Working from home, Teleworking and Virtual After Work Drinks
So, my first two weeks of working at BLOC are almost over and I must say that it is quite a strange experience to be trained digitally. Introducing myself to my colleagues via Teams, and only knowing the BLOC office from photos. Of course, this situation does not only apply to me, but to most Dutch people who have recently started a new job. It raised a number of questions to me: How ‘normal’ is working from home in the Netherlands really? How do employers still ensure interaction between employees? What will work look like after the pandemic? In addition, I’ve recently heard a lot of different opinions and experiences regarding working from home. One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is: parents can better plan their working day around their children going to school and we are no longer stuck in traffic. But on the other hand, psychologists warn about the negative impact of this lack in human contact, and the boundary between working life and private life is wafer-thin.
I therefore thought it would be interesting to answer these questions and create a clear overview of both the positive and negative aspects of working from home.
How normal is it to work from home?
Never before have so many people worked from home as during the coronavirus pandemic. 44% of employees in the Netherlands worked from home during the first lockdown, and now that we are again being asked to work from home under stricter measures, we are creeping back towards this percentage. Before the pandemic, however, the Netherlands was in actual fact one of the European countries with the most home workers (OECD, 2020), so it is not a completely new development.
Pre-corona research had already shown that about half of workers in the Netherlands are able to work from home. However, working from home had not been widely practised across the country. Many managers were reluctant to let their employees work from home, afraid of losing control over their employees and not daring to trust them to take responsibility.
However, this seems to be an unfounded fear. Research shows that the labour productivity of homeworkers is at least as high as employees who work in the office (Bosua, Gloet, Kurnia, Mendoza & Yong, 2012), and sometimes even higher (Martin & MacDonnell, 2012; Peters & Batenburg, 2004). There are a number of possible explanations for this. For example, homeworkers experience more autonomy, have no travel time, call in sick less often and are not distracted by colleagues. Where managers used to be reluctant to let employees work from home, we have now ended up in a situation where there is no other option, and experiments are being conducted on a large scale.
In addition, working from home has positive financial consequences: employers save considerably (where it becomes structural) on the rent of their office space, as well as on facility costs such as cleaning and maintenance. Employees also cut back on commuting – how often do you actually use the car? – and public transport use has declined by around 90% in the Netherlands. This has in turn had a positive environmental and social impact, as working from home means significantly lower CO2 emissions from less congestion, fewer accidents, and ultimately less investment in infrastructure.
This gives you the feeling that you are never really free from work
On the other hand, there are plenty of negative consequences to working from home, especially when it comes to mental health. Homeworkers experience more work pressure and working overtime has become more common (Derks, Agterberg, Beumer & Weel, 2011). Since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, people have been working an extra hour, for example, without being paid (Telegraaf, 2020). Another negative consequence is the fine line between private life and work life, because there is no clear physical separation between the office environment and home. This gives you the feeling that you are never really free from work: the table that just had a laptop on it is now set for dinner.
Another big problem surrounding working from home is loneliness. In a “normal work situation”, social interaction and contact is self-evident, but these are now lacking. This makes employees feel socially isolated more quickly. A pleasant chat with a colleague while drinking a cup of coffee, or laughing together after a colleague tells a joke…all things that we miss terribly and try to recreate in our virtual communication.
Is online contact not helpful?
A digital cup of coffee, an online morning break room, a virtual lunch or an digital pub quiz: original alternatives to social contact in the workplace. Although these are good initiatives, they do not offer a full replacement for the physical, human and emotional contact that a traditional office offers (Van Zwieten, 2020). A current colleague who, like me, started “teleworking” at BLOC, observed that “it is more difficult to really get to know one’s colleagues, becoming truly acquainted with one another happens faster in a physical environment because it is easier to establish informal contact. In an online environment, communication is more focused on effectiveness and professionalism”.
An important factor in keeping employees motivated and fulfilled by their job is the company culture and the atmosphere within a team. An online working environment makes this atmosphere much less tangible for employees and more difficult to create for employers. In this way, teleworking ensures a more easygoing company culture and diminished collaboration in your team. Physical interaction, sparring and brainstorming often leads to creativity, innovation, and a reinforced team spirit, but these concepts are abstract and therefore much more difficult to measure than, for example, “productivity”, and can therefore be underestimated.
How can we strengthen our corporate culture and team spirit in an online environment?
This “forced experiment” is a wonderful way to try out working from home on a large scale and there will most likely be radical changes in traditional working, because working from home has enough potential and positive impact. The digital infrastructure has already been strengthened at a rapid pace, and new online collaboration tools are sprouting like mushrooms from the digital ground. When I consult my crystal ball, the ratio of homeworking to office working after the coronavirus pandemic will likely be 50:50, and physical office spaces will be designed completely differently. On the other hand, there are many difficulties surrounding working remotely and physical human contact with colleagues appears to be a very important need. After all, man is a herd animal. A lack of face-to-face interaction can lead to loneliness and have a negative effect on mental health, so this point should be taken very seriously.
The issue generates important and interesting challenges for employers: How can we strengthen our corporate culture and team spirit in an online environment? How do we keep employees happy and (mentally) healthy? How do we make employees feel connected to the company?
I do not have the solutions to hand, but I do find it extremely interesting to think about the “new way of working” and to debate it. At BLOC we are therefore fully engaged with the Living Lab where these kinds of questions are central. The Living Lab was established to bring companies and partners together to discuss these issues, because nobody knows what the working environment of the future will look like and nobody can answer this question individually. HEINEKEN and the province of South Holland are our partners in this, and we are combining the craftsmanship and experience of the brewer with the social impact and experience of the province to create a network of locations and organisations. Together we aim to find solutions on themes such as the connection between employee and employer, a healthy work environment and work-life balance.
Interested in becoming a partner of our Living Lab and join our brainstorming about the new way of working? Or do you want to know more about the Living Lab or BLOC in general?