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The Office as a Tool to Alleviate “Remote Fatigue”

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Too much of a good thing isn’t limited to sunshine and ice cream. We are still figuring out how to balance things we like so that they remain being enjoyable. Years ago no one would have believed some very successful people are only seen from their shoulders and above during their workday. As many continue to work from home for at least part of the week, the remote lifestyle of video calls and sweatpants is still going strong. Working from home used to be seen as lackadaisical and a bit glamorous with ideas of afternoon naps and binging shows all day. Now we may laugh at these easy-going ideas as productivity has increased during this stint of remote work. Even though the dress code is nice, there are trade-offs and people are getting weary of this lifestyle and are said to be suffering from “remote fatigue.”

The shift to remote work happened quickly and many workers were drastically unprepared in terms of equipment or furniture, time management skills, and evolving the company culture. Jumping from a static routine of waking up, commuting, working, and then doing it in reverse straight into everything within the same environment was not an easy transition. Sure, it went through its honeymoon phase, and so much work was done, but the shine wore and wanderlust, or at least getting outside of the same four walls, took over.

Productivity boost

Working remotely has proven to be useful in terms of productivity. Almost half of global remote workers believe they’re more productive when working remotely, but what’s the reason? It could be from the lack of a daily commute, which was what 87.6 percent of occupiers stated in Equiem’s 2021 Global Office Tenant Report, a survey of over 3,200 occupants in the U.S., the UK, Ireland, and Australia. It may be due to the lack of distractions at home, or at least for homes without children, pets, or a demanding roommate/spouse. The increase of uninterrupted focus time could lead to better results in the same amount of time. Or, workers may view remote work as a benefit and may work harder to repay this benefit to their employer. 

Lack of boundaries could also be the reason for increased productivity. With their bed, kitchen, gym, and office within a few steps of each other, different elements of the day literally blend into each other. In fact, reports of the blurring between work and home life have increased by six percent when compared to last year. Quickly checking your inbox before coffee could become working for hours before 9 am. This time adds up: the average worker in the U.S. is working three more hours a day than pre-pandemic, based on server activity on NordVPN’s network.

Without the visual notification of people leaving the office, the time to stop working is unclear. This is especially true for companies spread over different time zones so “off hours” become vague. This issue isn’t limited to the U.S. Known as the “right to rest,” recent legislation in Portugal bans bosses from text messaging and emailing staff outside of working hours and, if not followed, they can be fined.

The lack of a separate work and home life is a primary reason for remote fatigue or burnout. “If you’re working from home, especially for 18 months, work can seep into all corners of your life,” said Laura Pendergrass, Ph.D., an industrial psychologist. “People were fatigued at the beginning of the lockdown, but it’s even more tiring to concentrate on work when the world still feels like it’s off the rails 18 months later.”

People were fatigued at the beginning of the lockdown, but it’s even more tiring to concentrate on work when the world still feels like it’s off the rails 18 months later.

Laura Pendergrass, Ph.D.

Social hindrance

Another aspect contributing to remote fatigue is the lack of social interaction. Offices have been a cultural focal point for companies and an attractive reason for workers to join or stay. When asked what was missed most about working in the office, 81.4 percent said informal chats with colleagues. Informal chitchat doesn’t happen on Zoom calls, there’s an agenda and people stick to it. However, those casual conversations are important for building relationships, and without informal and creative collisions, the probability of cross-department conversations drops dramatically. Microsoft reports cross-functional collaboration has gone down by 25 percent since the move to mostly remote work.

Have we reached an inflection point for remote work? The reasons working from home was originally attractive are now its problems. Workers no longer want to go to an office just to work, that can happen anywhere with a quality internet connection. The office today is a tool to fix the problems of remote or hybrid work.

High energy, high tech

The office gives guardrails for an optimal work experience. With locked doors and building policies, employees are given hard starts and stops to the workday. Collaborative spaces create an environment for collisions and informal discussions that build relationships. Small, quiet spaces offer a distraction-free place for focus work and a break from other duties like dishes, laundry, and family. The value of offices is much more than the layout of or furnishes in their physical environment, though.

Depending on who you ask, the right recipe for a culture-rich office can look very different. JLL recommends that offices need to merge the boundaries between social life and work life while harnessing the intersection between the emotional, physical and virtual dimensions. Companies like E&Y are designing Zoom Rooms so those working remote can work more seamlessly with those in the office. Other unique ideas like those incorporated by Google include robots that create balloon walls to censor private conversations. Having technology doesn’t mean it checks the culture box, though; “Technology is wonderful… but [companies] still recognize that having a space that people come to, where they can still collaborate, that is important,” explained Maja Paleka, founder and director of Juggle Strategies.

Gartner recently suggested companies move from a location-centric culture to a human-centered culture but offices can do both, create a culture based on their location and built from what people want. An environment giving people what they need to be productive while also assisting them in a balanced life, offices cannot be replaced by any alternative. Metaverses cannot duplicate the office environment and remote work, as discussed, leaves much to be desired. “When people start coming back for the first time and you run into them in a corridor, they literally light up with enthusiasm because they haven’t seen many people, they’re now working with colleagues they’ve never met in person before,” described Paul Hudson, Sanofi CEO. “It’s really fascinating to see how quickly the energy comes back, and indeed what that brings to them. So, it’s intangible… a little bit magical, too.”

Offices will be in high demand if they can offer employees the best parts of remote work while avoiding elements causing remote fatigue. Tenant experience platforms that bring people together in a flexible and high-tech workplace are crucial for the success of the office. What people want out of an office continues to evolve but, by looking at existing data and keeping in touch with people, offices can answer the cries of employees wanting to be seen more than just the neck up. The sweat pants will have to go but the perks of being in an office are worth it.

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