Paving paradise – what will the data say?

As most of us knowledge workers have been working from home for a while already, we all have an opinion of it. But based purely on observations of various social media posts, it seems as if sentiment has shifted. What started off as one screen grab after another of happy faces on a Zoom screen and the shared excitement to learn that meetings can successfully be held even though all participants are located in a range of domestic environments, is now turning in to a more diverse set of experiences. Some seem to still be enjoying it, for some it’s like running a marathon with chewing gum stuck to the soles of their shoes. Some struggle to get anything done.

As the focus of the conversation has now shifted from sharing the best home working tips towards the role of the post COVID-19 workplace, expert statements and predictions on whether home working should or will be the new normal is coming in thick and fast, which a daily scroll through your LinkedIn or Twitter feed is sure to show – to the point where many are likely to suffer from cognitive dissonance and not knowing what to think anymore, or more importantly what to plan for.

People sharing their views is all great, we need to share thoughts and ideas – it is certainly better than trying to solve these new challenges all on our own, isolated in our homes. But we also need to be careful not to rely too heavily on opinions based on a few individual peoples’ personal experiences. Because at this point, when comprehensive and reliable data that tells us how people are experiencing working from home right now doesn’t yet exist, it’s guesswork for everyone.

It is challenging to make decisions on the role of home working in the future, if we don’t know how people are currently experiencing it. Unless, of course, employee experience is thrown out the window and the only aim is cost-cutting, which inevitably means undoing years of work and bringing us back to where we started; the office is merely a roof over our heads and nothing else. In this case it’s a simple equation: a larger proportion of employees working from home in the future means less space, which means less costs. A false economy though, because that may have a detrimental effect on employee engagement, wellbeing and productivity.

If, instead, the aim is to take the opportunity to reassess the role of home working, and possibly introduce a new balance between working in the office and at home (both short-term as restrictions are relaxed and long-term as a part of the overall workplace strategy) with the intent to increase employee experience, it’s a completely different ball game. Because in order to maximize the overall experience, you first need to quantify it. You also need to understand the things that impact on experience, e.g. employees’ needs, preferences, behaviours and expectations. And you need to understand how a long period of working from home may have changed all of the above.

Because, let’s face it, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Working from home may very well have changed what employees expect from the office. And it will certainly have given them plenty of time to test their home environments and decide what’s good and what’s not.

So to speculate what is the best solution for the entire global, diverse, knowledge workforce based on one’s personal experience unfortunately doesn’t add much value, because as W. Edwards Deming once said – without data, you’re just a person with an opinion.

But what will the data say? Is home working, working? What are the possible stress points? What’s working better than in the office and what’s not? And for whom?

At the time of writing, we’re not far from being able to share our first insights on how people really are experiencing home working, based on our standardised home working experience assessment. In the meantime, though, there’s other data that we can take a closer look at, to get some perspective. Because data on employee workplace experience from before COVID-19 can actually tell us quite a bit about how ready employees and organisations have been for home working, and what they may be expecting going forward.

Firstly, the data quantifies just how large of a leap it’s been for many individuals and organisations in terms of new ways of using digital tools. Across our workplace experience database of 740,000 employee responses globally, only 37% previously said that ‘video conferences’ is important – and 64% of those said that it was supported. So as employees working from home are now to a large extent relying on video conferencing in order to collaborate with colleagues or meet clients and collaboration partners, for almost 2 in 3 employees it is something that wasn’t a part of their ways of working before COVID-19.

The data also suggests that employees previously relied on ‘audio conferences’ more often than the video equivalent, which is shown by a 47% importance across the database (10 percentage points higher than for ‘video conferences’). With teams now being completely distributed, the importance of communicating with the video function suggests this will become more common and important, as we all know that a large proportion of communication happens non-verbally, for example through facial expressions and body language. However, this is assuming that organisations aren’t forced to instruct their employees to avoid using a video connection, in order not to slow network and systems down.

Our data also shows that some organisations will have been more prepared than others. Thinking back at the survey results for individual organisations during the past year, we know that importance of video and audio conferences varies quite significantly from one organisation to another. How that then impacts on how well their employees have adjusted to all virtual meetings will be interesting to delve into once the new data is in.

We also know that only 53% of employees previously said that ‘Remote access to work files or network’ was important to them, which implies that nearly half of the employees haven’t had the need for it before. This is in line with our data showing that 52% of employees globally had little or no experience of working from home. Out of those who previously said that it was important to have access to work files and networks, 66% were satisfied with it. As most knowledge workers are now working from home, this feature will undoubtedly have become a much higher priority for employees, but it will certainly be interesting to see to what extent it’s working for the population who are currently home working across the globe.

Another interesting aspect is whether having been thrown into the digital deep end could also be an opportunity for organisation to take a giant leap towards being paperless? Across our database, 67% of employees say that ‘Printing/copying/scanning equipment’ is important, showing that we haven’t been quite ready to handle all documents digitally. We’re yet to find out whether printing, copying and scanning is still rated important by so many, but assuming that not everyone has a printer and scanner at home, perhaps this has nudged at least some employees to adjust to new (digital) ways of working with their documents?

Our data also shows that 44% of all employees say that ‘computing equipment, fixed (desktop)’ is important and 66% of them are satisfied with what they have. So a decent proportion of employees still rely on fixed desktop computers. Although technology has enabled us to work anywhere, if the new normal after the crisis sees a shift towards more home working than before, some organisations may need to investment further in digital infrastructure.

Employees have become used to working in environments that bring people together. Our data shows that out of the 21 activities assessed in our standardised workplace experience assessment, ‘learning from others’ is the third best supported activity in workplaces overall with 78% saying that their workplace supports it. Furthermore, ‘informal social interaction’ is the fifth best supported activity – 75% of employees say it’s supported in their workplace.

The question is, how well will these be supported when employees are now all working from home? Will continuous learning take a dip as everyone is isolated, and what impact could it have on engagement, if learning on the job is significantly reduced for a longer period of time?

It’s also worth noting that ‘learning from others’ is one of only two activities that the younger employees are more likely to find important, compared to their older colleagues. If this is now to some extent more challenging to support across a fully distributed workforce, could it mean that the younger employees are suffering the most from isolation?

Furthermore, as employees are used to the workplace being a place that especially supports coming together, what will they be expecting when they return to the office?

Based on data we already have, we can certainly also say that extended working from home may pose a significant risk for employee wellbeing. While working from home can make it easier to manage some aspects of work-life balance (more specifically as a result of the lack of a commute), there’s a risk that employees end up working long hours with very few breaks. Our data shows that in the workplace, only 50% of employees recognise that ‘relaxing/taking a break’ is important. The question is whether employees are more or less likely to take breaks when working from home? And with 62% saying their workplace supports taking a break, will we find that the home environment supports it better or worse? And either way, how can we learn from it?

Lastly, how will other business critical activities, such as individual focused work, creative thinking and creative collaboration, and confidential discussions be supported in the plethora of home environments that those activities are currently undertaken in? For example, ‘business confidential discussions’ is important to 40% of employees. How well is that supported if you’re sharing a flat with others and you don’t have a separate room to work in? Will we find that employees who have the luxury of a dedicated room for working has a significantly better home working experience?

I’m looking forward to seeing what the data provides clarity on.

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