The business world has been turned upside down by the rapid shift to teleworking and other major changes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many people have adapted well to working at home, what impact has this had on business innovation, productivity and relationships with colleagues and customers?
That depends on circumstances and the type of business.
“There are a lot of businesses where personal touch or communication is very important,” said Stacey McCullough, Ph.D., director of community, professional and economic development for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service. “For example, in-person is better for performance evaluations, to onboard new employees and to discuss sensitive things with customers. Those are situations that lend themselves better to face-to-face interactions.”
There can be an impact on team comradery. You do lose a lot of atmosphere, creative collaboration and group problem solving.
“You can simulate some of that with online technology, but it is much more difficult and requires more skill,” McCullough said. “Even before COVID, there was a drastic increase in teleworking over time. There were 26 million people working from home in the U.S., although not necessarily full time. Surveys indicated a 115 percent growth rate between 2005 and 2015. It was already happening.”
Earlier, teleworking was common for people who worked in IT and call centers. But COVID took it to a new level with all different types of businesses transitioning employees to working from home.
“It is a great experiment,” McCullough said. “A lot of best practices need to be in place when you move people to teleworking. They need the right equipment and technology to be effective and to have tech and human resources support. Employees need training in best practices.”
For example, there are ways to do Zoom teleconferences and do them well. But McCullough said those who haven’t been trained are not likely to be as effective.
“It is about being intentional to include creating connection time with workers,” she said. “A lot of companies, when they went to the new environment, started morning coffee hours. It is not just about doing the job at home but creating the social interactions people were used to getting in the workplace. The novelty of not going to the office has worn out. Now people are really needing those kinds of interactions.”
Another issue is that not everyone has the right equipment, space and privacy to work at home. Some people are trying to work while educating children who are out of school. And some remote workers have trouble not only juggling work and family responsibilities, but having the self-discipline to do what is required by the employer.
McCullough said it is important for employers to clearly lay out the expectations for work production. There needs to be times of the day when the worker is accessible to the employer and customers. A separate office is ideal, and if that isn’t possible, it is a good idea to have a headset that will cancel out noise from other family members and pets.
The rapid transition to teleworking has been a double-edged sword, said Alan Ellstrand, associate dean for programs and research at the UA’s Walton College of Business in Fayetteville. It has made people a lot more familiar with technology comfortable working remotely. But it has made it more difficult to establish or maintain relationships with colleagues and customers.
“Relatively few people had used the technology for working remotely before the pandemic, and now it has become a way of life for many workers,” Ellstrand said. “The upside is we have been able to continue to do our work from home. A lot of things have gone pretty smoothly and seamlessly during the pandemic. In some ways, it has made people even more productive. With Zoom teleconferencing, there is not as much small talk, and you get to the task much more quickly. I think people are more on task and get things done more directly. Normally between meetings, you might have travel time. But with Zoom, you can go from one meeting to another and fill the day with them. It works out pretty well.”
But he also sees significant downsides including fewer opportunities for informal networking and brainstorming.
“It used to be if there were 10 people in a room, after a meeting you might go and introduce yourself to someone,” Ellstrand said. “Or, you might ask someone their opinion about something that wasn’t on the agenda. With a Zoom meeting, it is over and on to the next one. We do miss a lot of networking opportunities as a result.”
He also sees a big shift in the work/life balance. It used to be easier to separate the two, leaving the office behind when you left for the day.
“Now we are working in an environment where the office and home are pretty much merged,” Ellstrand said. “People are experiencing work-life integration. People are trying to get work done for the office while trying to keep the kids glued to the screen for the Zoom school lessons. And in the evening, if you didn’t get done what you hoped, once the kids are in bed, you have to go back to work.”
Even small things like changing out of work clothes when you get home can help make a mental transition between work and personal life. And being responsible for more at home while keeping up with work duties can be difficult.
“I think it has created a lot of stress for people, especially as they also might not be enjoying the recreational activities they used to enjoy that helped reduce stress,” Ellstrand said.
With most professional conferences canceled or transitioned online, it could also impact people missing opportunities to speak at these conferences in person and network with people.
“Some of our conferences have converted to Zoom, and frankly, it wasn’t the same at all,” Ellstrand said. “I didn’t even attend most of the sessions because I had a regular job to do. Going to a conference is somewhat a perk, too. If you are just looking at the direct cost of travel, we seem to be OK not sending people to these places. But what are some of the things we are losing by not participating in these kinds of opportunities?”
He sees really big implications here for the future of work depending on how long the pandemic lasts and how long people don’t feel being comfortable in office settings.
“There will be an evaluation of how well it is working,” Ellstrand said. “Some companies may say, ‘If it is working for you, it is working for us.’ For some, it is working out very well and for others, it is not. But we are quite likely to see a lot of teleworking continue after the pandemic is over.”
“The trend for telecommuting was already growing,” she said. “I think by going through this we have discovered a lot more things we can do remotely than in the past. It isn’t just employees and employers, but customers’ habits that have changed. They want more convenience and flexibility. This is a disruptive change, one with long-term implications for employees, employers and customers who will want more flexible options that meet their needs. The implications will be long-term and will continue to evolve.”