Working from home: Boon or bane?


Studies have found that while people became more productive while working from home during the pandemic, communication and collaboration between departments suffered. Photo: dpa

Attending a morning meeting in your pyjamas, doing a spot of yoga at lunchtime, and more time with the family in the evenings: the reality of most people’s experience working from home has little in common with this utopian and perhaps cliched vision.

After 18 months of the pandemic, studies and surveys paint a differentiated picture of the psychological and physical consequences of remote working.

One thing is clear: working from home has received a boost from the pandemic across different regions of the globe.

Figures may have since dropped again in places where vaccination rates have increased and infection rates decreased, but they are still significantly higher than before the pandemic.

Communication suffers

Studies are now providing indications of the consequences of working from home – for example, a study by Microsoft published in the journal Nature Human Behavior. The technology giant, which commissioned the analysis, shifted to remote work in March 2020. The study analysed data and communication from almost 61,000 employees from December 2019 to June 2020.

The result: although people became more productive while working from home, communication and collaboration between departments suffered.

Specifically, employees spent less time in direct one-on-one conversations and instead made more use of emails or text messages. According to the authors, this leads to employees becoming isolated and less information being exchanged. And that may have a negative impact on production and innovation.

For Hannes Zacher, an industrial and organisational psychologist at the University of Leipzig, the study shows only one side.

“While the Microsoft analysis offers a rather negative perspective, there is also research that shows the ability to work from home can be positively accepted by employees – but only if it stays within a certain framework.”

One to two days remote is ideal

Accordingly, studies suggest that one to two days per week working from home are ideal for employee satisfaction and productivity.

In such a framework, it would be possible not only to communicate digitally, but also to have face-to-face conversations.

“From a psychological point of view, a video call is still better than an email. In the long run, however, it cannot replace face-to-face conversations, especially when it comes to talking to one another in a trusting way, working together creatively or resolving conflicts.”

Zacher himself had started at the end of 2019 to survey almost 1,000 workers about their physical and mental health. The beginning of the pandemic turned it into a long-term study: The participants have been surveyed monthly since March 2021. The psychologist collected observations on the consequences of the corona pandemic on the world of work.

“Before the pandemic, extroverts were happier and more comfortable than introverts,” says Zacher. He says this has been reversed.

“Extroverts were more stressed by the situation, while introverts coped better.” Reserved people in particular even found formats such as video calls more pleasant.Silo mentality

At the same time, Zacher and his colleagues saw that teams split into subgroups more quickly – an observation that fits one of the results of Microsoft’s study.

“A possible breaking point is the one between employees in the office and those working from home,” he explains.

Here, management must ensure that there are no feelings of unequal treatment.

“Managers need to communicate and justify the work structures so that neither employee satisfaction nor corporate culture suffer.”

In all of the discussions around remote working, it should not be forgotten that the place of work is also an important resource: “The office acts as the great leveller in which everyone has the same opportunities,” says Zacher.

In contrast, when working at home, socio-economic factors come into play.

“Couples without children in a large flat can certainly work better at home than single parents or younger employees who live in shared flats or smaller spaces, for example.” – dpa/Alice Lanzke

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