The results of the 2021 Sign of the Times survey by Behaviour & Attitudes are published by The Irish Times today. The annual snapshot of Irish life combines quantitative and digital qualitative techniques with B&A published data on the economy, health, working life and shopping. The research was conducted in January and February 2021.
After a year of working from home, “I’ve a worse work life balance than I’ve ever had. I’m always ‘on’, checking emails on days off. My work has invaded my private life,” says Mel, a civil servant.
Mel – whose last name has been withheld, along with others interviewed for this article, to allow them to speak more freely about the truth about their working lives – describes how she “used to love going to the gym, but I rarely work out at home. Leaving the office to walk downstairs doesn’t feel like a break. I miss collaboration and chats too.”
For many of us, our working lives changed beyond recognition on March 11th, 2020. Full time working-from-home – often referred to by the jaunty acronym “wfh” – used to be something reserved for freelancers and consultants, or those in organisations that operate across continents and time zones and love jaunty acronyms. What is often called “the privilege of remote working” is now the norm for many, and looks set to remain part of the landscape of our working lives.
But is it always seen as a privilege? The B&A Sign of the Times 2021 survey suggests not. Of the 354 people surveyed who have been remote working since March, 55 per cent prefer the arrangement. One in four did not express a preference, while a one in five does not prefer it.
Even within that, there are contrasts and contradictions. Over three quarters agreed with the statement, “I want to work from home at least a few days a week from now”. Perhaps it’s best they don’t tell their employer that 48 per cent of those surveyed acknowledge they “get more work done when I am in the office”. For the record, 27 per cent disagreed.
For many, the benefits include no commute and dinner with their family, plus time to exercise. Conor's own experience encapsulates some of these contrasts. A data protection consultant, he has "flip-flopped between loving wfh and hating it." On the plus side, "being at home with the kids is time I would never have had." But he hates Zoom fatigue and the lack of "normal office interactions with colleagues and clients."
In fact, more than two thirds surveyed by B&A miss their work colleagues. Many of those who shared their experiences with The Irish Times were hankering after the days of collaboration, easy chats in the kitchen and opportunities to learn on the job.
As one said, without the distraction provided by colleagues, there’s little between you and the realisation that your actual job entails staring at a spreadsheet all day. Or as another, who works for a big tech multinational put it, “work has stayed the same or gotten more frantic and all the – very lavish – benefits are gone.”
Technology – whether it's WhatsApp, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, WebEx or old-fashioned email – helped us stay afloat when we were thrown off the deep end, but a year in, many are preoccupied with the downsides. "Pre-Covid you could pop over to someone's desk for a chat to work through something. Nowadays it's an email chain that stretches over four days because everyone's inbox is full to bursting. And then everyone comes away with a different understanding of what was agreed so a WebEx call is needed," says Aoife, who works in insurance.
For others, one of the toughest challenges is the difficulty of delineating work from home life. This was an issue for 54 per cent of people in the B&A survey, who said they “found it difficult to separate their work and personal life when working from home.”
James, a management consultant, says “there’s a perception that the well-paid, senior wfh types are coasting.” The reality for him is very different. “Between digital presenteeism, over-productivity and family needs, it’s the first time I’ve ever burnt out.”
Despite all of these challenges, one thing has been resolved. We now know remote working works – and that means it is likely to remain part of the landscape of many people’s working lives into the future. The results of the B&A survey suggest that some kind of hybrid model is the by far preferred way forward.
But what will it mean in practice for office relationships and collaboration if some people return five days, and others spend only one day physically in the office? How will meetings run with some people in the room, and others dialling in virtually? And to put it baldly, if you stay home, will you get left behind?
On the one hand, says Peter Cosgrove, managing director of Futurewise, "a lot of people have completely forgotten about how horrific they find the commute" because they're so desperate to get in the car and go anywhere. "And then you've other people who are absolutely loving being at home" and have wiped from their memories the bits they benefitted from – collaboration and collegiality.
Meanwhile, for employers, there are similar dichotomies. There are positives from “a cold, hard cash point of view, if you can cut back on 30 per cent of your office space.” But employers are equally aware that what people still want from office life “is a social space to interact with others.”
Before we get too excited about the prospect of being able to construct our own model of our working lives when the pandemic ends, Cosgrove sounds a note of pragmatism. “People are going to go into work more than we think. Every study has always said the further you are from head office, the less chance you have of being promoted.”
He believes that a majority of “senior executives, many of them male, will just go back five days a week. People are great at process changes, but not practice changes.”
In some organisations, there will be “a policy that you can work from home two days a week, but the unwritten rule will be ‘don’t do it; it will be career suicide’.”
Meanwhile, he feels that “some employees go a bit too far [in their enthusiasm.] They go, ‘It’s going to be great, I’m going to do this or that with my kids’, but that’s maybe not what employers want to hear. So what I would say to both companies and individuals is don’t make any strong statements for the moment” about what we expect the precise shape of our working lives to look like.
It will need to reflect the needs of the individual, the employer, and also the type of work involved
What we should take away from this experiment, he says, “is that people can’t say it doesn’t work. But at the same time, I’ve already heard of companies who want everyone back five days a week when this is all over. So for me, the biggest positive is that we don’t all have to be in from 9am until 6pm. That’s a bigger point than how many days you work from home or from the office.”
Dr Deirdre O'Shea, an organisational psychologist with the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick, who is part of the university's Work Futures Lab exploring some of these questions, points out that any remote working model will have to be nuanced. It will need to reflect the needs of the individual, the employer, and also the type of work involved. "It's about finding a balance, and it's about how you scale that up to an organisational level."
She sees this moment as a critical juncture: as we consider what the next phase might look like, there is an opportunity to design not just more flexible ways of working, but to create more rewarding jobs. “Good” jobs are those which meet a number of psychological needs. “Do I have the opportunity to practice the skills that I have in my job? Do I have autonomy? To what extent is my job designed to be dependent on others? Do I have enough variety in my job to keep it interesting for me? Do I feel like my job has a purpose or meaning? There’s an opportunity to really stand back and think about how we design good work.”
The experience of the last year for many is probably best summed up by Bazil, an entrepreneur. “What do I miss? €9 car parking charges when a meeting ran over an hour in Dublin city centre? No. Red eye flights to get to and from London in the same day? No. Just humans. The ability to ask how was your weekend and hearing about life outside the workplace and home.”