Over the past 16 or so months, the language many of us use when talking about work has changed drastically. Work From Home (WFH), VPN, 2 stage authentication, Teams meeting, remote working, just to name a few. Rapidly rolling out a WFH model to a large workforce, with varying levels of I.T literacy has been a challenge. Learning to use online meeting software, sharing documents on systems such as Sharepoint, rather than printing and distributing them around the office, and so much more.
The sheer duration that WFH has continued for for many, is enough to get conversations started about what the real road ahead looks like. For the record, this piece is written from my own personal perspectives and experiences in switching to working from home. I currently work for a company in the UK, and have done so for almost 21 years now. Being in this role for most of that time. My role is an office based dispatcher, dealing with couriers and customers from up and down the country. So here goes with my take on the road ahead, in my role, with the company.
My role is one that is by nature, remote. Not dealing with people face to face, but instead over the phone or I.T based communications. Using a lot of online resources to accomplish the task at hand. So moving to a WFH model on the grand scheme of things is not really any kind of spanner in the works. While inter-team interactions can sometimes be a tiny bit easier than messaging or phoning, the whole team are all very experienced in their jobs, so not much interaction is actually needed on a day to day basis. When working in the office, it was not very common for us to have team meetings, or discuss issues that had arisen. Peculiarly, since starting to WFH, as more of a welfare concern than anything else, we have had monthly online Teams meetings almost every month. So in that regard, communication has actually improved if anything.
With two members of staff already working from alternative locations to the rest of the team, which are closer to their homes, WFH has simply extended that courtesy to the rest of the team. Prior to the pandemic, questions had occasionally been asked about working from home, but generally dismissed as not feasible or practical for the nature of the role. The issue of two team members being absent from the group never really came into it. However, at the start of the pandemic, when it became clear that things were getting very serious, the decision was made to try with a WFH model.
I have to say at this point, from line manager up, the support and enthusiasm for maintaining WFH has been incredible. A massive thank you to all those who have helped get everyone set up safely at home, worked on any issues, and overcome all the hurdles to keep as many people as possible safe at home, and for keeping everyone informed as much as possible on what is happening.
Which brings me neatly to where we are today. In March, as the roadmap out of lockdown from the UK government started to take effect, we were told that there were no plans to return to the office in any capacity until July. This was basically when stage 4 of the roadmap would lift all remaining measures, and life would "return to normal". For some this was a great relief to know that they would soon be back in the comfort and safety of their team office working environments, for others there was a slightly less enthusiastic response. I fit into the latter group, but I will come back around to that in a bit.
As we all know now, the final checkpoint came, and sadly stage 4 was delayed a month, so the lifting of the measures will not happen til mid/late July now. A few days after this was announced, we the employees were informed that the WFH model would now continue until September 2021. While it is great to see this happen, and to know that our safety and wellbeing is considered at every step of the way, it leaves a lot of people in a feeling of limbo. Regardless of where people would prefer to be working from, the delay of the next step perpetuates the uncertainty of what is actually going to happen next. Don't think for one second I am in any way ungrateful or disheartened by this continuation, I appreciate where it is coming from. However, it does extend my feeling of dread about what comes next.
So what does come next? To say WFH is not viable would be impossible at this stage, at least from a productivity and attendance point of view. Within my work group we have had I think 3 occurrences of sickness in the past 16 months, which is previously unheard of. Team members managing to work through everything from ailments to home appointments, which office based working would have made impossible. A few large companies have already shown their hands, with polar opposite opinions in some cases. With some companies insisting that WFH is not sustainable (for their business model), while others say they will be encouraging as many staff members as possible to continue to WFH in the long term.
Each company of course is very different. Depending on the nature of the business, how staff members need to interact, feasibility of having all equipment and materials available to them at home to carry out their role efficiently, and so on. Not to mention the cost of maintaining corporate infrastructure such as leases on office buildings and work spaces etc. Quite where my company stands in all this is a bit of an unknown at this point. However there are whispers of cost savings being found, a positive change in working practices, and productivity, and other such things which support a WFH model for certain areas of the company.
Speaking to friends who work for other companies, it is clear that there are a number of different approaches to the road ahead. Seeing their plans, it is clear just how complex getting people back into the office is. From having an online booking system for employees to reserve desks for days they wish to work from the office, to sanitisation schedules around the offices to make sure everything is clean and wiped down regularly. Other friends have been told there is no long term plan to return to the office, and that the majority of work can be done from home, where the role suits WFH, and the employee is happy to remain there.
Before I go on, let me show my hand, and give some insight into what WFH has been like for me. First up, it has been no walk in the park. Shortly before lockdown I was on holiday in Svalbard with my other half. Unfortunately, a couple of days in she had what can only be called a catastrophic accident on a snowmobile. Smashing her kneecap, detaching the patella tendon, and needing airlifting from the remote arctic circle, back to town. We then spent a day getting back to the UK, where she went straight into hospital for surgery. She was eventually let home just as lockdown started, so as I began the task of setting up a home office, and getting back to working, I was also needed to care for her for the next 8 weeks while she was stuck in bed, unable to get out. You could say the timing for WFH was perfect in that respect, but a stressful start none the less.
As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, and is socially awkward at the best of times, being out of the office has felt like quite a relief to me. Although it has been some time since I had a serious bout of depression, I realise now that I was not as comfortable and OK as I thought I was. We learn to adapt to our surroundings, so for a while now I have felt like I was in a good place mentally, and nicely balanced. However, the first few months of lockdown showed me just how wrong I was. Feeling fresher and clearer minded daily, not struggling with over thinking things, and just having more get up and go in general were the first things I started to notice.
From that point on I have found myself having a much more structured day, take better care of myself mentally and physically, and feel like a far more positive individual. With the time I would usually have spent commuting, I have been able to get in more exercise, get back into running, and shift over three stone in weight. Just having the freedom to have more of a routine has had a huge impact on my day to day life. Of course, this is all well and good for me. As an introvert by nature, and choosing to avoid social contact, very little is lost by not being in an office environment.
As far as my actual working day goes, I have found myself more engaged in the day to day workings of the department, become involved in groups outside my immediate work group, taken on projects to try and improve the department, and cannot honestly think of a negative effect with regards to work that WFH has had on me personally. I would even go so far as to say, having access to work information out of working hours has had a positive effect. Most notably when issues have arisen, and I have been able to get stuck into the problem within minutes, rather than throwing my whole morning out and rushing to the office. This is not to say that I feel anyone should be on call 24/7, or not be able to switch off from work when required. For some, that is a genuine struggle, however for me, it has worked out well. Hitting the ground running on a day to day basis has been a positive for me.
Another positive to have come from this, for me in particular, is the ability to be home for appointments, work being carried out on the house, without interrupting my ability to work. Previously, if an electrician or plumber was due for example, I would need to take a half day, or even in some cases the whole day off. With WFH, I have been able to continue working, while having the garden landscaped, bathroom fitted and an EV point fitted. All things which would otherwise have required me to take time out of the business, and use up valuable annual leave. It is hard not to see that as a positive for myself and for work.
There are of course many more people, all in their own unique situations, who this has affected in a whole different way, so I want to try and be as balanced as possible here, and include some feedback from others in the company who have experienced things differently to me. Below are some quotes from people who have been kind enough to share their experiences, and their hopes and visions for the road ahead for us all. I have broken them up a little to keep everything on topic, then added my own comments below. These comments are not meant in any way to discredit peoples thoughts, but merely to share my feelings on what they have endured throughout this pandemic.
So let's get started with some of the feedback from others. I would just like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has been kind enough and open enough to share their thoughts so candidly. I know it has been a tough road for some. First off, the general impact WFH has had on peoples work / life balance.
I feel that work from home has enabled better work/life balance in a lot of ways. I had to travel an hour commute to the office which meant 2 hours on top of my day each day. By time I got home, exercised and then made tea it was time to go to bed, this meant come the weekend all of the housework had to be done and wasted a good chunk of my personal time. However now I find that I can do small household jobs before work in the time that I would have been commuting and get them all out of the way and can actually enjoy my evenings and weekends.
My experience working from home is mixed. I've been working from home since the 1st lockdown & my daughter was home schooling at the time.
I enjoyed it at 1st because of the flexibility I had, but I hated not being around other people and the office' banter'.
I no longer feel like a failing ‘full time working mum’ as I can now manage my diary better, to allow me to hear how my childrens school day has been and support them, attend a 20 minute Ukelele performance etc, which previously would have been a struggle! The balance is amazing and I feel much happier for it!!
I can start/ finish at the times to suit me – sometimes I am online at 6am as I feel my most productive, and then can squeeze a run in at lunchtime, again increasing my productivity.
The positives have been the flexibility, which allows less stress situations has given people time to do the extra things easily like appointments and shopping. Families are now able to spend more time together and in some cases improve the social relations. I’ve seen the freedom benefit those who can now go to the gym and create a routine so they don’t need to clock in at a set time or the time it has save from driving in gives them extra sleep needed.
I am very much a ‘people person’ so I did really struggle to adapting to working from home, I missed the interaction with real people!! This coupled with initial system issues did stress me out a bit!
Moving forward I feel I have adapted to working from home, I do still really look forward to ‘teams meetings’ when people have their cameras on! ( I like to see people’s faces! ?)
For me working from home has been a positive change, as I am a single mom to a young child it has allowed me to be around a lot more and taken the stress/rushing about away from each day. It’s meant I can do some school drop offs and pickups and for us to be able to have breakfast and dinner together. Taking the commute out of my day has also freed up around 2 hours of my day giving me time to be able to attend the gym. do a business related degree, help with homework and have quality time as a family in the evenings
I love that I can be more available for customers wanting an earlier than usual or later than usual call, without having to panic about leaving early for traffic, or worrying about smart clothes, hair & make up in some cases!!
In my role I spend a lot of the time in calls, and working from home suits that so well. Working in a busy office environment can make it difficult to hear and be heard on calls with all the background noise.
Some days I need to take extra breaks for a life-long illness, in the office this used to make me feel super self-conscious at the time and then also later when everyone had gone home and I was still working to make up my time; now I have that flexibility without wondering what people are thinking or having to explain being in the office late or away from my desk for more than a couple of minutes.
Not having to sit in traffic during a commute
Being able to see more of my family
Being home to accept parcel deliveries
Less likely to pick up winter bugs from work colleagues
Less driving = better for the environment
Reading some of the quotes above, the differences between individual cases are very clear to see. Just the impact on the basics of a working / living day, is huge. Childcare, social engagements, not to mention the changes the elimination of commuting has had. People finding more time for their families, exercise, hobbies and much more. All the things that can have truly profound effects on our lives away from work. However, it is fair to say that it is not all good and positive. With some having a tough time being away from people for prolonged periods of time, and missing out on the engagement they would usually have with other team members.
For those more socially active, the impact is clear, and in some cases quite devastating for their quality of life. So in that regard it is nice to see how things are starting to change in society with the reintroduction of social events, and being able to spend more time around friends and loved ones. Of course, right now the road ahead is not clear for everyone, and certainly not in the company I work for. So we are all left clinging to our own hopes of what lays on the road ahead. As was pointed out by one person though, the fact we can now see friends again, means the extra time in our days with no commuting, at least for now, means we can spend more quality time with people of our choosing, and shake off those social cobwebs.
Then of course there is the impact it has had on how we all do our jobs. As I have said earlier, not all roles are ideal for working from home. Going back to some of the larger companies who have set out their plans, any roles involving development of projects which require collaboration, are far tougher to achieve remotely. This can be anything from design to marketing, with a million roles in between. For those accustomed to working in teams, discussing, debating, and demonstrating ideas, online life is far tougher. For others who engage with team members and clients remotely as part of their day to day roles, location of where you carry that role out from is less important, from a productivity perspective at least.
Setting up a workspace at home has not been easy for all. With challenges such as a suitable space, or connectivity being the most common issues faced. Not everyone simply has a spare room available for setting up a desk in, so some have been forced into very temporary and makeshift arrangements. This is also a huge consideration for some when it comes to the longevity of the WFH arrangements. Let's now have a look at some more of the feedback, and see how others have felt with their experiences.
I found the technical aspect quite challenging in the beginning - problems with wifi/vpn and meetings/calls I found weren't as professional as I wanted them to be.
I miss a coffee with my team and getting to know people better!
I don’t think we communicate well enough to all our people – I certainly feel more out of the loop where as in the office, I would have heard more and have a better awareness of the business changes
Growing my network is more difficult – just reaching out for a coffee was harder and forgotten in the early days – but better now I have bought back my focus and made it a priority!
Personally I miss the social interaction and the positives from having face to face conversations. I have concerns that many people may feel isolated and are not being checked on to see how they are and if they feel supported.
I do feel it’s hard to separate work from home and find that I often stay longer than my shift or ‘check’ things on a weekend.
It can be very quiet and a bit lonely at times as I miss my work colleagues and some days it’s difficult when you feel like you’ve been in the same place 24/7
The biggest downside is that I often lose track of time, I start earlier than I would in the office and then finish late too, thinking “just one more email” and then an hour or two have passed before I know it.
I also found that as time went on working from home was getting boring and I didn't feel as motivated, because I couldn't switch off at the end of the day, and there was no separation from home & work.
- It can be hard to separate work and home life
- The idea that other people might have that the perception that you do less work/or don’t work as hard because they can’t see you working
- Missing out on informal catch-ups
- Things can take longer, e.g. having to send emails or call when you could just approach someone in the office
- I find that it’s more difficult to build relationships when working from home
Reading most of the feedback it is clear to see that most see the positives and negatives quite similarly. Appreciating the extra free time allowed by not having a commute, and being straight back in their home life when they finish for the day. While most also feel there is an element of detachment or loneliness working from home. It is fair to say that the negatives are very much on a sliding scale, from only slightly bothered, to actually quite badly affected by the isolation of WFH. The other big and more common negative seems to be the inability to switch off at the end of the day, and feeling compelled to get everything sewn up, rather than just managing what can be completed in a normal working day.
It is clear to see that there are learning points to be taken from all of this, and regardless of the next step, attention needs to be paid to certain aspects of the business, and how things are done. I think most would agree that there was never really a plan for such a fast and vast rollout of WFH in many or any companies for that matter. So the speed and efficiency it has been done at, in general, has been phenomenal. That said, now the dust is settling, there is room to improve for sure. For the sanity of the workers who have endured so much. If the road ahead involves any aspect of working from home, time needs to be spent on formalising the training on things such as online meetings. Simple etiquette, how to use "hand up" functions, not talking over other people, timekeeping and many other seemingly trivial, yet very frustrating issues which have arisen from everyone being thrown in the deep end.
Another thing which clearly needs addressing is some form of time management system, to prevent, or at least dissuade people from spending too much time out of their normal working hours, working online. Maybe some form of VPN lock-out, or a report generated highlighting excessive time spent online by particular employees. Just to ensure there is a healthy balance found between keen and enthusiastic working practices, and spending an unhealthy amount of time focusing on work.
As I have said before, this is in no way an attempt to call anyone out, simply acknowledge that while we have come so far, in such a short space of time, there is always room for growth and improvement.
Finally we have the takeaways from all of this. In summary, how do people feel about the past 16 months of working from home. Where are peoples heads at, and most importantly, what do people want to see happen next. From an external perspective, I would say around 75-80% of the people I know, would love to see WFH remain in full or at least in part. With an element of flexibility in there. Of course it is all well and good to simply say "flexibility" but what does that actually mean. On speaking to people, some see it as a planned weekly schedule of working between work and home, while completing hours and tasks as expected regardless of work location. Unfortunately to some, the word flexibility simply means do as you please. Pick and choose on an almost adhoc basis where you are going to work from that day, or even for part of that day. No commitment, no schedule. Sadly it is attitudes like that which will discourage companies from allowing any flexibility at all, and instead resort to an all or nothing approach. With the most likely being returning to an office.
From speaking to others within the company I work for, the opinions are varied, but in general the approach is a good one. Some want to be back in their work groups, amongst friends, and feeling a sense of belonging and being a part of a team. For others, the lack of commute has had a profound effect on their daily lives, and the idea of switching back to working in an office and commuting back and forth is grim. Here's what others had to say.
I think in an ideal world there would be more flexibility to split time between home and the office to find balance with our time but still ensure that face to face social interaction that we need.
I'm grateful that I can work from home but given the option I probably would work 50% in the office and home to balance it.
At the end of the day I feel grateful to have a job and I am proud and amazed at the way we have all adapted!! I think we all should be very proud of ourselves
I feel like overall there are more positives than negatives and I feel (and so does my son) that I have a much better work-life balance now than I did last year.
It's been a while now & I'm grateful that I can work from home but given the option I probably would work 50% in the office and home to balance it.
From my perspective I have worked in my role for the last 6 years, and never really had a fixed workstation. I would normally move between home and operational locations based on the projects I was working on. Admittedly I really enjoy working from home.
I will finish up with a summary of my take on things, purely from the position I am in, in my current company and role. Primarily my biggest concern is my mental health. Just the idea of being thrust back into a busy office again, awkward interactions with people, clashes of personalities, and bickering over trivial things, fills me with dread. The past 16 months have shown me my true comfort zone, and what I can achieve in such a position. Not to mention how it makes me feel in general. So much more relaxed, and a better quality of life, both in and out of work.
Of course, I work for a business, not a charity, and I realise they have their own requirements of me. It is a two-way relationship after all. So ultimately I have to be open minded, and at the very best, hope for a fair compromise. The idea of actually being left working from home is probably a bit of a pipe dream. But a boy can dream eh! In an ideal world, I would happily have a few days in the office when required. Of course I am only a short distance from the office, so if the requirement was there to go in at short notice, I would not consider that unreasonable at all. I would hope that most would be of similar opinion, depending of course on any commitments they may have with family and home.
Thank you for reading this far. I hope this has made some sense at least, and resonates in some way with everyone who reads it. There is no "one size fits all" solution, so whatever the road ahead is, there will be compromise, and a little disappointment. But with that said, I sincerely hope that everyone gets something close to what best suits their needs and desires, and the road ahead is a safe and happy one for all. Thank you to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts with me, so I could make this as balanced as possible. I hope you are happy with how your words were used.
One final point I wanted to touch on was the environmental impact of WFH. Most major cities around the world during the peak of the lockdown saw massive improvements in air quality, as well as other positive environmental impacts. Something the whole world seems to have been trying to get a grasp of for decades now. I am sure no one could ever have imagined a global pandemic being the thing that finally put the world on pause just long enough to reconsider what a normal day looks like, versus how it could look. WFH to a certain extend has a positive impact on the environment. Removing tens of thousands of daily commutes from the roads and transport systems in all major cities, millions globally. Reduces the energy used to run large corporate buildings, and freeing up space on the roads and transport network for key and priority travel of people and goods.
We must not forget the corporate image too. With many companies pledging to reduce their carbon footprint, and become greener, there is surely an argument that WFH supports them in doing so. After all, the footprint of each journey to a place of work falls at the feet of the company. With less people travelling to a place of work, that alone must surely have an impact on the perceived cleanliness of a company.
Of course there is a negative to this, and that is the shift on the city economies, impacting small service industry businesses on a huge scale. Some can adapt, others will suffer long term, which is truly tragic. Meanwhile, small local businesses in towns and villages now full of their local residents working from home, begin to thrive as workers look for their coffee fix, or a quick and easy lunch, much as they would do while normally working in the city.
There is a balance to be found somewhere with all this, and at some point governments should show their hand and support what they feel is right. Should a shift in inner city businesses be the price to pay for cleaner air, quieter transport networks etc. Or is the idea of letting the cities sit idle while people work from home, just for the sake of reducing emissions, and achieving what global governments have strived to achieve for decades, simply unrealistic? Just a thought!