How Telework Will Affect Your Work


As Covid spread across India, Flipkart, the country’s answer to Amazon, sent its staff to work from home. Six months later, the company asked some of those employees to describe their experience. It was generally positive. Pallavi Nanda, a new senior manager in talent branding, was happy to be able to spend more time with her family. Ritesh Savio Rodrigues, an assistant manager of social media-based customer experience,found moving the entire network so that support agents could work from home a challenge. Priyanka Serrao, a corporate affairs manager, explained how having to adjust her schedule forced her to become more flexible. She also discovered that her husband could cook. Married employees were happy to spend more time with their spouses; sociable workers complained about the loneliness and the difficulty of meeting their colleagues face-to-face.

That telework would be a mixed blessing has come as no surprise. We’re social animals who also like to be alone sometimes. Office work appeals to both preferences. It gives us a reason to leave the house and appreciate the weekends—and something to complain about on Monday mornings.

But it’s also given us a work environment suited to productivity. There are no children in an office to demand attention or request help with their homework. Meeting rooms might not be the most exciting or productive places in the office but they’re still less awkward than trying to make eye contact during a Zoom pitch. We should have seen productivity drop during the pandemic as workers abandoned the comfort of the office for the discomfort of the kitchen table.

At first glance that appears to have happened. One study of call center workers for a big online retailer found that the average worker answered 26 calls in a day; each call took about 20 minutes. When they compared the productivity of on-site and remote staff though, they found that people working from home spent an extra 40 seconds on each call. They were 12 percent less productive.

But when the retailer allowed more people to work from home between 2018 and 2019, productivity increased by 7 percent. Staff were also more reliable; they spent less time away from their phones. When covid pushed even more people out of the office, productivity rose by another 7.6 percent.

That seems to suggest that part of the problem with working from home isn’t the environment but the people who do it. When people volunteer to telework, they appreciate the opportunity and they make the most of it. When everyone is doing it, no one minds.

As vaccinations spread and covid (eventually) recedes, telework is likely to continue, at least in part. A report by Brookings in April last year noted that about half of employed adults were already working from home, and about a third of jobs could be done entirely at a distance. One in five chief financial officers said that they intended to cut costs by keeping a fifth of their workforce teleworking.

More Telework, Please

That’s a move that could please workers too. The Brookings researchers also cite a study that found applicants were willing to take a paycut of as much as 8 percent in order to do their work in their pajamas.

One paper published in May last year by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics in Belgium reported the views of telework belonging to a representative cohort of Flemish employees. The report’s authors found that in general employees had a positive impression of their experiences of telework. Almost two-thirds said that their overall job satisfaction had increased, and a similar number thought that telework improves their work-life balance. Just under half the respondents said that working from home reduced work-related stress and also lowered the chance of burnout.

They even thought that telework made them better at their jobs. Just over half reported that telework improved their efficiency and their concentration. The most positive responses came from women and from people with a migrant background.

The results weren’t all positive. Most respondents also thought that telework negatively affected their relationships with their colleagues and their commitment to their employer. Fewer than one respondent in ten believed that despite the expected improvements to efficiency and concentration, telework would improve their promotion prospects.

And while women in general had a positive view of telework, that number fell among women who had children at home.

Nonetheless, 85 percent of respondents thought that Covid would make teleworking more common in the future, and 81 percent expected to find themselves spending more time video conferencing, even when the epidemic has ended.

So on the one hand, we have pressure from disease to push people out of offices. We have eighteen months of experience that’s helped us to understand the pros and cons of avoiding the commute and holding meetings on Zoom. And we have a desire among workers to spend at least some of their time out of the office, at home, and scheduling their work around their families. Workers even feel that telework has been good for their productivity and their work-life balance, even if they’re less confident that it’s been good for their careers.

The result is that covid is likely to have changed the workplace forever—we’re just not sure yet how much. It’s still unclear how much more of us will be working from home full-time, whether we’ll spend some time at home and some time at work, and whether we will be able to use that opportunity to create a better work-life balance. What is likely though is that more of us will be seeing less of the office and more of the digital meeting room.

So how will that increased telework affect work? What are the circumstances in which hybrid work is more likely to thrive? And what happens to innovation when we’re having fewer random chats around the watercooler and fewer opportunities to bounce ideas off people?

Another study offers some clues.

The Right Way to Work From Home

In one recently published paper, researchers distributed a survey to 218 IT workers at Sri Lankan software firms. They asked the IT workers to rate on a scale from 1 to 7 the extent to which they agreed with a set of statements about their creativity, autonomy, and time pressure. Statements included “The work I produce is creative”; “I have significant autonomy in determining how I do my job”; and “I feel a sense of time pressure in my work.”

The researchers then correlated the results to find out what happens to output when people conduct their work outside the office.

The aim was to answer three questions: whether telework impacts the creativity of professional employees; whether time pressure when working from home affects creativity; and what effect autonomy has on work when you’re doing your work far from the office.

What they found was a correlation between innovation, autonomy, and time pressure when teleworking. Respondents said that they were at their most creative when teleworking but only when they had a tight deadline and the freedom to meet it in any way that suited them.

For managers then, there are a number of lessons to consider when the current covid wave ends and it’s time to think about reopening the office.

The first is that people really do want to work from home. They like the work-life balance it gives them and the chance to spend more time with their family. They think it makes them better at their job, and there’s some evidence to suggest that they’re right.

Allowing people to work from home at least some of the time will make them happy. But to make it happy for the company, managers will need to adjust the conditions in which they work. Deadlines need to be clear so that staff sitting in their spare bedrooms know that they can’t just head out for a walk or meet with another teleworking friend. They have to get the work done.

They also need the ability to get the work done, and that’s a little harder. The survey of Sri Lankan IT workers found that autonomy was an important part of improving productivity. Increasing autonomy in a remote work environment means making sure that staff do have the skills they need. Managers will either need to train staff online or bring them into the office for regular training sessions before sending them back home.

The need to give staff the skills to work alone leads to the biggest challenge. While staff reported that they appreciated telework and believed that they would be doing it more often, they also saw it as a threat to their careers. More than 90 percent believed that even their increased efficiency wouldn’t improve their career prospects if they didn’t have an opportunity to talk to their managers face-to-face.

The risk for companies is that the only people who agree to work from home will be the least ambitious. Those looking to climb the managerial ladder will recognize that that means coming into the office and impressing the boss in person.

To avoid that result, manager will need to show that telework isn’t a hindrance to promotion. They’ll have to promote people they rarely meet, giving them the skills to do their jobs well, and the tools they’ll need to manage other team members at a distance. Once everyone can see that they don’t have to choose between the comfort of working from home and the satisfaction of a successful career, they’ll be more willing to save on office space.

After more than eighteen months of covid, it’s still not clear what the world will look like once the virus disappears. It’s likely though, that at the very least we’ll see increased telework, fewer office walls—and happier staff. It’s up to managers to make sure that those happy employees are also working hard and rising up the career ladder.

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