Almost everyone seems to hate getting stuck in an office cubicle next to a coworker who won’t shut up.
Bosses who call too many meetings can be even more annoying.
And traffic jams on the way home from work might be the worst way to cap the day after that.
So perhaps it’s not exactly shocking to learn that working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has had a positive effect on workers’ productivity, according to 54% of respondents in a recent survey of professionals ages 18-74.
The reasons for this, they said, were time saved from commuting (71%), fewer distractions from coworkers (61%) and fewer meetings (39%).
But while working from home has its advantages, it also comes with terrible loneliness, according to the survey, which was conducted by YouGov in partnership with USA TODAY and LinkedIn. That and other problems likely will need to be addressed by employers as they consider where their workers should work and how to reopen offices after some states start lifting orders to stay at home.
“As folks do start to go back to work offices and resume their commutes, I think individuals are going to be thinking through what parts of this COVID phase of life are they going to want to keep,” said Maria Flynn, CEO of Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit in Boston that seeks to drive change in the workforce and education systems to improve access to economic advancement. “Is it going to make folks reconsider how much time they want to spend commuting or having more flexibility to work from home? It’s going to be changing the mindset for the works as well as the employers.”
The American workplace might be forever changed by this.
Not only does working from home help slow the spread of disease, but some employers have might have realized they can save money on real estate and utilities by not needing as much shared office space. Whether it becomes a more effective and efficient new normal might depend on smoothing out the following wrinkles highlighted in the online survey of 2,001 adults from April 6-9:
►25% of respondents say working from home has had a negative impact on their productivity. The main reason cited was that it takes longer to get answers and information from co-workers.
►43% of those working from home say they are communicating with their colleagues less than they did before.
►31% say their workload has decreased since they began working from home, while another 43% say their workload is unchanged. The rest (26%) say their workload has actually increased, with a lack of separation between home and work being cited by 31% of that group.
“The biggest problem is that many people never worked from home before, or only worked from home on an occasional basis,” Anita Kamouri, co-founder of lometrics, a workplace services firm in Irvine, California. “Under these circumstances, people didn’t have to build the remote work skills and capabilities that are needed when you are working from home on a more regular basis like we have been forced to do during this pandemic. Even those that had worked from home on a regular basis pre-COVID were primarily doing it on a part-time basis and not prepared for this massive overnight shift. “
Nearly three-quarters of the respondents worked from home during the pandemic, but only 31% worked from home more than two days per week before the coronavirus outbreak, according to the survey.
For newbies to the home-based work environment, the experience at first might seem like a cool idea, complete with frequent, unmonitored trips to the refrigerator. But then the isolation sets in and starts to stew.
Most survey respondents (51%) feel lonely working from home, with 20% feeling lonely all or most of the time. Roughly two-thirds say their primary source of human interaction right now is their immediate family.
To fight this off, some are taking measures that could be considered counterproductive during the workday. They are reaching out to friends and family more often via phone or video calls during the day (49%). Or they are spending more time on Facebook, Twitter or other social media (37%).
Companies that have more experience with remote workers recognize this is a problem, said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, which conducts primary and secondary research on how new ways of working can impact people, planet, and profits.
To alleviate it, they “build social time into their virtual communications,” she said in an e-mail. “Some play games with colleagues. Some spend the first part of every meeting on non-work. Some have virtual happy hours, birthday parties, etc.”
Lister sees the pandemic as a “game-changer” for remote work for several reasons, including increased demand from employees, decreased resistance from managers and reduced real estate costs. Her firm estimates a typical employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year – potential savings that more companies might examine now that they’ve had this test run with remote working.
“I think we’re going to see a big fallout of that over the next six to nine months as folks are reconsidering their leases and how many square feet they need and downtown offices, and why,” said Flynn of Jobs For The Future.
Making home workplaces work better after that is a whole other issue, especially when it comes figuring out how to rebalance home and work when work suddenly becomes home. It’s bad enough to be interrupted on a work call by the doorbell ring of a delivery driver. Childcare and spousal relations add another level of complexity to the equation.
Among those working from home during the pandemic, 23% were sharing work space with a spouse or partner and 14% were sharing it with children engaged in online learning, according to the survey. There were different perceptions about sharing childcare responsibilities during the workday.
►57% of men say they split it equally, compared to 45% of women.
►66% of women said they are primarily responsible for helping children with distance learning during the workday, compared to 41% of men.
Yet many still prefer these challenges to the ones that come with daily commutes and clocking into an office. Before the pandemic, workplaces were slowly shifting away from offices, with about 3% of full-time workers working from home in 2017, up from 0.7% in 1980, not including the self-employed, according data published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Now that shift might dramatically accelerate.
“This pandemic has or at least should have opened the eyes of many to re-explore some of the limitations that they believed they once had,” a LinkedIn user identified as Patrick Morton wrote on a LinkedIn discussion Thursday. “Some companies/managers took the position as if working from home was not possible and counter-productive. As we move forward through understanding what our new normal will be, employers everywhere will be forced to at least entertain the idea of working from home in some capacity. The excuse of it not being possible or it not being a productive approach is out of the window at this point.”
The survey was conducted using an online interview administered to members of the YouGov panel of individuals who have agreed to take part in surveys. E-mails are sent to panelists selected at random from the base sample. YouGov said the figures were weighted and are representative of all U.S. adults.
E-mail reporter Brent Schrotenboer: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Schrotenboer.
USA TODAY and LinkedIn have collaborated on a survey that has uncovered trends and challenges at work among U.S. employees amid the coronavirus pandemic. This story is the first in a series.