Office politics

A global trend that has seen employees being given the option to work remotely appears to be on the decline – testament to its pros and cons

Office politics

Earlier this year, IBM – a company that had long boasted about their forward-thinking remote-work policy – called thousands of their workers back to the office, in a move that caused an online furore. Why were they stepping ‘back to the stone age’? Didn’t they care about the well-being of their workers? Yet they’re not the only company to back-track like this. Apple, Google, Amazon and Reddit have all spent billions on snazzy, state-of-the-art offices for former flexi staff to return to.

To put things in perspective, IBM asked less than 2% of select employees (5 000) to return to the office – one in five still telecommute full-time. But the move has made people look at the pros and cons of office versus remote work with new eyes.

While speculation in the media and on public platforms was rife (IBM must be getting ready to sack workers, so they’re giving the remote staff a chance to step away first, some said), the firm maintains it’s all about efficient innovation. ‘We found that the most productive time was when people sit together,’ according to Ed Lovely, IBM’s vice-president of transformation and operations. ‘It’s a very simple concept of just human interaction.’

Since 1979, when IBM first allowed employees to work from home, remote work (aka telework, flexiwork or telecommuting) has soared. In the US, telecommuting has increased by 115% in 10 years, according to a report by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics.

Globally, more than 50% of workers work outside the company 2.5 days a week or more, states a recent Regus report on flexible working. And 35% of managers and directors said they plan to let staff work off-site one to two days a week in 2018.

The reasons are many – digital technology making mobile working possible, rising property costs and employee wellness. The now-taken-for-granted thinking goes that healthy, happy workers are more productive and committed, and less likely to take sick leave. Key to wellness is a work-life balance, hence flexi time.

The trend is set to grow as the millennials and generation Z (post-millennials) start entering the workforce. They’ve grown up connected and don’t mind being so ‘24/7’ – provided they can choose the surroundings. Add in the rise in the freelance economy, mothers returning to work and people working into retirement age, and it’s easy to see why firms must consider flexible approaches to work.

Locally, ‘there’s a big turn towards remote working’, says Robyn Bailey, associate director of Tétris South Africa. According to the Regus report,   in terms of country ranking for business people working remotely 2.5 days a week or more, SA is number four – above the US and global average. The City of Cape Town is encouraging remote working to ease congestion and Absa has recently introduced a flexible programme, while ICT firms such as Microsoft SA have long allowed it. One report suggests remote working could boost SA’s economy by R17 billion per annum.

What’s so bad about the office? Anyone who’s worked in an open-plan environment knows. Chatty colleagues, endless sniffs and sighs, unwelcome interruptions. Sitting in the same place, with the same people, can be highly demoralising, while petty politics and power games can be toxic, never mind the air con and fluorescent lighting.

Executives underestimate how aggravating the workplace can be. In a 2015 study of workplace dynamics, Oxford Economics and Plantronics noted perception gaps between execs and employees. For instance, 53% of employees said ambient noise reduces their satisfaction and productivity, while just 35% of executives considered it a problem. Similarly, 52% of staff rated work-life balance as very important – compared to only 34% of execs who believed it was important to employees.

The upsides to working remotely are many. First, cutting out commuting reduces stress. You can easily hop from your bed to your desk. Fewer commuters are also healthier for cities and the environment. Second, it meets the human need for freedom – to walk around after the 90-minute concentration cut-off dictated by our ultradian rhythms; to exercise or pick up the kids and catch up on work later. Third, it offers autonomy. When you manage your own time without a micro-manager breathing down your neck, you feel more like an independent adult.

Flexible workers tend to lead healthier, happier lifestyles, as reflected in a Stanford University study, in which remote workers reported higher levels of personal satisfaction. Given the link between mental and physical health, this is key. However, are they as productive?

Yes, say several studies. They work more hours, take shorter breaks and less sick leave, and even outperform in-office colleagues.

‘The whole idea behind remote working was seeing to employee well-being so that more could get done,’ says Marilize de Witt, an industrial psychologist at HR Advance.

‘However, it comes down to whether the individual has the self-discipline. In the case of IBM, I imagine most of their people didn’t.’

For many, working remotely is the work-in-your-PJs dream. But it takes enormous self-discipline. Of the 50% in the Regus study, just 36% work exclusively from home, saying distracting noises from pets, family and appliances, social-media distractions and the lack of key office equipment hampers productivity.

‘The home environment is comfortable, and your environment has an influence on your speed and output. Your pace may be slower, your concentration less. What can happen is a slow decrease in performance,’ says De Witt.

There is something to be said for going to a place where things work smoothly, everybody works until five, and you can switch off at home. The encroachment of work into home life can be detrimental. ‘The traditional, separate office-based working environment is an important psychological tool that helps employees mentally and emotionally separate personal and professional challenges,’ says HR and business consultant Matt Haddon. So much for work-life balance. In the Regus study, only 23% felt relationships with loved ones could benefit from working at home, and just 18% believed it improves health.

The longer hours and lack of ‘off time’ mean ‘the average stress level of an employee working remotely is significantly higher’, says Haddon.

A report by the UN International Labour Organisation, which studied the impacts of working remotely, found it makes you more vulnerable to overtime, stress and insomnia, which could lead to burnout.

The stringent rules and production-tracking admin to manage remote working − a job in itself − can breed a sense of paranoia. Employees working remotely miss out on the high-fives, the water-cooler catch-ups, the inside jokes. One study found people miss conversations and celebrations most when working remotely.

‘Relationships develop in the workplace. In some cases, we may be taking people away from the only place where they get face-to-face interaction. There’s isolation,’ according to De Witt.

The health implications of loneliness and isolation are a serious concern in the digital age, according to an online article by Fast Company. Loneliness is a ‘gateway’ to various mental and physical health problems, such as insomnia and weakened immunity. The article cites Dr Dhruv Khullar, who says that over time, the ‘negative effects of working remotely, working alone, working digitally’, may become more apparent.

By Deidre Donnelly
Image: iStock