Why remote work isn't for everyone

The sudden shift to telecommuting carries its own health risks – and these can translate into productivity pitfalls

Why remote work isn't for everyone

When Japanese tech group Fujitsu announced in July it was transitioning 80,000 employees to a remote work setup, it signalled a massive shift away from Japan’s traditional corporate culture.

In a country where employees have the habit of working long hours, Fujitsu’s office workers are now free to work flexibly – wherever they wish.

But while the change seems revolutionary, a sizable portion of the workforce still isn’t covered by the new policy: factory workers and customer service agents have to continue working on site.

It’s a reality that businesses – no matter their scale, industry or region – have had to contend with given the operational changes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more: How to build a connected culture for remote workers

No WFH option
Remote work doesn’t work for everyone.

Most Big Tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are championing remote work as the new norm post COVID-19. But other businesses are also quickly realising they can’t afford to have the majority of their staff operating off site in the long run.

In the US, for example, a quarter of the country’s workforce – or 35.6 million people – have the opportunity to work remotely. Many of them hold white-collar jobs in tech, engineering, finance or administrative services, according to a recent study from the University of Washington, published in the American Journal of Public Health.

But apart from these employees, a staggering 108.4 million workers have jobs that cannot be performed at home.

For those “privileged” to have a work-from-home arrangement, the option is not only crucial to reducing their risk of exposure to the virus, but also to ensuring operations continue even as their offices remain shut, wrote Marissa Baker, assistant professor at the University of Washington, who authored the study.

Baker examined the impact of COVID-19 on the labour force and found four main types of occupations affected by the pandemic:

  • Employees who depend on computers but have limited interaction with the public:
    • Business and finance
    • STEM
  • Those who depend on computers and public interaction:
    • Health care
    • Management
    • Education
  • Those who don’t depend heavily on computers or public interaction:  
    • Construction
    • Maintenance
    • Production
  • Those who don’t depend on computers but mostly on public interaction:
    • Food services
    • Retail
    • Delivery of goods

The last three categories tend to be among the lowest paid and most vulnerable to disruptions, such as layoffs and furloughs, in the wake of COVID-19. They also face greater physical and mental health risks because of the crisis.

“The stress experienced by lower-income groups, coupled with job insecurity, could result in a large burden of mental health disorders,” aside from the threat of COVID-19 transmissions at work, Baker said.

Read more: Are remote workers developing unhealthy habits?

The WFH fatigue
But while most remote workers face a lower risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job, the shift to teleworking also carries its own health risks. And these, in turn, translate into productivity pitfalls.

Mental fatigue from holding remote meetings successively is real, suggests a study from Microsoft, which asked 13 pairs of co-workers to complete tasks in person and remotely while they were hooked to EEG monitors.

The result? Subjects found collaborating online to be more mentally taxing than working together face to face, scientists from the company’s Human Factors Labs observed.

“Brainwave patterns associated with stress and overwork were much higher when collaborating remotely than in person,” said Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365.

“But they found something unexpected as well,” Spataro said. “If the pair first worked together remotely, their brainwaves suggested it was more difficult for them to work together in person afterwards.”

The findings reveal how social bonds and collaborative techniques formed in person are carried over into a remote setting. But the same isn’t always true when colleagues are forced to establish their professional bond remotely at the onset.

This raises the question of how the onboarding experience will change in the era of remote work – when new recruits are inducted into a virtual workplace without being given enough opportunities to form social and professional bonds with colleagues in person.

Another productivity pitfall for remote workers is the lengthy video conference now in vogue.

“Due to high levels of sustained concentration, fatigue begins to set in 30 to 40 minutes into a meeting,” Spataro said. “Looking at days filled with video meetings, stress begins to set in at about two hours into the day.”

“The research suggests several factors lead to this sense of meeting fatigue: having to focus continuously on the screen to extract relevant information and stay engaged; reduced non-verbal cues that help you read the room or know whose turn it is to talk; and screen sharing with very little view of the people you are interacting with,” Spataro said.

As more companies announce plans to continue working remotely until 2021, the need to guard against remote work pitfalls should be on top of HR leaders’ agenda – especially since nearly all HR decision-makers (91%) hope to expand their remote work policies after the crisis, according to a global survey by HRD.

“The lockdown has forced many businesses to utilise technology through video conferencing and remote working arrangements; we therefore expect this to change business practices and we will begin to see an increased use of technology,” said employment law expert Andrew Shaw, partner at Lane Neave, in an interview with HRD.

“The saying ‘there is nothing like being there’ may result in these changes being reversed over time, although not completely,” he said.

But the challenge remains the same for employers – whether they are managing remote workers, on-site workers or a hybrid workforce.

For Brian Kropp, chief of research for the Gartner HR practice, employee health and safety are the priority. HR leaders should therefore go the extra mile to ensure these.

“Employees want to know that their employer is invested in them both professionally and personally, and this is even more true in times of crisis,” Kropp said.

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