Please unmute your speaker?” is now the quintessential statement in our virtual working space today. After enduring hours of meetings on various virtual platforms over the last six months, I have to admit that I am now accustomed to the two-dimensional nature of business engagement but not necessarily enamoured by it.
Physical meetings allow one to pick up on non-verbal cues emanating from body language, which can indicate whether a person is unhappy or disagreeable with the subject matter of the conversation.
For someone who is leading the discussion or chairing the meeting, physicality enables you to recognise a general mood in the room, intangible as it may be, and allows you to surface undercurrents that may be simmering just from observing the facial expressions of meeting participants and their reactions to statements being made.
I struggle with our meeting environment today where participants choose to switch off cameras and one is not sure whether the participant is present and engaged or not, only to be surprised when the said participant pipes in during the meeting with an important point after being the silent listener for some time. Or stays silent for the entire meeting and is the first to say “goodbye” when the meeting is declared ended.
But my greatest realisation, in the last six Covid-19-infused months, has been that the luxury of working from home is the new class system.
The haves and the have nots are now those whose work allows them to work from home versus those that have to commute in public transport and go to an office where social distancing is a concept. Or those that work in a factory where the concept of putting on masks for eight straight hours over and above protective glasses and shields is extremely difficult.
The white collar worker reigns supreme in these Covid-19 times, even more so when the said worker is at managerial level and does not have to come to the office where the paper pushers working off their desktop computers continue to toil away as the nature of their work does not allow them to work from home.
An article about the future of the office in the September 12 edition of The Economist magazine was very illuminating.
The article cites a number of research studies that have been undertaken, a recent one being of five large European countries where only 50 percent of workers spend every day in the office and concludes that the drop in office attendance is related to reduced capacity due to social distancing rules that require office attendance by rotation as well as limitations on boarding lifts for buildings above five floors.
But let’s call a spade a spade, for those of us that had ever considered having our employees working from home but struggled with how to implement it while ensuring productivity levels are maintained, we have been forced to do it rapidly as we try to think how to make the current work space a safe environment for workers if they ever come back to the office.
Productivity was always the elephant in the room during working from home considerations, as we grappled with how we would know if the employee is working, sort of like a teacher monitoring a student in a classroom.
Yet these are adults, who have a job to do and an output to produce and be judged on, whether such output was delivered between midnight and 5 a.m. or during the regular 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift.
The same article in The Economist further cites a study in 2015 by Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University who looked at Chinese call centre workers. They found that those who worked from home were more productive as they processed more calls.
One third of the increase was due to having a quieter environment while the rest of the increase was attributed to people working more hours.
Now this is the best part for any employer, Bloom’s study found that sick days for employees actually plummeted! This study was done five years ago and is prescient of the current Covid-19 environment.
My experience is that productivity has increased from employees working from home in part because of the elimination of a daily energy-sapping morning commute and in part because the lack of a structured working time allows employees to put in their work when their body clocks are at their optimal best. My conclusion in all of this: working from home is the newfound epitome of wealth.