Many people I’ve spoken to recently talk about the positives of homeworking. They are spending more time with family, wasting less time on the commute and saving money on transport, takeaway coffees and lunches.
One thing in common with the majority of these people is that they have space at home that allows them to recreate an office environment and establish boundaries between work and homelife. Twitter is flooded with tweets from people boasting about how much they love this new life that gives them ample time to discover the countryside, breathe in the fresh air and get back to nature.
But what about the millions of other people who do not have the means to run off into the sunset, MacBook tucked under one arm? We cannot underestimate the importance of the workplace and its place in society. Working from a tiny desk in your bedroom is not a substitute for the office, and it never will be.
WORKING FROM HOME WITH LIMITED SPACE
I experienced the pressures of home working when my partner had to teach his secondary school students from a tiny desk in our bedroom for three months during lockdown. I was on maternity leave with our young baby. The kitchen table wouldn’t work and we don’t have a spare room. There was no separation between home life and work life. Zero balance. He missed the camaraderie of the staff room, and the ability to chat through challenging classroom situations with the other teachers. It put pressure on our relationship and I know we are not alone.
We need the physical workplace for energy and stimulus, and to create a divide between home and work. Without diversity of place, conversation or experience, monotony sets in. Conversation is essential and we need to have it face to face, not through a screen.
DIGITAL COMMUNICATION TAKES ITS TOLL
After months of Google Hangouts, Zooms and Skype calls our brains have too many tabs open. It’s time to start closing them and focus on the bigger picture. Living in a state of continuous partial attention is a dangerous place to be in.
Our attention spans are further challenged by an over reliance on digital communication platforms such as Slack among remote teams. It is very difficult to achieve a state of flow if you are constantly being pinged and involved in multiple conversations at once.
Another hidden danger of digital, or virtual communication platforms is their ability to hamper innovation and brainstorming. “Idiot thinking” is a term used by Alain de Botton at The School of Life that describes the necessity of ideas that usually begin with “I know this is a silly idea but…”. He argues that the best ideas come from idiot thinking. Slack or Zoom do not always lend themselves well to idiot thinking.
THE FUTURE OF THE WORKSPACE
As more and more people are coming back to the workplace, honest conversations about the impact of lockdown on mental health are being aired during coffee breaks. Productivity was great in the initial few weeks, as people worked their way through their task lists. Some of us took the time to do online yoga and meditation, and ate healthily for the most part. Then lethargy and screen fatigue started to creep in. Paranoia grew as some managers introduced tracking tools. People were working longer hours, because work gave them a purpose and because they couldn’t leave their homes at night anyway so why not carry on working? This level of intense activity does not last and it leads quickly to burnout.
A few months ago the media started to talk about “the death of the office” and panic started to set in. Personally I see this not as the death of the office, but the birth of the new workplace. Humans need connection, we are innately social creatures. The need for a space to gather has been present in society since the dawn of time. People need the unpredictability of others to avoid monotony.
In times of uncertainty, many businesses are cutting costs, but this shouldn’t come at the expense of employees’ mental health. The new workplace is designed to encourage interaction, and to foster community. It is flexible, it knows that some people will want to work from home one or two days a week, and then come in for wider team meetings or gatherings. It recognises the impact the lockdown has had on our society, and it is designed to bring balance and focus back into our lives.
Failure to communicate is often cited as one of the main reasons businesses fail. Now is the time to get your teams back together under the same roof and communicate your path forward.