Home office work: exploring realities and perceptions in the covid-19 scenario

In early March 2020, the Covid-19 outbreak was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). A new situation was established at the global level. Governments decreed that only essential services should operate. The policy of social isolation required people to stay in their homes with as little external displacement as possible.

Companies around the world have had to close their offices, factory floors and points of sale. Remote home office (HO) work became a reality for most workers. For many of them, an abrupt and compulsory transition.

Despite the speed and scale of the change, companies from all sectors have proven to adapt well to this type of work. HO was already part of the discussions about the future of work. A trend that, although growing, was not yet widespread in Brazil. Now, it is one of the most advanced, becoming the agenda of human resources boards. Those who have adopted it the longest, express advantages linked to flexibility, economy and quality of life. Others have been able to see its benefits in practice at this time, even in the face of the crisis. Thus, it is believed that, in order to understand the path of post-Covid-19 work, the practice of HO constitutes a good lens.

The research

Two weeks after the establishment of social isolation, professors and researchers from Fundação Dom Cabral (FDC) conducted a survey to raise workers’ perceptions about remote work in HO. Its objective: to understand the impacts of adopting this way of working in the midst of the scenario imposed by the dissemination of Covid-19.

In all, the survey obtained 636 valid responses collected through e-survey sent to the customer bases of the Grant Thornton company and the Strategy Reference Center (CRE-FDC). The collection period was March 26 to April 5, 2020. The questionnaire consisted of 14 questions alternated between closed and open questions.

The profile of the respondents is characterized by the predominant location in the Southeast region of the country (82%). In terms of age group, most (46%) are concentrated in Generation Y (between 29 and 39 years old). Respondents also predominate in large companies (46.12%), and in strategic and tactical positions. The most represented sector in the survey was services (57%).

The positive side

According to the data obtained, only 4.96% of respondents said they worked on HO daily before January 1, when the first signs of what is now characterized as a pandemic emerged. Therefore, for most of the respondents, the experience of working remotely on HO was a novelty. Despite the specific circumstances of the moment requiring social isolation, respondents expressed a positive perception of HO in multiple dimensions.

One of the most outstanding questions was productivity, both in closed and open questions. Among the respondents, 31.69% said they were more productive in remote work in HO than in the previous situation. In addition, 37.97% did not perceive a drop in productivity with the transition of the work format. On the contrary, they claimed to maintain levels similar to those obtained in the office with other employees.

The causes for perceived increased or maintained productivity may be linked to levels of agreement with the following statements: “my organization has procedures and processes that help me work remotely” (43.20% agree totally); and “the physical space I dedicate to work allows me to produce remotely” (49.18% agree totally).

Other reasons for the favorable perception of the HO experience were highlighted by the respondents themselves in open question. Of the 188 who spontaneously made additional comments, 46.8% expressed positive aspects. The first of them is the saving of time, energy and resources in daily displacements. It is important to remember that this aspect is validated by the agreement, in closed question, with the statement “I am happy to avoid daily displacement to the workplace” (54.71% agree totally). Below, some extracts from the answers illustrate the importance of this question.

“My physical wear and tear has decreased drastically due to the disruption of home-workplace displacement”.
“I believe the gain in time, on average two hours a day, pays off. This is not to mention the savings for the company, since there is a significant reduction in operating costs”.
“The experience is very good, since it takes me 3 hours to get to work every day. I am much more rested, I can develop my activities with more disposition and efficiency, because I don’t need to wake up 3:40 in the morning to go to work. There are no people requesting support at all times, I can give this support through the networks in my time, not delaying my activities. It would be great if we could do home office at least once a week”.
“I have more concentration, less interference and more hours of work because I don’t have to move from home or even the office to meetings”
The sense of improvement in the quality of life also stands out among the respondents and originates not only in the question of displacement, but in the perception that the home environment is different from the office. Although the context of the pandemic requires that everyone be at home at the same time, respondents kept a positive record. Some expressed this as follows:

“I’m taking advantage of my one-year-old daughter’s approach. I am participating intensely in her development. I can plan my time. And my work pays more because I don’t have to keep paying attention to parallel conversations of co-workers”.
“I find it less stressful to work at home. I can flow in my activities even faster than when I’m in a tense environment.”
“The family environment allows us to have a wonderful day at work! At the home office we can have coffee together, lunch. Things that when you’re in the office you can’t. And those moments make us happier”
“I think I’ve been working more than the company, but the comfort of working more at ease doesn’t compare to formal work”
However, a counterpoint is needed with regard to the question of home-work balance. Although faced with the statement “I have a good work-life balance”, with which 31.09% of respondents fully agreed – and this is reflected in the open answers to this question – it must be considered that 42.15% partially agreed. That is why there are caveats in the open response demonstrations that deserve attention.

Current circumstances make this balance, already complex in normal times, even more delicate. There are the difficulties inherent in adapting to this particular moment in which other family members, especially children, are also at home all the time and demand attention in relation to online studies. Moreover, it must be considered that those who find themselves in this situation do not have the support of their helpers (day labourers, nannies, etc.), since it is necessary that they also complete the quarantine. Therefore, this results in an accumulation of activities (work and home) and difficulties in establishing the routine. According to the respondents, remote work in HO is a beneficial modality, but in the current situation it has an adaptation cost for which many were not prepared. The following extracts from the answers illustrate this point.

Remote work in times of isolation by Covid-19 cannot be measured as it would be in normal times, because we have children at home, lack of support from day labourers, etc. However regressive the professionals may be, they have to coordinate these tasks”.
“We are living in an atypical moment, but in normal conditions of temperature and pressure, the remote work a few times a week is healthy, encourages autonomy, self-management, improves creativity and employee satisfaction”.
“The situation I assessed regarding activities and interruptions refers to the current period. Before coronavirus, I was already in the home office and productivity was higher than in the office”.
“For mothers, remote work causes excessive fatigue, and at times we are taken over by the duties of the home and children. The lunch hour is gone. I have the perception that my peers and managers who do not have children, perceive my performance worse than the face-to-face work”.
The fears

When asked if they intended to propose to their managers the continuity of remote work in HO after relaxation of isolation, 54.11% of respondents said yes. However, 13.9% opted for “maybe, because I still have doubts or fears”. These respondents were then invited to express their concerns in an open response. The following chart shows the main categories of response, with the most points: 1. the perception of resistance from managers, the corporate culture and the work environment; 2. the longing for the possibility of alternating work in HO and in the office; 3. the challenges regarding concentration and commitment in HO.

Graph: statements, doubts and fears

Source: authors of the research (P7)

Number of responses: 669

The issues in the table explore these apparent divergences and offer clues as to what lies behind the concerns outlined above. The majority indication of the item “I am concerned about how my managers/leaders will evaluate me on my remote work” suggests the need for adaptation, and the establishment of clear criteria for evaluating the work done in the HO mode so that new patterns of trust relationships can be built. In addition, although there is total agreement of 36.47% with the assertion “my manager/leader is effective in helping me deal with remote work”, there are signs that there are opportunities for companies to provide support for better execution of HO work. These points, besides explaining part of the fear about the “manager resistance” category, are also part of the “challenges of concentration and commitment” in terms of visibility and evaluation of the performance of the work in HO.

The category “flexibility between HO and office” is a future perspective that relates to the majority agreement (total and partial) to the items “I miss interacting in person with my colleagues at work” and “my work requires me to be in constant communication with my colleagues”. Therefore, besides the feeling of lack of face-to-face contact, especially in the current situation, there are activities whose nature requires interaction, even if partial.

The results of the research draw attention to some aspects that serve as a reflection and alert for the developments of the practice of HO in the post-Covid-19 scenario.

The continuity of HO

The first of these refers to the desire of the respondents for continuity of the HO, under certain conditions. Certainly, a paradigm has been broken. Many companies that were not considering or were still afraid to adopt the HO, had to do it anyway. The imposed migration brought with it challenges and learning.

In another survey, FDC pointed out that in all sectors most companies expect new HO practices to remain after the crisis. Companies such as Twitter and XP recently announced their intention to adopt HO permanently. Although, as highlighted in the survey, this modality does not apply to every kind of task, it can be observed that the respondents’ experience requires a shared decision and not an imposition. There are risks in taking the counterpoint of permanent adoption without understanding that employees want to be involved in the flexibility decision. And this refers not only to the frequency, but also to the use of the spaces for remote work, since it does not necessarily have to be done in HO.

The balance between personal and professional life

Secondly, despite the positive perceptions about the experience, the warning is valid that assessing the HO under current conditions may distort its potential. We are in a moment of cognitive and emotional exhaustion that cannot be ignored and influences the balance between personal and professional life.

Companies should consider the learning opportunities of how to give in or absorb a little control, respecting and preserving the quality of life of employees. It is important to make agreements and establish mechanisms that have trust as a paradigm and measure performance more from deliveries and less from time control. This is how Netflix, for example, likes to define its culture: “freedom and responsibility”, according to Patty Mccord, ex-VP of the company. Any people management practice arising from this scenario should be based on the fact that we will need to re-establish boundaries between personal life and work, especially regarding time management, communication and demands.

A segurança no trabalho remoto

Os dados indicaram que, no momento da realização da pesquisa, os respondentes demonstravam confiança na tecnologia para o trabalho em HO. Porém, o aspecto da segurança ainda não era alvo de preocupação. Contudo, o tempo nos mostrou que as empresas não podem deixar de prover mecanismos e instrução adequada para garantir acesso sem comprometer a privacidade e a confidencialidade de suas informações. Na medida em que o contexto de crise perdurar, o repertório de experiências, aprendizados e novos caminhos vai requerer análise cuidadosa e aplicação participativa.

Fabian Salum é professor da Fundação Dom Cabral nas áreas de Estratégia e Inovação. Coordenador do Centro de Referência em Estratégia da Fundação Dom Cabral. Doutor em Administração pela Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais e INSEAD, França. Atuou por mais de 22 anos como executivo de multinacionais, fundador de startup, empreendedor, consultor e com sólida experiência internacional.

Karina Coleta é professora convidada da Fundação Dom Cabral nas áreas de Estratégia e Modelos de Negócio. Atua também como pesquisadora do Centro de Referência em Estratégia da FDC. Doutora em Administração pela Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais.

Paul Ferreira é professor de Liderança e Estratégia e diretor do Centro de Liderança da Fundação Dom Cabral. Com MBA e doutorado pela Universidade de Genebra, Suíça, atuou em diversas funções como CEO, fundador de startups, gerente sênior e consultor, assim como em vários países acumulando sólida experiência internacional e corporativa.

Author: Fabian Salum, Karina Coleta e Paul Ferreira Source Harvard Business Review Brasil