The Pandemic Paradox: Will Homework Become a Sustainable Practice?

Earlier in the month, Graham Lowe, author of Creating Healthy Organizations: Taking Action to Improve Employee Well-Being, discussed organizational responses to the coronavirus pandemic on the blog, as many employees were forced into working from home. This week, Graham is back to look at the big post-pandemic trends, and asks if working from home will become a sustainable practice.

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The new abnormal forced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic sent many organizations scrambling to adapt. Flattening the pandemic curve will certainly prolong and deepen the recession, with profound economic and social implications.

Big post-pandemic trends

As global consultancy McKinsey puts it: “The shock to our livelihoods from the economic impact of virus-suppression efforts could be the biggest in nearly a century.” Which immediately raises the question, what’s our pathway out of this and what kind of renewed normal do we want to create? Looking ahead to that post-pandemic world, the Economist identifies three big trends: de-globalization as companies push for more local supply chains; big corporations grow stronger, as they did coming out of the 2008-2009 recession; and the rapid diffusion of digital services.

I would add a fourth major post-pandemic trend: changing work practices and norms. Indeed, for some organizations, recovery will entail a reinvention of their business strategy and their day-to-day work processes.

The flexibility paradox

Here’s where what I’m calling the pandemic paradox comes into play. Pre-pandemic, there was pent-up demand among many employees for more flexible work arrangements and the opportunity to work from home. Yet employers were slow to adapt to this demand, despite evidence that it can improve worker morale, well-being and productivity.

Then public health responses to contain the pandemic imposed homework on huge numbers of employers and employees. And that’s left many workers and their employers scrambling to figure out how to adapt to homework. So now that it’s far more common, what can employers do to ensure it is healthy, productive and sustainable? And furthermore, how can homework be designed to meet the expectations and preferences of their employees?

It’s difficult to overstate how much workers preferred more work flexibility leading up to the pandemic. According to research by Gallup, many US workers desired more flexibility in their work schedules, including the option to work from home. In Canada, various workforce surveys I have conducted partnership with EKOS Research Associates revealed some wide gaps between what workers wanted and what they currently had in their job. While many sought a flexible schedule that allows good work–life balance, just over half of workers had this option. Similarly, when a recent Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey asked respondents to rank preferences for workplace health promotion, the top-rated was flexible work arrangements.

Externally imposed flexibility is an opportunity

Here’s the current reality, according to Statistics Canada. By the end of March, some 4 in 10 Canadian workers were doing their jobs from home, with 70% pushed into this arrangement because of COVID-19. Well-educated knowledge workers are the most likely to work from home. While this trend clearly reveals how the pandemic has widened already deep inequalities in the labour market – think of all the low-wage retail, hospitality and other personal service workers who have lost their jobs – it does underscore the creativity homeworkers have to offer in planning how to retain the best features of this practice as part of a pandemic recovery strategy.

There surely are challenges to overcome and lessons to be learned. Here are specific practical considerations:

  • You can’t assume that all your homeworkers have an appropriate work space at home, or the requisite internet connection and computer.
  • You can expect some to feel isolated, missing direct social interaction with co-workers.
  • Others will be struggling to draw a line separating personal and work time.
  • And with schools closed, homeworkers with young children will be juggling two jobs during the day.

Making homework part of your organization’s recovery plan

The good news is that there’s solid research to draw on for evidence-based practices that can help address these challenges, making homework part of your recovery plan. Consider two examples, which I describe in detail in my book.

New Zealand- financial services company Perpetual Guardian adopted a workweek consisting of four eight-hour days. Employees were paid for 5 days, with an extra day off to attend to personal and family needs. Teams were empowered to find new ways to ‘work smarter’. As a result, productivity actually increased. Job satisfaction, engagement, and retention also improved, as did work-life balance and overall well-being.

Another example is an IT company in the US, where an ‘action research’ project led by university researchers redesigned jobs to give workers more control over their schedules and trained supervisors to support work-life balance. This study confirms that the combination of more worker control over schedules and more supportive supervisors can significantly enhance work-life balance, reduce job stress, and improve psychological well-being.

These two examples underscore the importance of involving employees in finding the most effective ways to design greater flexibility into work, appropriate for the business context. This approach is what I call healthy change. And as more organizations pursue environmentally friendly policies and practices, it also is important to add reduced pollution and commuting time as benefits.

The homework imposed on organizations by the pandemic thus provides an ideal opportunity to consult with employees, learn what works and what doesn’t, and engage them in crafting a durable approach to flexible work arrangements that can become a vital part of your recovery strategy.

The overriding goal should be a recovery pathway that ensures organizational sustainability. In their reflections on sustainable organizations, Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “Think of a thriving workforce as one in which employees are not just satisfied and productive but also engaged in creating the future – the company’s and their own.” And that’s precisely the opportunity the COVID-19 pandemic is offering to forward-thinking organizations.

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Graham Lowe will be participating in a webinar this Friday May 1, titled "Healthy Employer and Employee Responses to COVID-19."

Click here to find out more about the event.