I found the switch to virtual working rather enjoyable at first. I had already been working at home half the week for a couple of years when COVID-19 hit so had all the hardware and software necessary. I enjoyed eating three meals a day with my wife, my six-year old girl and four-year old boy. I even enjoyed trying my hand at home-schooling and avoiding the commute into London freed up time for exercise.  

I shouldn’t have been surprised: Our research into workplace culture has shown that greater flexibility boosts the likelihood of employees advancing (PDF), feeling engaged, and being innovative. It is a sign of trust from employers — it opens the door for employees to a better work-life balance. 

But what happens when virtual working becomes the norm, almost overnight?  

Lockdown “fatigue” has set in for many. My colleague, Barbara Harvey, began taking the “pulse” of our people in real-time using Mentimeter in March. By May, the most commonly reported emotion was “tired.”  

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“Higher levels of virtual working may be here to stay and that comes with challenges.

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Several factors play into this tiredness for me. Part of it is the lack of variety, sleeping, and working in the same place, compounded by less ability to get out. And home-schooling engagement fell sharply as the novelty factor of “Dad being a teacher” wore off (on both sides!). 

But I also miss the office. I miss the face-to-face meetings, the impromptu cup of tea, and lunch or drinks with colleagues. I even miss the reading time on the train into London. Our latest COVID-19 Consumer Pulse study finds that while 67% of UK employees working from home enjoy it, 54% miss the social interaction. Another survey in early June found that 60% of UK employees would return to work immediately if allowed.

Unintended consequences of working from home 

We do not (as I write) have a vaccine and the caseload continues to fluctuate sharply. Attitudes to virtual working may be shifting. Google has extended its global (voluntary) work-at-home option until July 2021. Two-thirds of UK employees currently working from home want to continue to do so in the future. And organisations are studying performance benefits and real estate savings, especially given that office space was often underutilized pre-crisis.  

So higher levels of virtual working may be here to stay — but that comes with challenges. Because change often causes friction (rapid change even more so), I’m starting to see unintended consequences that fall into three categories:  

1. Innovation: While individual employee output may have risen — 57% of UK employees working from home say they are more productive — studies suggest the effectiveness of inter-team collaboration vital to innovation may fall as employees’ interaction pools shrink. Physical distancing measures dramatically reduce the organic ‘collisions’ that often spark ideas in the workplace, and fewer than half of UK employees working from home say they that it’s easy to collaborate with colleagues. Accenture CEO, Julie Sweet, says that while innovation can happen remotely, it’s not the “long-term answer.” 

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The rapid shift to virtual working has placed a huge strain on the invisible bonds that tie the employee and employer.

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2. Inclusion: The rapid shift to virtual working has placed a huge strain on the invisible bonds that tie the employee and employer — what we typically call inclusion. Before the crisis hit, our research found that just a third of UK employees feel fully included in the workplace and just 22% of executives identified building a more inclusive culture as a top priority. However, inclusion seems to have taken a hit over recent months: the proportion of UK employees who feel well supported by their employer has dropped from 61% to 52%iv.  

3. Mental health: One question is where all the extra employee productivity is coming from — and whether there is a human cost to it. Half of UK employees working from home are yet to establish a “good routine” — almost a third of UK employees are working more hours than usual. Microsoft boss Satya Nadella has raised concerns about employee burnout and mental health in an “all-remote setup.” The upshot is concerning: 61% of UK employees (PDF) say their mental health has declined since the start of the pandemic.  

A solution? Double down on culture 

I presented these issues at a roundtable of HR leaders at major tech companies in July. These topics resonated because the group recognised the importance of workplace culture is magnified in a crisis; it’s in hard times we find out whether organizations truly care about their employees.  

So what can leaders do to guard against the unintended consequences of virtual working? Here are three approaches we discussed: 

  • Inclusive decision-making: Clear, transparent communications from the top is key for employees — but these should not come at the expense of proper deliberation. Time is a luxury many leaders may feel they are even shorter on that normal, but decisions taken at speed may suffer from ‘echo chamber’ effects where diverse voices are missing.   
  • Inclusive work design: Mass virtual working was dropped on all of us with little warning. And while creating the perfect, bespoke working experience for every employee is utopian, organisations can refine their virtual working approach by learning from the successes and failures of recent months as they move into recovery planning. 
  • Inclusive culture: Retaining everything that made the pre-crisis workplace buzz is not easy in a virtual setting – but face-to-face interaction is vital in areas such as innovation and professional network development of newer recruits. Organisations should be open to crowdsourcing the opinions of their people and to conducting short trials of new solutions. 

Here’s the great irony of the shift to virtual working: I felt I had less time initially because I had succumbed to Parkinson’s law that work will expand to fill the time available. Finding a routine has been key and I now bookend my days with 30 minutes of yoga and ‘bath time’ with the kids. This gives me more time away from my desk to deliberate decisions. Virtual working offers myriad benefits — but we all need to assess and redefine our boundaries from time to time.

Dominic King

Research Lead – UK & Ireland

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