It is no secret that studies going back decades have advocated for working from home as being a means of increasing productivity. A 2015 Stanford study revealed a 13 per cent increase in productivity and a 50 per cent drop in employee resignation rates.

However, there was resistance from all sides to the widespread adoption of working from home policies. Managers were paranoid that workers might waste time while they were out of sight; that there might be reduced loyalty to the organisation; and that they would lose power or control.

Working from home

The coronavirus pandemic has lead to a change of attitudes - from both managers and employees - when ot comes to working from home, says Kara Martin. PICTURE: Corinne Kutz/Unsplash

Workers were scared that they might miss out on opportunities to network; that being home might disadvantage their careers; and they feared loneliness.

COVID has changed all of that. The strict lockdown required to control the spread of the virus has meant that managers have learned to trust workers, and workers have realised the many benefits of working from home.

COVID-19 has challenged myths about working from home
There are three areas which have been challenged by the pandemic:

"While studies have shown for years that working from home is productive, the pandemic has ramped up our skills in providing technology to make it happen, as well as assessing that work. Working from home is effective if it is resourced and managed well."

• “If I can’t see you working, you aren’t working." There is a large body of sociological theory which underlies this myth that we control people by watching them. A leader managing their team by watching them at work has been the norm. The pandemic has undone this myth by proving that productivity has actually increased with employees working from home.

• “Work and looking after kids can’t mix." This myth has been firmly buried by the necessity of working from home. It is closely linked to: “Admitting parenting struggles at work is unprofessional.” It is now much easier to talk openly about juggling care. The compartmentalisation of work and home has been broken down.

• “Working from home is less effective.” While studies have shown for years that working from home is productive, the pandemic has ramped up our skills in providing technology to make it happen, as well as assessing that work. Working from home is effective if it is resourced and managed well.

The way we structure our workplace is changing fast
Steelcase is a furniture and design organisation that is working with MIT and Microsoft to consult on the workplace designs that will be needed for the future. They suggest that organisations need to consider moving through three stages:

1. Retrofitting current work environments to reduce density and changing geometry so that workers don’t face each other. This involves adding screens or panels to divide people; ensuring only a single use of each space per day; increasing working from home; using visual cues to maintain distance; establishing protocols for shorter meetings; cleaning frequently; and, considering making masks a norm. This is happening, and workers are rapidly adjusting.

2. Reconfiguring for the medium term. This involves giving individuals a choice of workspaces but making them responsible for their own cleaning; designing smooth services for easy disinfecting; having barriers for deflecting the virus; ensuring everything is mobile to allow for flexible furniture configurations; ensuring there is technology for collaboration over distance; utilising standing meetings; and, putting in systems for quick contact tracing.

3. Reinvention for the long term by designing for adaptability not permanence. This involves using more hands-free/contact-less methods; using new materials that are easily disinfected; using sensors to measure wellbeing; ensuring inclusive design for equal participation whether present or at home; having policies encouraging less travel/more video; seeing remote work as the norm; and, creating community and connection in spite of hybrid spaces.

All of this means we need to have some new conversations about work
To work effectively in this new workplace reality means that we will need to reframe the way we see our work.

The first step is to prioritise trust in relationships. We have had to do this during lockdowns, but, with more employees working from home, going forward there needs to be greater trust both to ensure work is productive, and to enable effective communication. This is necessary for all working relationships, including with customers and suppliers.

"While there has been at least lip service paid to employee wellbeing in the past, the pandemic has highlighted that prioritising employee wellbeing is not just an individual concern, but a community responsibility...Mental health issues may take a while to arise, and may be harder to spot in an employee that is not physically present. Further, some employees may not work effectively at home; and some employees may be cautious about returning to work, so flexibility is key."

Secondly, we need to start evaluating by tasks completed rather than hours worked. This is a better way of working generally, however, it will require understanding for those impacted by sickness, impairment or caring responsibilities.

While there has been at least lip service paid to employee wellbeing in the past, the pandemic has highlighted that prioritising employee wellbeing is not just an individual concern, but a community responsibility. We need to be creative to monitor employee wellbeing in hybrid working situations. Mental health issues may take a while to arise, and may be harder to spot in an employee that is not physically present. Further, some employees may not work effectively at home; and some employees may be cautious about returning to work, so flexibility is key.

Finally, one of the astonishing hallmarks of this season has been our willingness to surrender our civil liberties for the greater good. The government has infiltrated every areas of our lives, and impacted significantly on workplaces. These changes have happened quickly, but will likely take a long while to ease. So we need to expect increased scrutiny from government, community, and for churches: the denomination and the congregation. Moving forward, there will be increased regulations for a long period of time, and increased expectations from customers and congregations that organisations are providing a safe environment.

Employees are reluctant to return to offices
Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, which helps employers create flexible workplace programs, has confirmed other studies, including a survey of 1,000 workers by Boston Consulting Group, finding that for those who can work from home, between 40 to 60 per cent reveal a preference to work two or three days a week from home. Those figures represent some of the fear of the current pandemic, but Lister looks at longer term trends.

“You are not going to be completely absent from your colleagues,” she said in an interview with CNBC. “Our forecast is that once the dust settles, 25 to 30 per cent of the workforce will continue to work from home at least one day a week, with the sweet spot being about 2.5 days.” 

However, flexibility is important, because not everyone wants to work from home. “Some employees simply don’t want to work from home,” Lister told CNBC. “Our survey found the youngest employees were having the hardest time. This is likely because they don’t have a dedicated space at home, and because they need the subtle coaching that happens when everyone’s in the office.”

What does this mean for churches and Christian organisations?
While some changes impact all workplaces, there are some particular elements impacted by our expression of faith, and our desire to be missional.

Firstly, it will be important to offer flexibility of working for employee wellbeing, to minimise risk for all, and because it is an effective way of working. However, as Christians we value embodiment, meeting together - as celebrated in the incarnation of Jesus - so flexibility needs to be balanced with what it means to be the physical body of Christ working together.

The important thing is to work out when people are most needed in the office. To work effectively in a hybrid situation we will need to be more strategic about when we insist everyone is together. How can we ensure meetings are tailored to maximise performing rather than just informing, when the latter can be done before the meeting? Training and delivery of frontline services are other reasons why meeting in person might be prioritised. We also need to make time for informal social interaction, and ensure people have access to the resources they need to work effectively. Staff in churches have often had very flexible working arrangements, but there may need to be more formality around in-person meetings.

"COVID-19 has reconfigured our experience of work from the workplace to the neighbourhood. This is wonderful news for churches who are geographically based. How can we make use of this greater access to people in their homes by reaching out and providing support?"

Finally, there is an opportunity to develop fresh expressions of neighbourliness. COVID-19 has reconfigured our experience of work from the workplace to the neighbourhood. This is wonderful news for churches who are geographically based. How can we make use of this greater access to people in their homes by reaching out and providing support? A church in Wellington, New Zealand, has been opening its doors as a work hub during the week for those who want to get out of the house. They also offer a space for those working from home to gather to have a lunch break together. These ideas work well for students as well. 

For knowledge workers, which include the majority of those employed in Christian organisations, there will be mutual benefits to such changes. The footprint of the office can shrink, and running costs will be less, while productivity should increase. Employees will enjoy enhanced flexibility around other commitments, reduced commute times, and enhanced participation through technology. 

The downside could be undiagnosed mental health issues, including loneliness, and more subtle impacts on networking and career advancement. This will increase the need for improved communication, and authentic relationships between leaders and their teams.

Kara Martin is the author of Workship: How To Use Your Work To Worship God, and Workship 2: How to Flourish at Work and a lecturer in leadership at Alphacrucis College in Sydney.