Beware the hidden costs of working from home

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership,Technology] September 21, 2020

There are potential health and convenience benefits as a result of working from home during COVID-19, while law firms and in-house teams are also reporting surprising productivity gains. However, there are some disadvantages that team leaders have to factor in, writes Mark Andrews, an IT executive at Baker McKenzie.

I want to start from a personal perspective.

I have been working remotely since March this year and, while there have been occasional visits to the office, home has been my near exclusive place of work.

This has been a positive experience on the whole, but it has had its ups and downs. In this column, I am going to draw from my own experience as a basis to explore some of the hidden costs of working from home, and outline what leaders and managers need to consider with our future planning and space needs.

The psychological journey of working from home has been an interesting one. Initially, my workload increased massively as my team worked to ensure all of our staff could productively work from home. We were pretty well prepared, but there are always things that come up when you switch a global workforce to working from home in a very short space of time.

The heavy workload left little time to reflect or think. By week six, fatigue and isolation set in and I needed to ‘time out’ for a day or two and recharge. For me, this burden was made more acute by working from home because colleagues were not physically around me. I could not compare notes with them, bounce ideas off them, or just grab a quick coffee with them. The psychological impact of not being around as many people is, I think, something of a ticking time bomb, although it is one that can be diffused.

During May and June, the possibility arose of spending more time in the office for our employees in Sydney and Brisbane. Although I, and many others, opted to continue working from home, just knowing that the option was there certainly had a positive psychological impact. While that option is not yet available for those in our Melbourne office, our employees in Sydney and Brisbane have continued to have the option to be in the office.

Health takes a back seat

July was a bit of a wake-up call month for me as I realised I had been neglecting some routines and exercise – being too ready to just do that little bit more work, fit in that extra call etc.

It spurred me to subscribe to some online fitness classes, schedule some exercise time regularly and do a better job of stopping work, even if it was in the interval between dinner and late calls. I know many people have been faster to recognise this need than me, but I also know of many people who are neglecting their physical health, and that is not sustainable.

The other realisation was about the nature of my interactions with others. Dealing with colleagues across the globe has remained relatively unchanged, other than Zoom now being the preferred platform for communication.  However, my interaction with colleagues locally has changed as it is now almost exclusively focused on task/job role. There are no chance meetings, no opportunities to bump into someone who happens to be visiting from another office, and no discussions over lunch.

I have compensated a little by joining one of our diversity-focused committees that is doing some great work around racial and ethnic diversity, but even that is a more structured form of interaction. This disconnect, and its impact on creativity and knowledge sharing, is a significant hidden cost.

People power

Moving from personal observations to a more general commentary, I now want to reflect on the psychological impact of isolation and factors such as physical health, knowledge sharing and creativity.

People need people and, while we often reflect on some being more extroverted and some being more introverted, few of us thrive in an environment without the physical presence of others. Of course, family and friends are enormously valuable in this context, but the workplace is also a powerful human connector.

All of the brief interactions we have during the day – on the way to the workplace, at the workplace, where we get lunch or a coffee, or on the way home – provide energy and stimulation that is not about the core of our job. This energy keeps us in a more positive mindset. For some, the commute also serves as ‘me time’ to just switch off from work and home, but the key is that there is a choice of whether to make it ‘me time’ or not.

What stands out for me is that the workplace provides us with the choice to interact with a broader range of people. Working from home makes this choice more difficult, with even spontaneity seeming to require a schedule.

I mentioned the idea of a ticking time bomb that can be diffused. By this I mean that if we ignore the need to be around people for too long it can end up affecting us in a major and or explosive way. We may experience a real psychological slump. If, however, we recognise the risk and find ways to be around people and recreate some of those chance encounters (while still keeping in mind all of the various COVID-19-related restrictions which may apply in your area/city/country) then we diffuse the bomb.

Physical health imperative

An admission – on my worst day in terms of incidental exercise, my step count was 149 for the day. That is just enough steps to move between the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, laptop and bedroom in a not-so-large apartment. This would have been impossible were it not for working from home.

The loss of incidental exercise is of great significance to those working from home. Just consider the difference between two commutes a day, walking to and from the bathroom and meeting rooms in the office, stepping out to get lunch or a coffee, and walking to collect a printout, versus what you do when working from home. The contrast is stark.

As we think of the future workplace, recognising the importance of this incidental exercise is the key and adds weight to the argument of needing to retain a workplace other than the home. In time, I expect the hidden costs related to this loss of incidental exercise will mount up and those companies that are currently thinking people will never again return to the office may reconsider.

Knowledge sharing and creativity

The biggest potential cost of working from home involves knowledge sharing and creativity. People will share knowledge for a number of reasons, but in simple terms we can say people share either because they have to in the course of discharging their core responsibilities or as part of scheduled meetings, or because they are prompted by a chance encounter.

We commonly refer to water-cooler chats – the impromptu conversations that spring up when people are at the water cooler. We can extend this to when people pass each other in a corridor, share a lift, or see each other after a large group meeting – in fact, it is any unplanned encounter. These unplanned encounters are sources of small nuggets of knowledge that can make us pause for thought, engage in further conversation, do some further fact finding, or simply prompt us to think differently.

Many years ago I completed a course on creativity and innovation. One of the assignments one lunchtime was to take a walk, spot something that caught our eye and construct a metaphor for change based on what we saw. This sort of creative prompt also comes from unplanned encounters with people. It is a product of being in the environment and mixing with people and things. If we are always working from home, seeing the same room and following the same pattern, then this undoubtedly reduces our level of creative stimulation.

There are many attempts being made to replace the unplanned encounters with things such as cross-functional video calls and social calls, and these efforts are important and are to be commended. They do not, however, provide a satisfactory replacement to unplanned encounters. The reality is that we need at least some time in a shared workplace.

Fatigue an issue

The level of fatigue people are experiencing is, I think, on the rise. The longer we go without a break to routine, a change of scenery, a chance to be in the workplace then the more that fatigue is likely to increase.

Excessive fatigue will have an impact on motivation levels. We need to take responsibility as individuals to implement our own set of strategies to minimise fatigue. We also need to ensure that our colleagues, teams and those we report to are also doing what they need to do to minimise fatigue.

Conclusion

There is no question that the ability to work from home has been hugely beneficial in protecting people from Covid-19, and positive for firms, economies and individuals, but before extolling the wonders of long-term work from home we must better recognise hidden costs and ensure that whatever decisions we make about space factor into these hidden costs.

Our office footprints may reduce, but we still need office space, we still need a place for those chance encounters, the energy from just being around people, the incidental exercise and, above all, the knowledge sharing and creativity benefits.

There is an exciting opportunity at hand in designing the workplace of the future and this will not only include working from home, but having access to a shared space that is somewhere we want to be and that serves our needs functionally, socially and aesthetically.

Mark Andrews is Director – Global IT Service Delivery at Baker McKenzie. He has a varied background, including time in the public and private sectors, along with considerable professional services experience. He has held roles ranging from HR to management consulting and has previously been a guest lecturer as part of University of Technology, Sydney’s Executive MBA program.