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Work From Home, the future. Now we wait!

In a recent press conference, the PM announced that all seems well, and that the final remaining Covid based restrictions will lift as expect on July 19th. This of course means that all companies who have maintained a WFH policy throughout the pandemic, will now have to address the situation moving forward, and decide what model best suits the business. It would be wrong to suggest that there is a one size fits all option, either from a company point of view, or an employee standpoint. So many variables have to be considered, and the nature of the business will ultimately dictate what model best suits.

For argument sake, let's base it on what I have personally experienced. WFH was introduced at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, and for large swathes of the office based staff, has remained in place throughout. The rollout was very swift, a little rough around the edges, and certainly was not perfect. But as a whole, the main plan of getting as many staff as possible, working from home as quickly as possible, was a great success. 

Of course a success in getting everyone home is one thing, but how it affected people, how able they were to work from home comfortably for a long period of time, and how it impacted their lives is something totally different. I recently spoke to a number of colleagues from different areas of the company and country, to get their perspectives on it all. To try and understand just how challenging it has been for some, and not forgetting how wonderful it has been for others. From the feedback I received, I think it is fair to say that everyone appreciated what the company had done, and how quickly it had all happened. However the impact on peoples lives really varied a lot. Which leaves a bit of a mixed opinion on what should happen next.

I would say 95% are happy with some element of WFH remaining. Some suggesting a 50-50% split between office and home. Others far keener to have it swing totally one way or the other. During the conversations with others, I have really had my eyes opened to just how much WFH has impacted peoples lives. With some who just don't have the space to sustain a WFH model long term, to those who have dearly missed the personal interactions with their workgroups. We have all grown used to doing things via a screen now, meetings, presentations etc. But it really isn't the same as being there in person. Again, for some that is a good thing, for others the complete opposite. 

The biggest concern raised has been that of mental health. With some struggling personally, and others, even those enjoying working from home, concerned about the welfare of some of their colleagues. I think it is great that so many are showing such consideration, regardless of their own preferences. The two largest contributors towards any MH issues are those of personal interactions, and the sheer isolation of working and living in the same space. We do not all have the space in the home to have a totally separate area to work from, so the lines become blurred between work and home life. Feeling like you have been at work all day, or unable to switch off at the end of a day, especially when dealing with a heavy and constant workload. One thing I heard a lot was that people found themselves working later and later, with the "just one more"  mindset. 

Obviously this isn't great for wellbeing, so ways need to be found moving ahead, to ensure that there is a bold and clear line, when the work day ends, down tools, and be done with it. Rather than allowing the temptation to keep going to be there. That is of course if there is to be a WFH option moving forwards. 

For a large percentage of those I spoke to, there is great enthusiasm for WFH to stay. Many are hoping to hear something soon that confirms this. Varying from full time to shared time between locations, so many compelling arguments were made for it to stay. Some of the stories I heard really brought home how much of a difference it has made for people. Being at home for their kids when they need them the most, having more time to get things done around the house, rather than spending 10 hours a week commuting. Using the saved time for a further education, and one of the most touching, feeling the bond with their kids benefit from being around more, and spending more quality time together.

Another interesting point which was made with regards to personal interactions was that of having a choice. Many enjoy the relationships they have at work, have made great friends, and love spending their time around those people. For some this can be some of the only quality person to person interactions that they may get in day to day life, so it is important to recognise the role this plays in our lives. In some cases, work is actually a sanctuary, and somewhere they feel safe and cared for, so again, it is important to recognise and protect this. However there is always another side. There are some who almost fear being around others, serious social anxiety issues. For those, sharing an office space with people they are not particularly close with can be exhausting, and quite stressful. So the WFH model has worked well for them. I am one of those people, someone who has truly enjoyed and thrived during WFH. So I hope dearly it remains, for me 99.9% of the time would be great. 

I have digressed, the point I was getting to was, with the lack of commute, this gives some people an extra 2-4 hours a day, or 10-20 a week. Time which can be spent around loved ones, or other close friends of our choosing, rather than those in the work environment. In fact, so much can be done with those extra hours a day, as I have said above. 

As far as home life goes, most have seen a great improvement in one way or another. With some of those also reporting some negative effects, such as inability to switch off being the most common. So I would say it is fair to say the majority would like to see WFH remain in some form. I don't think anyone I spoke with, from either side of the fence felt that theirs was the only opinion and situation that mattered, and most were sympathetic to others around them with different experiences and views. It is always refreshing to see so many people all being so considerate. Maybe the isolation has taught us all to be kinder people. Who knows. 

Of course, we all have opinions, but the ones that matter are those of the people in the position of power and responsibility. Those who have the difficult job of deciding what is best primarily for each company, and then taking into consideration the impact it has had on the employees. 16 months is a long time, and is long enough for many to get so used to something, that the idea of changing back can actually be quite traumatic. I have spoken to people who have seen such great benefits to their work/life balance, that the thought of going back to commuting and working in an office is borderline unbearable. I genuinely do not envy them with the task they have.

All I would ask for is the chance to share my thoughts on it with someone, for some consideration to be given to mental health, wellness, and the new work / home life balance so many have found. I cannot imagine what it is like for a child who has become accustomed to their mum or dad being able to pick them up after school, rather than having to go to an after school club, to suddenly be told that it's going back to how it once was. For me personally, I dread the thought of losing that hour at the start and finish of each day. The hours I use to do housework, work in the garden, go running, and spend quality time looking after my own mental health. On the flip side, I can't imagine being someone who has worked from their kitchen table for the past 16 months, to be told that my role is now permanent WFH.

Having spoken to so many, even I as someone who champions WFH, had no idea the magnitude of the impact being at home has had for some. Both positive and negative. So I truly hope that companies make some effort to engage with their employees, so they too can appreciate how so many peoples lives have changed, and in so many different ways.

I would love to think that everyone can be a winner in the plans for the road ahead. However being realistic, it is clear that we can't. Compromise is called for, and there will be winners and losers without a doubt. In a perfect world, those wanting to stay working from home would be able to, of course with occasional team get togethers at the office, to keep everyone in touch and on the same page. Those wanting to be back in the office would also be provisioned for, with dedicated working spaces for those wishing to be in the office full time. While hot desks could be made available for people to book to use when working from the office for the day or the week. Writing it, it all sounds so easy, but I of course realise there is nothing easy or simple about it, especially on a large corporate scale. Idle or under occupied office space is a waste, and one that is hard to justify.

One other thing that seems to get missed out of the discussions is how people are going to feel being back in the workplace. Some will be fine and happy to be back around people. Others will be more reserved, and cautious about interactions. While some will be quite simply terrified. Either due to underlying health conditions, or just now so unaccustomed and uncomfortable being around others in close proximity. In answer to this under discussed concern, one great suggestion was brought up on a team call the other day. Wrist bands! Red, amber and green, to display your comfort level around others. Simple and effective, and something everyone can understand. That of course is all well and good, but some working environments simply don't allow much in the way of personal space. And then there are the stupid/selfish ones who simply ignore other peoples wishes. 

So my message is a simple one. A lot of people have lots of experiences to share. Stories of both struggle and thriving throughout the pandemic. People have made huge sacrifices during the past 16 months, changing how they work and live under one roof. Please consider some of those experiences, see how people can be best served as they serve you. This is not a simple "I want, I get" situation, far from it, but the road ahead is a long one, possibly a little uncertain too. Winter is around the corner, and people having their lives turned upside down for what could be the interim, may be less likely to be so flexible and accommodating in the future. I do realise how bold and hypocritical that sounds of course. As the companies have done great things to keep people safe, employed and paid throughout. But lets plan for the best future for everyone, in the long term.

Environmental awareness is now greater than ever. So where possible, let's embrace that. Think cleaner, be greener, and make the future a happy and safe one for all. 


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