Prof Danie Hattingh

A quasi-consensus has emerged among many of us that ‘working from home can work’, however is this better than working from work? Was the model we followed in the past (working from work) so wrong, or did we create a ‘new’ comfort zone for which we have not calculated the cost nor long-term impact?

Covid-19 forced us to make decisions swiftly to implement new untested ways of doing our work from home with little face-to-face interaction. The changes we implemented initially, were pragmatic and very much human centred, resulting in most adjustments being favourably accepted, with no real debate on the long-term impact. People adapted very quickly to a different style of life – more home/family focused while trying to work effectively from home.  

Personal or family considerations suddenly become integrated with our professional lives, elevating family considerations to a higher reality during “working hours” than we would normally experience during a working from workplace environment. 

Not being able to make eye contact or hiding behind a mask forced colleagues to adopt new ‘coping’ mechanisms. Communication and coordination had to become sharper with more frequent, e-meetings becoming the norm which quickly became more ‘evil’ towards productivity than emails. We quickly developed a habit of hopping from one e-meeting to the next by the click of a button or by switching to a different platform.  A typical workday scorecard could easily lean towards hours of e-meeting vs zero productivity or invoiceable work – still with some satisfaction that it was a busy and productive day’s work (energy sapping e-meetings).

The question that needs answering – was the model we followed for the pre Covid years, on which we built our economic success so wrong? Were we that naïve in the past that the then ‘status-quo’ became so comfortable that we did not see the need to change.  Many of us certainly made frequent reference to, ‘cannot continue to work the way we are working – something must change’, does it sound familiar, however despite this concern we never could come-up with a better model until Covid-19 appeared.  

The current challenge, considering the devastating effect on our economy, is not to allow the Covid-19 mindset to blunt our senses. We need to recognise the realities and demands for making a living in the world we live in. Can we really claim that our response to Covid-19 by the introduction of working from home and using e-platforms is the new way of creating a better future for all? 

My experience is that everyone is trying their best to plan, manage projects, schedules, and activities from home with very few thinking about the efforts required towards reconnecting the economic ‘wires’, enabling the economy to gain momentum – ultimately this is the only way for creating employment, generating revenues for paying salaries or taxes to fund private sector and government initiatives.  

Should we continue to make ‘clever’ plans to show the world how we can beat Covid -19 without calculating the real impact or long-term value of these plans (e-meetings, e-learning, e-nothing, e-working, e-working from home) on the economy. When we make decisions around closing schools, continue with non-contact education and non-essential businesses, we need to realise that these decisions have long term consequences  which we do not yet fully comprehend. 

Are we seriously considering the impact on humans of a prolonged economic shutdown, graduates who never experienced interaction within a class or laboratory environment – are we really comprehending what we are asking people to do, or are we just riding this wave to increase our own comfort zone at the cost of generations to come?  Do we have a new plan for the future, where we all work from home or is this just another clever phase in our self-destruction?

We need to use every possible opportunity to influence policymakers to reopen the economy, reintegrate work from work where needed and consider the impact of doing education online for future generations. Many people cannot work from home as they do not have a home, making this approach an ethical dilemma for which we need answers.   In my opinion, the current mindset of people is skewed toward egotistical needs for which we have not done the sums. 

Let us challenge this newfound comfort zone of working from home so that we can ensure we thoroughly understand the long-term impact of this approach before we make it the new NORM.

Prof Danie Hattingh
+27 (0) 82 374 3190 (Mobile)
Email: Danie.Hattingh@mandela.ac.za
Web: www.saimeche.org.za 

3 Responses

  1. Thank you for this opinion. Enjoyed reading this article. As an engineer working for a consulting company with a drawing office which form a major part of the business we could only withstand the initial 5 weeks of lock down. We require interaction with our drawing office on a daily basis for most of our design projects (bulk materials handling). Sometimes old ways are not as evil as some would think and in my opinion we should look at a mix of the old and new ways. Alternate days of being at the office and working from home for instance. I feel one on one human interaction (not over a screen) should never be discounted for the ability it brings to solve certain issues faster than writing an e-mail or having an e-meeting. I also agree that not everybody in our country has the facilities to work from home and the office environment provides that support and resources that can empower these individuals which would otherwise not have this opportunity when working from home.

  2. My personal view on it is that the ideal approach moving forward is a hybrid work model. There are benefits and drawbacks to each approach that cannot be ignored. The conventional working form the office approach for example could build better teams and relationships, and improve collaboration between team members. However working from home could have the advantage of reducing stress and allowing people to have a better work/life balance. It can help employers save on large office spaces and allow them to scale down and reduce costs. For employees it could allow them to save money and time on daily commutes and has the added benefit of reducing traffic on our roads and pollution.

    Working from a conventional office also has its drawbacks which cannot be overlooked. The office can also be full of distractions at times leading to time wasting. The daily commute affects peoples stress levels and energy levels, which in turn affects productivity. Large office spaces can be expensive to set up and maintain. When working from home there are also obviously the challenges of distractions and time management. But if you can’t trust an employee to be ethical and do the required work and put in the effort from home when nobody is watching, then one must ask yourself if that is really an employee that an employer would want in any environment. If there is a lack of basic trust, can that issue really be fixed in the long term by forcing them to report to an office, or is that an employee/employer relationship that is doomed to fail regardless of work environment.

    A hybrid model can unlock the advantages of both approaches if set up and managed properly. There are times when it helps to work from home and you can hunker down and focus on getting deliverables done without the distractions of the office and the stress of the daily commute. Or when a virtual meeting is sufficient for a discussion. And then there are times when you need a face to face meeting to better collaborate and work as a team. Or just to connect with other colleagues in the work environment and build stronger professional relationships and teams, and have intellectual discussions and debates to learn from each other.

    A hybrid approach could however look very different depending on what type of company you are looking at, and what services they offer, or just how they operate day to day. It can also be different for different employee roles in a company. There is no one size fits all approach when looking at the hybrid approach, but there could certainly be a tailored hybrid approach that could unlock the best of both approaches for each unique employee and employer relationship. It would be very unwise of any employer to not at least investigate or try to unlock the potential benefits of a hybrid work model. The whole world has done a massive work from home experiment during 2020 and 2021, and we cannot, and should not overlook the many success stories and lessons learnt that came with it.

  3. I agree that it becomes a “comfort zone” to work from home. I do not like e-meetings and do not think they effective and create a “team” spirit.

    In my opinion, working from home is very impersonal. For me, however, it does not change a lot when I work from home in my retirement. I might have worked from home anyway.

    I do think however that it is mentally more of a strain and less healthy. I do find communications become stifling. It is maybe like missing contact with other people when you do banking online instead of going to the bank (or shopping).

    I think it becomes possible to “hide” things (whether wanted or not) like your mood and/or joys and disappointments.

    How about public speaking? I am not very interested in those online conference meetings and find them rather boring.
    One misses the entrepreneurial part of it, like showing off your products and references as a selling point. It changes the way we do business. It is not biblical.

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