The negative impact of WFH on socio-psychological wellbeing.
Did you really become more productive WFH? Do you enjoy the fact there are no boundaries to your workday? Do you feel liberated by not having to dress and commute? Or, how about the fact that you often complained about not getting enough time with family? Life has changed quite a bit in just a few months hasn’t it?
In pre-pandemic times, there was a concerted effort to increase the number of employees working from home. Technology (laptops, internet connections, smartphones) was a huge enabler. Corporations saw the benefits of reducing workspace rentals and lowering carbon emissions by eliminating the commute. Employees appreciated the flexibility this afforded but not everyone in the company could benefit from this.
A couple of years ago, in a piece I did for Dawn, it was highlighted how only a very few jobs (mainly desk ones) could be performed remotely. For most other things, we need people in factories, behind counters, delivering goods, running airlines, hospitals, schools, etc. As can be seen, all those professions have been literally shutdown or are working with strict SOPs in place.
The trend of WFH has grown significantly across the globe. In 2009, 40% of IBM’s 386,000 employees in 173 countries worked from home. However, in 2017, with revenues slumping, management called a majority of them back to the office. Conversely, around the same time, large tech firms went about creating massive ‘campuses’ for their employees as if to encourage them to ‘never go home.’ All this changed this year with the forced closure of offices.
Now that the euphoria of WFH is waning, let us take a look at some of the benefits of actually going to an office. As retrograde as it may seem, the ‘Brave New World’ of staying at home in one’s pyjamas has many negative impacts on the socio-psychological wellbeing of workers.
Much has been reported on the physical difficulties of home as a workplace; lack of privacy, unstable connectivity, family chores, etc. Women seem to have it worse with childcare and home obligations to boot. Even academia is experiencing similar snags with online teaching – teachers and students lamenting the quality of the engagements (or lack thereof). Are these the only reasons to return to the office?
Since we are social animals, our need to interact physically, socially and psychologically with a wider community is important. Isolating oneself with just family does not provide the cultural and creative dynamism the workplace does.
To be sure, not all workplaces are idylls of positivity, yet there are many plusses of human-to-human interaction. When Marissa Meyer, the Chief Executive of Yahoo, called back workers to the office in 2013 it created quite a furore. But a company memo explained, “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.”
The work ethic forged by the company’s vision, mission, values and culture are helpful to the individual at a professional as well as personal level. Lunchroom conversations often go beyond cricket and gossip. Our interactions with colleagues from across the various disciplines helps expand our perspective and understanding of the business we are in and how our contributions help.
At a personal level, the discipline of waking up, dressing up and showing up means a lot. That morning shower and shave, putting on a nice outfit and catching up on ‘news’ at the water cooler lead to the release of many positive ‘happiness hormones’. Getting into the ‘frame of mind’ for work is so necessary. The exchange of views, side conversations and small celebrations help build a sense of community. (Caveat: I am assuming you actually like your workplace and colleagues).
Some years ago, I heard of an MNC that was encouraging women to WFH so as to give them a better balance. The initiative did not catch on too well because women employees enjoyed the ‘social’ aspect of work – dressing up and being a part of formal and informal communication channels. Apart from this, getting away from in-laws and domestic chores proved to be a better incentive to go to work.
While we save on commuting through video calls, we are at the same time reduced to disembodied voices over the internet – something like a ‘ghost in the machine.’ The evolution of work cannot and should not end up with humans sitting behind computer screens (even without a pandemic), isolated and with only family for company (house arrest, as some call it). This also cannot be what “Work/Life Balance” is about!
At a personal level, I enjoy my 40-minute commute to and from campus and the energy and enthusiasm of interacting with the students.
There will be plenty of time for WFH once you retire. Meanwhile, coffee and doughnuts, anyone?
Leon Menezes is a professor-of-practice at the IBA-Karachi.