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Out-of-Office Work Has Its Downsides; Let's Talk About Them

The WorkSpace Connect newsletter has often referenced the benefits to hybrid work, namely workers' reporting better work-life balance and higher engagement. But hybrid or remote work has its drawbacks, and as we head into our fifth summer of the hybrid work as a mainstream option, it's fair to look at how some of those downsides have persisted.

In 2021, Microsoft Research found that a few work habits had already shifted significantly: while people were more productive in the short term, they were also working longer hours. And collaboration habits had shifted in ways that were going to make more rewarding long-term creative collaboration tough. Since the zip of being fully engaged in one's work is a big indicator of employee engagement, seeing those opportunities shrink while hours on the job increased was a recipe for worker discontent.

There's also a burnout element to working remotely or working from home. As I once snarked to a colleague, "I never escape my to-do list." Not having clear boundaries between work and home has led to the same hours-lengthening phenomenon researchers have clocked; a lesser-studied side effect (at least on this end) has been how my idea of "taking a break" after finishing a work task may include doing a load of laundry -- so it's not difficult for twelve hours to go by in a blur of cloud-based tasks and spin cycles and still feel like my to-do list only grew.

According to Roxanne Calder's Fast Company article this week, "Hybrid Work needs a performance review," what I'm feeling is normal:

We underestimated the appropriate tools, structure, and, yes, discipline to support successful hybrid working. Juggling working patterns between office and home and adjusting hours, even if only slightly, makes routine hard to establish. It takes its toll emotionally and psychologically. And the statistics show this.

Burnout is becoming more prevalent, not less: 77% of workers are experiencing burnout at their current job, and over 50% cite more than one occurrence. For further clarity, 86% of remote workers are experiencing burnout, 70% of in-person workers report the same feelings, and hybrid workers sit somewhere in the middle at about 81%.

The switch-off button afforded when leaving the office is lost when your office is your kitchen or lounge room. The trip home after work, justified by “saving time and money,” seems to have served a valuable purpose. The routine and discipline of established daily rituals switch us on and equally assist with switching us off.

Companies that make -- or use -- employee experience platforms have included mindfulness features like reminders to stretch, eat, and meditate, or scheduling tools that keep you from stressing everyone else out by sending them emails outside working hours. However, digital tools can only go so far; it doesn't matter if your EX platform is telling you to stretch when the habits a worker really need to work on are around good boundary establishment or maintenance.

Even as I write this, I can hear my washing machine's spin cycle going. Workspace designers and workplace strategists have done a lot of work to figure out how to optimize working spaces for people who leave their homes. Perhaps the next great frontier in workplace design and employee experience will be developing the self-managerial practices and workplace design that lets us keeping working at home without losing the benefits.