WFH – Panacea or Nightmare?

WFH – Panacea or Nightmare?!

Article by James McCullough

A client recently told me how much they liked Zoom meetings. Curious, I asked “why?” She said it helped her see the true state of the team. She went on to cite a usually vibrant colleague who could be seen visibly struggling to keep her eyes open due to home schooling by day and working at night! As we pass the anniversary of lockdown 1 in the UK, let’s look at what is working, what’s not and why.

Whilst “virtual meetings” are easy to organise and execute without the constraints of space or availability, I think we’d all agree there are big downsides where efficiency has compromised both quality and effectiveness. Managers may appreciate the superficial benefits, but not everyone takes well to the new normal and these improvements to working practices may have unintended consequences for the manager. For the ‘average’ worker, the disruption caused by bored home-schooled children in the next room, the poor internet connections and other gripes all prevent proper focus on work and therefore potentially a drop in work performance. In addition, there is sufficient research to say that for many people, interacting with others on a screen all day every day can be psychologically damaging and reduces general well-being. Furthermore, in remote teams, organisational politics becomes a more difficult minefield, career progression becomes less clearly defined and performance issues which arise are harder to resolve. What should concern leaders is that the result of all this is more stress for the average team member. That in itself should concern the people-orientated manager who is aware of the link between stress and mental well-being, but is also an issue for the goal-orientated manager when considering the link between stress and poor performance. More frequent impromptu meetings allows people little time to prepare and leaves them feeling more vulnerable. As the diary clogs up with more meetings, then uninterrupted focus time gets shorter and so productivity falls. As decision making gets speeded up, so the quality of these decisions may be at threat, and so it goes on.

As remote/blended working is here to stay, how do we improve the lot of the team in this new environment?  One idea is to set realistic protocols for online platforms (Eg MST) in terms of  frequency and situation of use, tailored to team level, instead of letting workers figure out themselves how to use it. Or for workers to be able to negotiate blocks of uninterrupted time for creativity when they can work on tasks and projects without having to respond to messages. That can produce a sense of space for achievement in workers and raise their productivity. A break away from constant connectedness also raises mental well-being.

Working anytime, anyplace, anywhere is the “new normal” at the moment, but the picture is evolving and it may be a while before we see the extent of its true consequences. What we do know is, a few firms are doing this much better than others, and these are the ones that will ultimately flourish and succeed.