The M50 at rush hour is often referred to as the country’s biggest car park, but stark photographs of the motorway encircling Dublin empty at rush hour will be among the lasting images of a country in lockdown. Thousands of workers who typically endure a slow and often stressful commute were instead at home, perhaps booting up their laptops while still wearing their pyjamas.
Private car usage fell by 85 per cent during this time and, according to a study by researchers from University College Cork, carbon emissions were halved. As restrictions ease, traffic is once again beginning to build but widespread remote working looks set to continue beyond lockdown; Twitter has already informed its 5,000 global employees that they can work from home "forever".
Although employees may not miss the commute, working from home presents other challenges. Juggling caring for children with working from home has been identified as a leading cause of stress, one that will hopefully be addressed as childcare facilities begin to reopen. Some employees have complained of isolation and burnout, while others have faced more practical issues, such as inadequate broadband speed and technology failures.
The environmental and social implications of a widespread shift to working from home are enormous. Reductions in emissions and pollution notwithstanding, what are the other advantages of working remotely? And what are the disadvantages?
Dr Maeve Houlihan, associate dean at UCD’s Lochlann Quinn School of Business, says employers have tended to resist working from home, largely because of an embedded culture of presenteeism and underlying doubt about productivity. “Sometimes there is express distrust. There are also very practical issues like data privacy, health and safety conditions and more,” she says.
Yet during the enforced lockdown, understanding and trust have grown, and employers now realise that working from home is effective. Tech firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are leading the "WFH" revolution, but Houlihan believes the paradigm has fundamentally shifted. "Efficiency and cost savings as well as well-being and staff satisfaction mean that WFH patterns are in many cases set to stay, at least in part."
Houlihan adds that researchers such as herself working in this area always knew that the tendency is for employees WFH to overwork, rather than “underwork”.
Martin McCracken, senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at Ulster University, agrees, saying increased productivity is a by-product of home working. “By spending more time ‘working’ and less time travelling, productivity will rise as taking out travel time is clearly a benefit and employees can start earlier and work later if they choose.”
McCracken also acknowledges the environmental impact of remote working, noting that it goes beyond taking cars off the road. “Organisations can show off their environmental and ethical credentials by accentuating the lower impact of their operations in terms of pollution, less need for physical office space, and more family time for employees.”
Yet there are also disadvantages to working from home, and McCracken outlines a number of downsides. “We are social animals and if working from home becomes the norm, we will miss the interaction of other human beings. Meetings with colleagues, although often distracting and unproductive, can from time to time induce the most creative and innovative ideas that are essential for the organisation. Technology is also a problem – even if platforms are improving, they can never really replace physical face-to-face communication.”
He adds that there are dangers of burnout, with employees not knowing when to stop working due to the lack of boundaries between home and work.
According to Houlihan, the conundrum of overwork is “significant” and still needs to be addressed. “Control over own time and a focus on outcomes is the key solution, along with good communication and ongoing dialogue. Peer-to-peer work is key, as well as a means of connecting across a shared communication space and getting beyond email-based workflows.”
Balance is key, adds McCracken. Employees must be clear on what is expected from them, and employers need to consider the individual circumstances – whether they have children, or where they live, for example.
Houlihan agrees. “Childcare, health and safety, and privacy/data security issues remain as important as ever. Where employers want to pivot to a WFH culture they will need to invest accordingly.”