Are there upsides to the new work-from-home normal brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic? Depends on who you ask. Some chief information officers say it’s increased employee productivity so much that they’ll keep it going in 2021. Meanwhile, a Stanford professor with a playtime-craving four-year-old called working from home a “productivity disaster,” and a business consultant noted increased eye strain and brain fog for employees who now spend much greater portions of the day staring at their screens.
Employees, on the whole, seem to feel pretty good about the shift. In a global Lenovo study from July, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they felt more productive working from home than at the office, even in spite of at-home distractions. Increased independence and flexibility have helped them accomplish tasks more efficiently.
That doesn’t mean remote work is obstacle-free. Everything from outdated technology to a lack of in-person social time with colleagues has presented new challenges for employees used to an office environment—and unused to spending so much time on video calls.
“If you think about it, before COVID, not many people were using the webcams on their personal computers” like they are now, says Dilip Bhatia, chief customer experience officer at Lenovo. As a result, a lot of people were unexpectedly stuck with low-resolution cameras at the beginning of the pandemic or were perplexed about how to use them.
“All of a sudden,” Bhatia adds, “we saw a huge spike in customer conversations about, ‘Where do I turn on my camera?’ and ‘Do I have a camera on my PC?’ ” Increased employee training, Lenovo’s study found, would significantly benefit employees who suddenly found themselves working miles from their company’s IT department.
THE (NOT SO) HIDDEN COSTS OF WFH
Often, the quality of computer displays isn’t up to par, either, for people substituting IRL conversations with video. “A lot of people have brought external cameras, speakers, monitors, mice, and keyboards,” says Bhatia, to improve their work-from-home setups.
All this new equipment doesn’t come cheap. Lenovo found that, globally, respondents spent an average of $273 on new technology to improve their remote work setups. Seventy percent of those surveyed purchased new technology, of which only 61% were fully reimbursed by their employers. If productivity is indeed increasing due to employees working at home, businesses that shell out for home-office gear may help contribute to that upswing.
It’s not just about getting technological upgrades; workers are also looking to prevent remote work injuries. In April, the American Chiropractic Association released a survey in which 92% of chiropractors said patients were reporting more back, neck, and other muscle pain since work-from-home orders came in. And Lenovo’s study found that 71% of employees said they’ve experienced new or worse aches, difficulty sleeping, and eye strain since working remotely. “It’s so important that the top of your eyes come to the top of your monitor,” Bhatia says.
5G AND BEYOND
Remote employees also need a consistently speedy internet connection. “People overestimate their Wi-Fi capability,” Bhatia says. Wi-Fi deficiencies are laid bare when multiple adults and kids work, learn, and stream through the same router simultaneously every day. However, Bhatia is “bullish” about what 5G can bring to remote work environments going forward. “The advent of 5G is going to transform the future of smarter personal computing.”
Other technological advancements may contribute to frictionless remote work environments in 2021 and beyond. “Artificial intelligence can automate a lot of routine responsibilities, freeing up time for staff to work on more strategic priorities,” Bhatia says, adding that chief information officers can use predictive analytics to prevent failures before they happen across disparate workers’ devices.
FLEXIBILITY IS KEY
Of course, virtual interaction never can take the place of real, human connection. But businesses can learn a lesson from companies where remote work has long been part of the model, like GitLab. There, employees from all over the world can drop into company calls with no purpose other than to participate in “water cooler” talk. “A lot of my teams do virtual coffee hours,” Bhatia says. “One has a Slack channel open for anybody to post comments or good news.”
As employees become more comfortable and adept at working from home, how will companies entice them back to the office? The short answer is they won’t have to—at least, not entirely. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” Bhatia says. Some employees have kids, so flexibility around school drop-offs will be important to getting them back into a physical office. Allowing people to work remotely when they feel even just a bit under the weather should also be met with greater empathy, for obvious reasons.
“My belief is there’s going to be a hybrid model of people working in the office and from home,” Bhatia says. “A lot of people yearn to be with their colleagues, but they don’t have to be in the office every day.” Versatility will be key to any transition back to the office—to be able to work “from anywhere, any place, anytime.”