Flexible working has a few issues

As the pandemic recedes, companies are beginning to encourage their staff back into offices. But, as has been highlighted by several commentators, some of the patterns established over the past couple of years will remain. Specifically, flexible working.

Thanks to the general availability of broadband and collaborative applications such as Slack, Google Workspace and MS Teams, many companies have been able to continue some form of operations. Clearly, manufacturing, logistics and distribution always required most staff to be ‘on site’, but administrative functions could be done remotely. Now that the genie has been let out of the bottle, so to speak, companies realise that staff understand that organisations can operate without them being present in the office.

So the previous rationale that dictated physical attendance 9-5, Monday to Friday, no longer applies. Indeed, legislation now entitles staff the right to ‘ask’ for flexible working – not that the employer has to agree to it. So a large number of companies are embracing the notion of flexible working with a set number of days, usually at least 3, where staff have to be present in the office. While this may seem very attractive so long as both parties can make it work, it does present a few problems that are starting to emerge.

The most obvious is that every person is different and while a large number of people love the idea of remote working, there are many that don’t. For most adults, a majority of lifelong friendships and marriages started in the workplace. It’s also true that their introduction to socialising in wider society usually occurred after work with their colleagues. Due to the pandemic lockdowns, a number of people have realised that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for them to work remotely. Either their home environment is not suitable, or they have a personality that requires being physically present with other people. This is not a characteristic that can be changed.

Technology also has a significant role in this matter. While online collaborative tools are very functional, they remain a poor substitute for reality. More to the point, there are nuances as to how they should be used. Because they can enable disparate groups to have digital meetings on demand, does not mean that meetings should be scheduled for every hour. Although in some jobs, meetings are crammed one after the other to fill the day, this is not the norm and is usually in response to some unexpected crisis. If it is the norm, then the business in question probably has a few challenges with time management generally.

Recent studies have indicated that staff that are involved in several Zoom or Teams calls every single day suffer a large amount of stress. They also lack clarity in thinking and it results in a drop in productivity. Humorous examples exist online illustrating the difficulties of getting everyone to join a video meeting, with people arriving late, microphones on mute and inappropriate backdrops. But they are funny precisely because we have all experienced aspects of such calls at some time or other.

Video enabled meetings should be treated in the same way that physical in-person meetings should be treated. Punctuality and preparation should be front and centre and the preparation should also include ensuring that the devices being used are appropriate and actually work. Online etiquette is also a factor that requires discipline and courtesy, e.g. don’t talk over one another, always be aware if your surroundings are generating background noise and if your mic and camera are on, or muted. While these points would not be relevant in a real physical meeting, it’s easy to ignore these principles when working from home. All of which results in meetings that are less than effective. To endure several of these chaotic engagements one after the other results in huge amounts of unnecessary stress.

Another subliminal factor is how we use our device cameras to appear on screen. Many people assume that they must be very close to the camera when participating in a video call. This means that the other viewers on the call see a disproportionate facial image compared to the background. Thanks to the high resolutions of most new cameras, the close up shows every detail of the face. This subliminally creates enormous stress signals to the brain, as humans have been conditioned to understand close facial encounters to be as a result of romance or aggression.

Clearly, an online group video call is unlikely to be part of a romantic assignation, so the brain starts processing the images as if they are a threat. This sensory overload is not usually present in a physical meeting, as people often look at their surroundings, or are examining their notes or studying the body language of colleagues. A professor at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab in the US has been studying this condition and in a peer-reviewed article has labelled it “Zoom fatigue”. The study concludes that continued participation without changing some of the characteristics ultimately is damaging to the participants.

Some of the suggested remedies include sitting further away from the camera to reduce the size of the face relative to the screen, only sharing your face with the group and not yourself, and occasionally turning off the camera so you can stand or stretch without feeling self-conscious.

Online collaborative tools can support remote working, but they are unable to replicate the serendipitous encounters in the hallway or office with colleagues that you are not working with all the time. These encounters allow for ad-hoc and unexpected information exchanges that help to sustain a human-friendly office environment. These so-called ‘water cooler’ moments are craved by those staff members who struggle to work from home. It is true that tools like the collaboration platform Slack allow for some of these random acts of information and gossip to be shared, helping to replicate a physical ‘community’. But until technology advances to the level of fully immersive virtual reality, companies will need to create the most appropriate blend of in-office and remote working.

Companies exist to serve the purpose of either making something or providing a service that people want. From observation, many young people entering the workplace are used to interacting with the world through devices and social media. They are sometimes very uncomfortable engaging with people they don’t know through video or audio channels. They prefer to use online message services. The socialisation with other people that used to happen when they enter a physical working environment will be critical for their life skills. Therefore, companies looking to embrace hybrid working should insist that all new employees (where appropriate) serve the first few months in a physical office before being given the opportunity to work remotely.

This is a part of the commercial landscape that will constantly evolve as the digitalisation of the workplace continues.

Source: Transport Intelligence, 22nd February 2022

Author: Ken Lyon