How Working From Home Has Changed Employees
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How Working From Home Has Changed Employees

They are used to far greater independence. And they may value personal time more.

By Alexandra Samuel
Tue, Jun 15, 2021 12:04pmGrey Clock 5 min

The employees who return to the office after a year of remote work aren’t the employees their bosses remember.

They have spent over a year adjusting to a radically different rhythm—both in terms of work and their personal lives. They have shifted their working hours, and learned to manage their own tasks without oversight. They may place more value on their family time or personal priorities, and perhaps been forever changed by a loss or health concerns. After a year of working in solitude, many have come to expect more control over how, when and where their work gets done, and to have greater autonomy relative to their managers and organisations.

They may not even feel like they need a whole lot of managing anymore. “Employees are taking on more of the managerial responsibility for their work,” says Holly Birkett, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham in Britain and co-director at the university’s Equal Parenting Project, which surveyed managers and employees during Covid. “They are probably not getting paid any more, but they are feeling more responsibility for getting things done.”

All these changes add up to a challenge for managers, who will need to think differently about how to mentor and coach their team members effectively as they return to the office. Their employees might look like the same people. But rest assured, many aren’t.

Start from scratch

For starters, bosses should consider renewing their relationship with every single employee—even those they’ve managed for years—as if they are starting from scratch.

To that end, they shouldn’t assume what their employees can or can’t do based on what they could or couldn’t do before the pandemic, since they may have acquired new capacities while working from home. Perhaps a junior employee has learned to identify her own tasks and deadlines without the boss laying them out for her; perhaps an arrogant and standoffish sales representative has developed a newly charming phone persona after months of relating long distance or being humbled by pandemic fears.

As a result, it’s best to think about them as fresh hires, asking them how it feels to be back, what they look forward to accomplishing in the months or years ahead, and how they hope to combine home and office time.

Managers might think about treating the initial three to six months after the office reopens as something like a probationary period—not with an eye to firing people, but as a way to assess how employees have grown or changed, and how their own management tactics need to evolve in return.

Taste of independence

Probably the biggest change for managers is that many of their direct reports will have acquired a taste for independence, and a lot less managerial oversight. It isn’t easy to go from a year of freedom to being under the boss’s thumb.

“There is a good chance that those who have been working from home have come to appreciate the autonomy they have gained,” says David Pauleen, a professor in technology management at the School of Management at Massey University in New Zealand, who has studied the work patterns of highly autonomous remote workers. “Some employees might bristle if this management trust in employee capabilities to work more autonomously suddenly ceased.”

Bosses who are nervous about allowing in-office employees the same kind of autonomy they enjoyed at home should pause and remember what they observed during the pandemic. That is, more productive workers. Sarah Forbes, co-director of the Equal Parenting Project, says that “against managers’ expectations, the majority of employees can be trusted to work flexibly, and employees are more productive.” By stepping back, she says, “managers were getting better results.”

Along with acquiring more autonomy over how their work gets done, the past year saw many employees get more control over when their work gets done. Mairead O’Connor, an honorary visiting research fellow at the University of New South Wales Business School, says her research found that during Covid, “management noticed that their workers sought nonstandard work time during the day. It turned out they spent less hours a day working [on weekdays] before 5 p.m., but there was a dramatic increase in the evening and weekends.”

Many employees aren’t going to give up that flexibility easily. Dr. O’Connor recommends that bosses establish core hours during which every worker on a team or project must be online or in the office—and then give employees the flexibility to manage the rest of their schedule.

For managers who are used to tracking their team’s efforts based on a 9-to-5 schedule, this will require a profound shift: managing team members based on progress toward agreed-upon objectives, rather than the number of hours they spend sitting at their desk.

But that doesn’t mean withdrawing supervision. Khim Kelly, a professor of accounting at the University of Central Florida’s Kenneth G. Dixon School of Accounting, found that during Covid, the supervisory mechanisms that are most beneficial to productivity were also the ones that decreased most, including face-to-face meetings and co-worker or third-party evaluations. They were replaced by less effective (but more “remote friendly”) approaches, such as online meetings, email and work logs. For that reason, she says, “managers still need to maintain face-to-face touch points with their employees, as well as reliance on a broader set of data points about an employee’s performance.”

Meetings and socialising

Then there’s the dreaded meeting. Employees have long complained about meeting overload, of course, but the past year took that exhaustion to a whole new level—thanks to the frustrations of virtual meetings plus the reliance on meetings as a way to make up for the loss of informal, spontaneous interactions.

Employees aren’t going to take kindly to going back to the same old same old. The idea that employees should be available to meet anytime between 9 and 5, five days a week, is an outdated way of thinking; so is the idea that employees are cloistered at home, ready to take a call at any time. In the hybrid workplace, employees should be able to keep meetings to the days that they are in the office. That will only work if managers take a team-centric approach to the hybrid workplace, and build a common schedule that brings everyone on the team to the office on the same two or three days each week.

Employees also have gotten used to the idea that meetings are a place for informal check-ins with their colleagues. Over the course of the pandemic, Dr. Birkett says, managers have used “team meetings and communications as a tool to enhance well-being and support employees, rather than purely for operational reasons.” Managers should continue that practice, especially because a year apart may have weakened ties—and trust—among employees.

Dr. Kelly also advises managers to “create opportunities for people to be back in the same space.”

A common schedule is part of that strategy, but managers can do more by encouraging them to maximise their interactions during office days. For instance, if a pre-Covid office was the kind of place where people would get the side eye for spending too much time chit-chatting in the break room, bosses can make an explicit break with that past.

Of course, encouraging social interaction isn’t the same thing as making that interaction mandatory. The past year has allowed introverts to reclaim their freedom from forced, uncomfortable socialising, and given extroverts the opportunity to pursue friendships and activities with colleagues outside of the workplace. Rather than trying to turn back the clock, managers should recognise that some of their employees are going to approach the return to the office like a reunion of long-lost friends, while others are just there to get the job done.

Recognising that different employees have different needs has always been the most important—and the hardest—part about being a manager. That will never be more true than in the coming months. Employees are emerging from the pandemic year as changed, but in different ways. The best managers won’t just recognise that. They’ll also benefit from it.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: 12, June 2021


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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You’ll never guess where they found a little extra room when renovating this west coast house

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There was a time, not too long ago, when the most important must-have for would-be renovators was space. It was all about space to be together and space to be apart.

But as house prices increase across the country, the conversation has started to shift from size for the sake of it towards more flexible, well-designed spaces better suited to contemporary living.

For the owners of this 1920s weatherboard workers’ cottage in Fremantle, the emphasis was less on having an abundance of room and more about creating cohesive environments that could still maintain their own distinct moods. Key to achieving this was manipulating the floorplan in such a way that it could draw in light, giving the impression at least of a larger footprint. 

See more stories like this in the latest issue of Kanebridge Quarterly magazine. Order your copy here

Positioned on a site that fell three metres from street level, the humble four-room residence had been added to over the years. First order of business for local architect Philip Stejskal was to strip the house back to its original state.

“In this case, they were not quality additions,” Stejskal says. “Sometimes it is important to make sure later additions are not lean-tos.”

The decision to demolish was not taken lightly. 

“Sometimes they can be as historically significant as the original building and need to be considered — I wouldn’t want people to demolish our addition in 50 years’ time.”

Northern light hits the site diagonally, so the design solution was to open up the side of the house via a spacious courtyard to maximise opportunities to draw natural light in. However, this had a knock-on effect.

A central courtyard captures northern light. Image: Bo Wong

“We had to make space in the middle of the site to get light in,” Stejskal says. “That was one of the first moves, but that created another issue because we would be looking onto the back of the neighbouring building at less appealing things, like their aircon unit.”

To draw attention away from the undesirable view, Stejskal designed a modern-day ‘folly’.

“It’s a chimney and lookout and it was created to give us something nice to look at in the living space and in the kitchen,” Stejskal says. 

“With a growing family, the idea was to create a space where people could find a bit of solitude. It does have views to the wider locality but you can also see the port and you can connect to the street as well.”

A garden tap has also been installed to allow for a herb garden at the top of the steps.

“That’s the plan anyway,”  he says. 

A modern day ‘folly’ provides an unexpected breakout space with room for a rooftop herb garden. Image: Bo Wong

Conjuring up space has been at the core of this project, from the basement-style garaging to the use of the central courtyard to create a pavilion-like addition.

The original cottage now consists of two bedrooms, with a central hallway leading onto a spacious reception and living area. Here, the large kitchen and dining spaces wrap around the courtyard, offering easy access to outdoor spaces via large sliding doors.

Moments of solitude and privacy have been secreted throughout the floorplan, with clever placement of built-in window seats and the crow’s nest lookout on the roof, ideal for morning coffee and sunset drinks.

The house has three bedrooms, including a spacious master suite with walk-in robe and ensuite overlooking the back garden. Adjustable blades on the bedroom windows allow for the control of light, as well as privacy. Although the house was designed pre COVID, it offers the sensibility so many sought through that time — sanctuary, comfort and retreat.

Adjustable blades allow the owners to control light on the upper floor. Image: Bo Wong

“When the clients came to us, they wanted a house that was flexible enough to cater for the unknown and changes in the family into the future,” Stejskal says. “We gave the owners a series of spaces and a certain variety or moods, regardless of the occasion. We wanted it to be a space that would support that.”

Mood has also been manipulated through the choice of materials. Stejskal has used common materials such as timber and brick, but in unexpected ways to create spaces that are at once sumptuous but also in keeping with the origins of the existing building.

Externally, the brickwork has been finished in beaded pointing, a style of bricklaying that has a softening effect on the varied colours of bricks. For the flooring, crazy paving in the courtyard contrasts with the controlled lines of tiles laid in a stack bond pattern. Close attention has also been paid to the use of veneer on select joinery in the house, championing the beauty of Australian timbers with a lustrous finish. 

“The joinery is finished in spotted gum veneer that has been rotary cut,” says Stejskal. “It is peeled off the log like you peel an apple to give you this different grain.”

Rotary cut timber reveals the beauty of the natural grain in the kitchen joinery. Image: Bo Wong

Even the laundry has been carefully considered.

“The laundry is like a zen space with bare stone,” he says. “We wanted these different moods and the landscape of rooms. We wanted to create a rich tapestry in this house.”

The owners now each experience the house differently, highlighting separate aspects of the building as their favourite parts. It’s quite an achievement when the site is not enormous. Maybe it’s not size that matters so much after all.


Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual


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