The majority of “desk job” businesses were forced to — quite quickly — transition into a work-from-home model last March as the pandemic rapidly spread. Though for many, working from home seemed like a huge perk, a year in, companies and employees are starting to see more and more negative effects from not being able to collectively come into an office. If you’re in a management role, it is likely hard for you to accurately understand the full consequences that a year of WFH has had on your employees and culture.
But understanding the full effects are crucial.
One of the most effective ways to understand how employees are coping, and how the workforce culture has been reshaped, is to hire an outside market research agency to conduct confidential and anonymous in-depth employee interviews and do an assessment on office culture.
Even with so called “anonymous” pulse surveys and technologies meant to monitor employee feedback, employees often feel there will be repercussions or not enough privacy if they share their true feelings. Furthermore, HR teams are HR specialists and not trained interviewers, so the types of questions that a neutral party will ask employees is far different from what a trained research company would ask. Finally, it is nearly impossible for a company to understand itself objectively: there are too many internal biases to accurately see what’s going on.
From research on full-time WFH policies, below are examples of the negative consequences to employees, managers, and the culture. To understand if these same issues are occurring in your work environment, employee market research can uncover and diagnose issues specific to your company.
Work from home disadvantage #1: Lack of team culture
Each company becomes a system – a culture – where, typically, from the leadership down, the work expectations, attitudes, team-dynamics, mission, and “feeling” created by the company are fostered. Oftentimes a workplace culture feels nebulous, or contains intangible elements that are hard to pinpoint, but this directly influences the tone and feeling of a workplace environment.
A team culture is sustained and enhanced through social outings, day-to-day spontaneous conversations, all-hands meetings, off-site retreats, company perks, leadership talks, training, and even the physical environment of an office.
Since the pandemic, these events have faded, and even though a virtual wine-tasting may be fun for your employees, it simply can’t replicate – or sustain – a work culture.
How has your work culture suffered since employees have been working from home? What elements do employees miss? What are those intangible aspects that employees need in order to feel part of the culture and stay motivated? These are the types of questions that research can answer through employee interviews. When employees do start heading back to the office, leadership can take these findings to ensure that the culture is rebuilt.
Work from home disadvantage #2: Lack of innovative ideas
Zoom, as many advantages as it has, is antithetical to spontaneity – particularly for teams that may not work together closely. Spontaneity is crucial for innovation, cross-pollination of ideas, collaboration, and cohesiveness across disparate roles within a company. Conversations that happen in the employee break room, running into colleagues in the hallway, or random unexpected interactions can all lead to inspiring breakthroughs and ideas that can help companies find new ways of looking at their products and services. Working from home has completely shut down this spontaneous element, and this has true and lasting consequences for innovation and ideas.
How has this lack of spontaneity affected your employees? If they reflect back, what types of conversations were they having in the office that they’re not having now? Downstream, how has this slowed new ideas being developed and refined? Through surveying and interviews, understanding the true loss of spontaneity should be considered as HR teams decide how to reshape work-from-home policies in the future.
Work from home disadvantage #3: Employee burnout
The final (but certainly not last) negative consequence of permanent WFH policies has been the employee burnout. We’ve all heard (or personally experienced) the stress that parents have had to deal with, but equally trying has been the loneliness, over-work, and exhaustion from only working at home, regardless of the home composition. A global survey of 2700 employees reported that 67% percent of employees reported higher stress, and 57% reported higher anxiety in 2020. Nineteen percent reported a decline in their mental health.
These are startling numbers – and certainly not sustainable.
How are your employees coping? Those pulse surveys and Zoom HR coffee chats will not give you the full picture. Mental health, in particular, carries such a stigma that in a recent research project InterQ conducted, we found that the majority of employees are afraid to discuss their mental health openly with their employer. However, with neutral parties, they will tell divulge how they’re truly doing – as long as they’re assured of anonymity. This is another facet where hiring a neutral research agency makes the most sense.
The takeaway: Before you revise your WFH policies, conduct employee research
Vaccines in the USA are becoming more and more widespread, and employers are now tasked with figuring out what “back to the office” looks like. Before your team makes any final decisions, the first step should be to conduct employee research by hiring a neutral research agency. Do a full-factor assessment on work culture, employee stress and burnout, and creativity. These findings will help you develop new office policies and hopefully shape how much WFH will be permissible, once it’s safe to go back to the office.