Navigating the social costs of working-from-home

2020 will be marked as the year of transitions; for many it’s an undesired transition from years of work to sudden joblessness; for a few others it’s a form of forced growth when letting go of personal liberty and entitlement for a more honed social consciousness and self-awareness.  But safe to say that for a large majority, it is the transition from the office to working semi-permanently from home that is truly asking for the most adjustments. Though seemingly the easiest to implement via memos and easily available zooming (no pun intended) technologies, the shift to working from home comes in fact with the most prolonged repercussions for modern humans.

Although daily lives have been transformed tremendously post COVID-19, the strongest impact is felt by the workforce now forced to take their business online without guided evolution or meticulous preparation. A set of brief guidelines and quick checklists may be readily available, and in more mature cultures and industries companies (aka Google, Facebook and some of their contemporaries) have already announced a work-from-home philosophy for the next two years or at least a more viable cure for Covid is on the horizon. The adoption of a new normal for all, however, will require more deliberate thought especially in diasporas where personal emergencies or half-days have been frowned upon as a luxury for a very long time. 

This transition hovers not only around the employee now working in an “isolated office” environment, with an absent boss, but also how well the employee is facilitated to cope with the absence of “daily socialization” that office environments offer. While the transition has undoubtedly been made easier by conference calls and virtual meet-ups, the social impact of this shift may take up to three years to be really felt, after the initial euphoria of perceived freedom wears off and the reality of never-ending work hours sets in.  

A better appreciation of how the social fabric of the post-Covid workplace will change future public networks brings us one step closer to building stronger bridges, whether in person or virtually. And the first step in building a bridge is naming what really needs to be connected to each other. Some ways in which workplaces can help their remote workers feel part of a bigger whole can come through the understanding and adoption of the following strategies: 

Deliberately establishing cultural/ social events that inspire co-workers to come together in the same physical space so they can refresh the ability to continue to rely on the time-worn fabric of society. Not being able to touch and feel a colleague’s mental and physical well-being through the daily tell-tale signs of fatigue and stress are the real side-effects of an ultra-digitized workforce. The stats on burnout and shorter employee lifecycles keeps mounting across multiple business journals, accelerating not just the wear and tear to mind and body,  but  pronouncing the shortage of “real belonging” in a workplace or a society larger than its parts. A society divested of the vitality of human interactions is often deprived both of reassurance and optimism. Enforcing metrics that ask corporates to re-build “social consciousness” while staying socially responsible is the only way forward in a world fast becoming digitized and ready to unlearn history.  Discontent breeds distrust, which erodes away relentlessly at the moral fabric of the workplace and the society being redesigned at its whims.  

Adopting a tunnel vision in a fast-changing and evolving workplace is the first step towards cancelling the extra noise that tends to take away focus from the daily tasks or projects at hand. Thinking of the bigger picture is all good to hear and talk about, but in times of uncertainty perhaps better focus and performance results from just staying on track to close what needs to be closed at the end of each workday. Some would tout this as a more selfish and internalized approach to working but to maintain sanity and focus where it is needed most, an eye sometimes must be kept at only the end goal. That will not only ensure better overall productivity but as an offset lower pessimism and perhaps a better adjustment towards dealing with the enforced isolation now faced at the workplace indefinitely. 

Working within re-imposed networks or (networks within networks) are the new maps that workplaces need to recognize as the forward mode to grow and adapt. Org design teams now need to make an even more conscious effort to learn from (and about) the multiple workplace (formal or informal) or societal networks. If this does not fast become a key component of every manager’s job description, a considerable amount of much-needed intelligence in adapting to the new world will be forever shrouded in dotted lines on org charts. 

The first set of solutions to this dilemma though is already good to adopt by many pioneers especially in industries where the need for an omnipresent human workforce is already minimized. But not all sectors of our modern economies are the same (yes, not even in 2020!) and some continue to price physical presence (necessary or not is another debate) and the need for a human body to be seen in charge. It is really what happens to such businesses and their mindsets that will determine the eventual health of the service industry and the social capital that needs to be re-built through more interconnected communities at work.

Navigating distrust and fear in the workplace is perhaps the only challenge that has come to the workplace more as an unfortunate legacy than, yet another obstacle imposed by the post-Covid word. But the legacy has become an even bigger nuisance since remote work and lack of physical interactions became the accepted norm. Not only do leaders and managers have to ensure performance and morale in a remote working environment, they have to find newer and more creative ways to dispel the fear, exhaustion and lack of trust that employees now have, more than ever before, for their employers intentions. While the workplace has devised newer methods and faster technologies to stay in touch longer than before, the challenge facing most companies is the evolution of a new culture that works in the face of isolation, individual accountability, and mutual trust. Embedding these desired cultural norms has been the number one challenge for many workplaces far earlier than today, but the self-driven urgency to do that can no longer be procrastinated by using mere policies pertaining to regional diversity, top management maneuvers or external consultants’ proposals. Its already too late for actions and decisions that would have made this (or any other force majeure) an easier calamity to deal with. 

The social capital, especially in economies, where the need to have a body in the seat is more overwhelming than the task itself is at an undeniable risk of being deformed. Workplaces can no longer keep up pretenses and are being forced forward to make transitions, that would normally take years, in a matter of few weeks. The one thing that is glaringly clear for all to see and emulate is that the secret ingredient is no secret; it is just a matter of who decides to shake the can faster.   

The author has extensive functional experience in HR & Talent Management practices in global organizations, and has been advocating better practices and processes for nearly two decades.

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