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Reimagining the way we work

How coronavirus transformed traditional office jobs

Working from home

By March 2020, social distancing was implemented to contain the pandemic, and working from home became the new normal. It started off as just a request, but before long, it was mandatory. While working from home might not be feasible for all professions, it’s quickly becoming a reality for more and more jobs [1,2].

Even before the pandemic, the digital transformation of the working world was in full swing. The pandemic simply gave it a push – like a strong wind beneath a kite. Now, the number of Germans who can work from home has climbed to 56%, nearly doubling since the start of the pandemic [1,3,4].

As if finding a solution during a pandemic was not impressive enough, what followed was even more amazing: All of the fears about working from home proved to be unfounded.

Surprisingly practical

One of the many concerns of employers was that employees would spend their days loafing around at home. In fact, the opposite was true, with most employees becoming more productive when working from home [5,6].

The majority of employees reported better performance at home, claiming it was easier to achieve a work-life balance. They also saved time by not having to commute. Gaining time every day is a huge benefit in and of itself [6]. 

Since the average adult in Germany has less than a quarter of the day for leisure activities, every hour counts. Evidence shows that people experience greater joy and satisfaction in life when they have more free time [7].

Working from home often means working in different and more efficient ways. The numbers speak for themselves:

How much pleasure people derive from various activities? Source

Another advantage to working from home is more flexibility. Whether you have a doctor’s appointment or just want to enjoy a brief moment of winter sunshine, the ability to adjust your schedule makes many things easy that were once unnecessarily difficult [8]. 

And working remotely is not a one-way street. There are obvious benefits for employers as well. According to surveys, many employers report higher productivity and greater availability of employees. Some also claim they became more attractive employers and were able to “optimize the use of office space” – in other words, cut costs [6].

However, there need to be clear rules in place if working from home is going to be a success for everyone involved.

Risks and side effects

Employees working from home have also reported longer working hours and increased workloads due to constant availability. Some tasks can’t be done at home, even though a surprising number of activities, such as communication and computer work, are possible. This can quickly lead to envy and resentment among disadvantaged colleagues [6,8]. 

From which activities consist different professions? Source

The boundaries between work and private life can also become blurred. This can reduce job satisfaction and lead to conflicts within families. An e-mail late in the evening is not only a reminder of work, but also interrupts time needed to recover and relax [6,8].

Technical limitations are another obstacle. Issues range from inadequate equipment to data privacy shortcomings and weak internet connections. Digital communication is only as good as its underlying infrastructure [6,9,10]. 

All of these problems have one in common: They can easily be fixed.

Hierarchies at home

Working from home doesn’t mean that everyone is suddenly self-employed. Management levels and hierarchies still exist and need to adapt as well. And the change in location is by no means the only driver.

In a rapidly changing digital world, old working models with an “all-knowing, hands-on boss” are no longer feasible. Employees need to take on more responsibility and develop their own skills in the face of global competition.

Micromanagement is becoming a thing of the past as employees gain more autonomy and freedom to make decisions. They feel responsible for specific tasks or projects, taking on ownership and regularly communicating with colleagues. 

This new work model might also be possible in a large office, but for now, all of the obstacles have been cleared for working from home. 

Working remotely requires establishing trust and setting clear ground rules in a contract. It also helps to be flexible in terms of work hours and location. It’s important to expect regular feedback, but avoid excessive reporting. Deadlines should be clear, not pedantic [8,11-13].

Staying healthy at home

For most people, it comes as no surprise how closely work and illness are related. People who are sick are often unable to work. And at the same time, work can make you sick. 

Health registers from insurance companies provide a clear picture of which diseases cause the most absences from work. The top three are mental disorders, musculoskeletal diseases, and respiratory diseases [14].

For the latter group, working from home gives a clear advantage. If the pandemic has shown us one thing, it’s how crowded subways and shared spaces increase your risk of infection. It’s not just true for coronavirus, but for all respiratory illnesses [15].

It’s less obvious when it comes to musculoskeletal disorders. The only thing we know for sure is that humans are designed for movement – not for sitting. It might sound harmless, but studies show that sitting for eight or more hours a day is as bad for our health as smoking or obesity [16,17]. 

The back, neck, and other joints suffer greatly from poor posture and lack of movement. Working from home is less healthy if you spend the day sinking into your couch. In contrast, standing and walking make working from home healthier than in the office [18-20]. 

Most impressive, however, are the developments in mental health. When it comes to work, it’s hard to interpret it any other way: Mental illnesses are on the rise [21].

Trends in absenteeism due to various illnesses Source

There are many theories as to why this is, and the digital transformation is certainly playing a role. As more and more activities are being automated, professions are changing. Some have disappeared completely. New ones are emerging. People have to constantly educate themselves and acquire new skills [22-28].

New work models will be less and less about monotonous, laborious tasks and more about creative ideas and innovative thinking. Staring at a monitor for an eight-hour workday is likely to become a thing of the past. Working from home offers flexibility that traditional offices lack [11,29,30]. 

Social relationships are extremely important for emotional support when working from home. However, studies have debunked the theory that living or working alone automatically leads to loneliness. Long commutes, on the other hand, have been shown to cause stress and mental strain [31-33].

There is tremendous potential for working at home in the digital age. This will become even clearer once the pandemic is over and the double burden of work and childcare in shared workspaces is eliminated [34].

Looking to the future

Certain trends of the 21st century will play a decisive role in shaping new work models. For example, 9 out of 10 people in Germany now use the internet – a basic prerequisite for working from different locations [35].

As prices for tech devices and software continue to fall, public transportation and housing costs are on the rise. More and more people live in cities and commute to work. Traffic congestion is becoming a problem, and metropolitan areas are reaching their limits [33,36-41].

No longer having to live close to work is a game-changer. Rural regions are becoming more attractive again, even when considering changing jobs. Employers have a much larger pool of potential applicants since employees can theoretically live anywhere. 

Climate change is also likely to impact new work models. If the “internet were a country, it would be the third largest consumer of energy in the world” –  regardless of whether people work from home or at the office. Enormous amounts of resources can be saved by eliminating unnecessary travel and working more effectively [10,42,43].

Even with automation, the digital transformation is likely to gain momentum. This will create many new jobs that can be done from home. Changing jobs is becoming more common and could potentially become the norm [3,29,30,44].

Trends in job development in a digitalized working world Source

If people don’t have to move when changing jobs, there is much less pressure when making long-term plans. Working remotely makes this possible.

And for those who like working from home but don’t want to leave the office behind completely, hybrid work models are a promising option. This mixture of working at home and in the office allows many to enjoy the best of both worlds. It seems the office of the past is becoming the meeting place of tomorrow [1,8].

Let the future begin.

The contents of this article reflect the current scientific status at the time of publication and were written to the best of our knowledge. Nevertheless, the article does not replace medical advice and diagnosis. If you have any questions, consult your general practitioner.

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