JOAN MULLER: Is the work-from-home experiment over?
Remote working not only harms the economy by dampening consumer spend, there is evidence that it can affect productivity and the wellbeing of women in particular
Nearly four months into lockdown, as cabin fever starts to creep in, the novelty of working from home is no doubt wearing off for many.
Somehow the perks of not having to deal with traffic, working in your pjs and keeping your own hours no longer seem so appealing when weighed against the sheer monotony of it all.
One upshot of the disenchantment that some employees feel with being stuck in their own abodes is the sense that the early talk about Covid-19 spelling the “death of the office” may have been premature. And it’s not due just to the realisation that the buzz we get from engaging with colleagues or clients face-to-face cannot be replicated in a virtual world – it seems that working from home can stifle productivity.
That’s especially true for people in creative industries, where idea-generation, innovation and collaboration are key, as Tom Walker, co-head of global real estate securities at European asset manager Schroders, points out in this research report, titled “Is the office an analogue product in a digital world?”
Walker flatly rejects the notion that in future people will work exclusively from home. He argues that if remote working were to be adopted for a prolonged period post-Covid, it won’t only erode much-needed opportunities for social interaction, it could also have more serious implications for businesses in terms of deal-making, sourcing new clients and building trust.
“In the short term, it’s easy to keep existing relationships strong over Zoom or Microsoft Teams. However, in the longer term it will likely be detrimental to the formation of new corporate relationships,” he writes.
Even UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems to have had a change of heart about the upside of remote working. In a surprise U-turn he last week announced an end to the government’s policy to promote working remotely. His push to get people back into the office is seen as an important catalyst to get the UK economy up and running again. Office workers, and the money in their pockets, do after all have a multiplier effect on spending in the transport, retail, food and other service sectors.
As the Financial Times reports here, employers, in consultation with staff, will from August 1 have the discretion to decide where and how employees should work.
Besides it placing a dampener on consumer spend, working remotely may have a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of women in particular. In this article the Harvard Business Review provides a sobering take on why working from home isn’t necessarily good for women.
Co-author Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, says new research suggests that flexible working may increase work-family conflict. That’s because it’s likely to lead to an expansion of working hours while simultaneously increasing the burden of domestic responsibilities, the brunt of which is typically borne by women.
Critically, Ibarra argues that working from home may also curtail career advancement opportunities for women: “Even in work environments that have no remote working component, women find it harder to get the career benefits that come with being in easy contact with mostly male decision makers. [Working from home] may accelerate this underlying inequality by further reducing opportunities for face-to-face networking.”
She says a world of mostly remote working may also increase organisations’ bias for rewarding those who are present, disproportionately harming women.
And Ibarra asks: “What happens when some team members are in the office or travelling for work while others are [working from home]? Will we see a gender skew, with men disproportionately in the office or on the road, very visibly contributing to the business, while women are out of sight and mind?’’
In this personal account of why working from home is not all it’s cracked up to be, New York food blogger Deb Perelman says she found the scary reality of the Covid-19 economy is that you can have a child or a job – you can’t have both.
Writing in the New York Times, Perelman highlights the plight of working parents – mothers in particular – amid ongoing school and day-care closures.
Clearly, there’s little reprieve for parents who, after having to supervise and help kids with remote-learning curriculums all day, are forced to stay up to the wee hours of the morning to do the work they were hired for.
“We are not burned out because life is hard this year. We are burned out because we are being rolled over by the wheels of an economy that has bafflingly declared working parents inessential,” Perelman says.
She blames US authorities for not coming up with a workable framework, or at the very least promoting conversations, to best manage the negative repercussions that keeping US schools shuttered will have on working parents and their children.
Perelman’s situation undoubtedly resonates with SA working parents, many of whom are becoming fed-up with our own government’s on-again, off-again back-to-school policy.
Nic Spaull, an education expert from the research on socioeconomic policy group at Stellenbosch University, urges government not to give in to calls by teacher unions for schools to be closed. He provides a compelling argument in this FM article on why the decision to close schools, like the decision to close the economy, should not be taken lightly.
Spaull warns that opting for a hard “nuclear” lockdown that will lead to nationwide school closures will force many parents to choose between going to work and taking care of their children. Obviously, most South Africans can ill afford to do this, since the estimates are that 3-million people lost their jobs between February and April – 2-million of whom are women.
“We must find another way,” says Spaull.
The government must heed the call. Basic education minister Angie Motshekga is expected to provide much-needed clarity on the way forward for schools this week. Let’s hope that on this issue Motshekga can provide better leadership than she showed in the case of the school feeding scheme.
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