality.”

However, for parents of school-age children, the challenges were a bit different. “For me, like other colleagues with school-age children, homeschooling children alongside work duties is sometimes problematic.”  A mother WFH said that she had to juggle between the kitchen and home office to meet the food-related demands of her kids at one hand and the demand of the remote work on the other.

To sum up, it can be said that post-COVID-19 WFH has brought a new order to organisational functioning.  Some employees who have been working from home in the past or those who have dependable access to devices and the Internet have embraced the new order. Others deprived of good technological support or for whom WFH does not offer complete solutions feel they have their feet in two different boats. Certainly, in this new order, employees have to commit to more than usual work hours and that too with higher screen time. While WFH was initially chaotic for some, they have gotten adjusted to it and believe it will remain the norm if the pandemic does not end within six months.

But as the pandemic is compounded by a recessionary business environment and job cuts, it has developed in people anxiety, physical and mental stress, sleep disorders, and so on. In homes where both parents are working, it is not unusual to find parents and their school-age children glued to their individual screens. This has created multiple entities inside one entity that was earlier called home.

As a pilot study, this research offers a macroscopic window on how WFH affects the business as usual , the work-life balance of women  and men, consequences for the elderly family members, and those with limited access to technology. Will WFH change the architecture of future homes where everyone will need a Small Office Home Office (SOHO)? Are there work situations that are not conducive to WFH? These are questions that would need more in-depth research and further debate and discussion.

(Prof Rakesh Belwal belongs to the Faculty of Business at Sohar University, Oman)

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