If not properly planned and institutionalised, working from home presents a new work dynamics which may affect relations between employees and managers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused havoc, with many lives lost and economies destroyed, but it has also brought a new, modern work culture of working from home.
Working from home used to be a foreign concept to most employees, including highly skilled professionals, as most workplaces were used to the 9-to-5 culture in which employees were glued to their office desks from the morning until late afternoon. Only a few workplaces had a work-from-home benefit – it was not the norm. Managers (or bosses) were used to seeing their teams working and toiling at the office. Some work flexibilities that were in place then included working half day at the office and perhaps in the afternoon at home, with clear deliverables for the day.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores, we soon realised that we could not continue as per normal. Going to the office stopped immediately because of lockdowns imposed by governments across the world. Managers experienced high levels of frustration as their world had completely changed – their ability to ‘see’ their staff working was gone! Going to the office became a thing of the past. Meeting with employees on Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams became a new way of bridging the gap between the old office work culture and the new ‘pandemic’ times. While not perfect, this was the new normal. The office had moved completely from the brick and mortar to the virtual building.
The benefits of working from home
Working from home became something beneficial to employees. Among the many well-known benefits of working from home is the enjoyment of working in your comfort space without the morning rush to the office. Of course, some of us stopped taking showers and our night wear became our normal clothing while wearing something decent only from the shoulders to the waist!
We also could excuse ourselves from putting ‘on’ the camera when meeting virtually with colleagues. Managers found themselves in a tight spot where they had to exercise caution about what they can say or not say when dealing with employees behind the screen.
The hybrid work culture
There is no doubt about the benefits of working from home. There are numerous books, articles, seminars, webinars, etc, about the working-from-home culture and its related benefits. The work-from-home culture is a new here-to-stay culture that will be an inherent feature of the modern work world. As a result, some big brands, even here in South Africa, have embraced the benefits of this new work culture and are now adopting a formal work culture that is a hybrid of working from home and going to the office twice or three times a week.
Despite the benefits of working from home or the hybrid work culture, there are new challenges in the workspace which need to be navigated carefully.
The increased stress of working from home
In a world of work where there is a manager−employee relationship, it has become hard to balance the needs of both manager and employee. Some managers’ attitude towards the work-from-home culture has increasingly become a source of stress for some employees.
To some managers, working from home by their teams has all of the sudden meant that:
- Employees are always available for all communication and demands. Work barriers are gone! If an employee is not online, it means they are lazing around or doing nothing.
- When the manager reads some interesting article (to them) somewhere and they share it with their teams in one of the many teams and groups created for various projects – and employees must always react with various emojis 👍 ❤️ 👌 … An employee who just ‘Likes’ and does not ‘Love’ the manager’s expressions is viewed negatively.
- Managers are entitled to ‘see’ the employee when meeting with them. This is done with some managers insisting that the employee has to turn the camera on.
A more practical example to illustrate the third point above is an encounter an employee had with his manager:
The employee had worked till late on a report and in the morning, he spoke to a fellow employee to get her views on this report, and they resolved that it was better to consult with the manager before proceeding further. When the employee contacted the manager on Teams chat, he agreed to have a quick Teams call – for guidance and his view. The manager was rather abrasive and said: ‘I can’t see you, can you put your camera on,’ to which the employee responded that he is not camera-ready as it was early in the morning. The employee quickly realised he had to turn the camera on although he was in his morning gown and looked clumsy because he had worked all night. At the end of the call, the employee was left feeling disrespected.
One may even go further to ask: is it even ethical for the manager to demand that the employee turn the camera on when the employee clearly feels uncomfortable doing so? Where should the line be drawn?
The above issues have created anxiety in some employees. Toxic work cultures are increasingly becoming the norm in modern-day workspaces and there are many variables and ingredients that lead to toxic work cultures. But toxic work environments are a catalyst for mediocrity where employees may begin to ‘do as told’, making it hard for them to be their best version. It has become extremely difficult to manage employees in these difficult and changing work cultures!
Some tips to manage the work-from-home dynamics
A properly planned work-from-home culture or a hybrid one (home-and-office) works! Such a culture needs to not reduce the employees into objects which have no say in what makes them happy and productive. Surely an environment where an employee and manager have a common understanding and appreciation of each other and their personal circumstances would be most welcome.
To manage the work dynamics, here are some tips:
- Work barriers must be created − An employee is not always available just because they work from home. They were not always available in the era of 9-to-5, and the same applies now!
- Agree on deliverables − As obvious as this may sound, agreeing on reasonable deliverables helps to manage expectations between the manager and the employee.
- Outdoor ‘catch-up’ activities will boost team dynamics among employees and managers. As working from home becomes the norm, meeting away from the office (for example at local recreational facilities) for a work picnic would strengthen work relations.
- Managers should learn to allow employees to be vulnerable and open up to them about the dynamics of working from home, so that unspoken assumptions and perceptions can be removed.
At the centre of it all is that employees who are trained professionals want to give the best of themselves to their daily jobs, as this has direct implications for their growth as professionals. It is therefore important for managers to realise that conducive work environments are an essential ingredient in enabling employees to give the best version of themselves.
Professionals (who are most affected by the work-from-home phenomenon) are complex and have varying needs. They wish to have work environments in which they can contribute for the betterment of the organisation and communities. Once they feel undermined in the workspace, they will offer their services elsewhere – hence we have witnessed the ‘Great Resignation’ across the world. The issue of job hopping has become less of a bother for a modern professional employee. This point emphasises the need for a respectful mutual relationship between managers and employees.
Sitembele James CA(SA), Registered Auditor, MAcc, MzaServe Consulting and Advisory (Pty) Ltd