Obit for the office is being written, but may be premature

Home is where the job is: How COVID-19 is changing the workplace

While office presence used to be largely mandatory, the coronavirus has proved that working remotely from home is very feasible. Is the trend good or bad, and is it here to stay?

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Working mom with baby in a lap (StockRocket; iStock by Getty Images)
Working mom with baby in a lap (StockRocket; iStock by Getty Images)

Amid all the health and economic havoc caused by the global coronavirus pandemic, one development has emerged loud and clear: as far as working from home goes, the genie is out of the bottle.

“There is no looking back,” said Eden Shochat, the co-founder of the Tel Aviv-based Aleph venture capital firm. “The world has changed.”

In fact, the coronavirus has “fast-forwarded us to the future” of the workplace, hastening a process that otherwise would have taken five to 10 years, said psychologist Eldad Rom, who provides coaching and consultancy services for founders of startups set up and backed by the Team8 group.

Whereas once the only option was to go in to the office, where a desk, a computer and data on an onsite server were waiting, in the past 10 years the internet and the laptop have made it possible to work just about anywhere, including the beach and the local café.

Many tech firms were already allowing some employees to work from home even before the coronavirus pandemic struck. But has the exception now become the rule?

Illustrative image of a father working from home with little daughter drawing during COVID-19 lockdown (Silvia Cozzi; iStock by Getty Images)

“The coronavirus has sent out this huge memo to the world saying hey, you have been able to do this for the past 10 years but now you have got to decide why you work from home or the office,” said Benjy Singer, general manager of co-working space provider WeWork Israel. “No company can exist just in the office and no company can exist just at home. That whole thing about how people work is going to change immensely. ”

If working from home is here to stay, what’s the price tag that comes with it? Will it empower marginalized workers or hurt them?

Juggling children and chores with conference calls, will workers be as productive at home as in the office? How will the need for companionship be met, with offices often the linchpin of a social life?

And on the other side of the coin: whereas recent corporate culture, especially in the tech world, has been leaning recently toward open space offices full of bells and whistles to keep workers contentedly in the office, will we now see firms shrinking or abandoning their office spaces in favor of work from home policies? Will that affect how offices are designed?

In May, Twitter notified employees that they will be able to continue working from home “forever” as they see fit. The Royal Bank of Scotland told some 50,000 of its staff that they will continue to work from home until at least 2021. Nasdaq-listed tech firm LivePerson Inc. said it plans to shut down all of its 17 offices around the world and have all employees work from home. On July 27, the Wall Street Journal said that Google plans to keep its workers home until summer 2021.

Check Point CEO Gil Shwed (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Offices are part of the past,” LivePerson’s CEO Robert LoCascio said in an interview with the financial website Calcalist.

Gil Shwed, the founder and CEO of cybersecurity firm Check Point Technologies Ltd., said on July 22 as he presented second quarter results that the firm was planning to cut down on its office space in Israel, in light of an internal company survey showing that 55% of employees want a hybrid of working from home and the office, but prefer their home to be their main workplace. The company employs 2,400 people in Israel out of a total of 5,400 workers.

As with all changes, this development has both good and bad angles, and this article will attempt to set forth the dilemmas, costs and potential perks of a shift toward working from home.

First, some data. An Israel Democracy Institute study shows that before the coronavirus, 95% of salaried workers in Israel did not have the option of working from home. According to the data, 4.1% of Israelis worked from home, compared to 8.3% of employees in the European Union.

In an IDI survey held at the end of March through the beginning of April 2020, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, 58% of salaried workers said they were working solely or partially from home. Thirty-two percent of men said they were working from home, compared to 28% of women. Some 60% of self-employed people were found to be working from home, as opposed to just 30% of salaried workers.

Illustrative image of a mother working from home (dragana991; iStock by Getty Images)

There are many advantages to working from home, according to studies cited in the IDI report: these include more satisfaction reported by both workers and their employers, more leisure time and a more fulfilling work-life balance for employees as working from home provided greater flexibility.

Several international studies have shown that working from home can also boost productivity, the IDI report said. A US study showed a 4.4% productivity jump among patent examiners working from home. A Chinese study showed a 13% boost in the performance of call center workers who worked from home, and a rise of over 20% in the company’s overall productivity. Employees also reported less burnout and more satisfaction, while a US field study showed that workers were even willing to forgo 8% of their salary in exchange for the possibility of working from home.

Working from home also reduces travel time and water-cooler chats, and could cut down on traffic and pollution as well.

Moran Melamoud, a senior HR business partner and compensation and benefits manager at SAP, said in an interview that well-implemented flexible work can lead to increased employee engagement, employee satisfaction and productivity, and accordingly profitability.

Flexible working patterns also help increase the “ability to attract and retain talent,” she said. “SAP recognizes that diversity, not only regarding our employees but also their working schedules and life-phases, is an essential component of a healthy and productive working environment.”

Working from home can also allow companies to tap into workers in more remote geographical areas, widening the pool of talent and  allowing both companies and workers to locate themselves in areas where real estate prices and taxation are lower.

Eden Shochat, Aleph venture capital fund (Courtesy)

“Think about tech inclusion once you know that this super talent from [the northern town of] Carmiel can work with the same efficiency as someone you hire in Tel Aviv,” Aleph’s Shochat said. “That is huge.”

The work from home trend could also lead to more women applying for higher-salary jobs, as it could allow them to better juggle career and childcare, contributing to a reduction in the wage gap with men, according to Liora Bowers, the author of a report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel that dealt with the impact of the pandemic on women in the labor market.

There are, however, challenges. These include the fact that working from home could lead to workers feeling less engaged with the company and more distant and disconnected; there may be a blurring of boundaries between home and work, and workspaces from home are not always conducive to the highest level of productivity. Creativity generated from the exchange of ideas and brainstorming could also be weakened.

Eyal Waldman, left, founder and CEO of Mellanox, and Jensen Huang, the founder and CEO of Nvidia Corp., at a press conference in Yokne’am, Israel, on March 25, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

“It is not the end of the world” for teams that have worked together for years to spend a month or more working from home, said Eyal Waldman, the founder and CEO of Mellanox Technologies Ltd., in an interview. US tech giant Nvidia recently acquired the firm for $7 billion.

“But when you are recruiting new people into the office, or introducing new ideas and debating how things should be done, then it is better to do it face to face at the same place and in the same office,” he said. “Interaction is creative, people understand each other better and there is a mood of creativity… It is much more productive to work from the office.”

“If you are looking to build a company in the long term, or teams for the long term, it is better to have interaction,” he said. “Mellanox works in 34 countries… with emails, video conferencing, and phone calls. We know how to work from a distance, but there is a significance to working together in one place.”

Team8’s Rom said that since the start of the pandemic and as people have been working from home, managers have  been reporting that they see collaboration between departments and teams being impaired.

Team8’s Eldad Rom (Scott Wagner)

Many founders have mentioned “they felt that there is less innovation in the companies since the coronavirus pandemic started, because you cannot actually conduct a deep dive conversation and discussion and brainstorm via the Zoom platform,” he said. “The collaboration between the teams and departments has suffered a lot since the coronavirus started.” Zoom is a videoconferencing technology.

“Deep managerial processes,” like mentoring workers or promoting them on a professional level, can also stall as people work from home, Rom warned, and engagement of workers with the organization could be impaired.

“Coming to the office day in and day out does provide a sense of belonging,” he said. “It is very hard for managers to promote mental and emotional engagement once employees are not at the organization.”

Check Point’s Shwed said that if until recently productivity of an employee had been measured by the number of hours logged in at the office, companies will now have to reassess and define new tools to measure productivity at home.

“How do you measure productivity when you are at home? Is it hours, is it the level of work that you produce?” Shwed asked in a video conference in May.

All work from home makes Jack a dull boy?

Working from home could also negatively impact people’s level of happiness as social beings.

“We can provide conditions for employees to be productive,” said Team8’s Rom. But “we cannot provide them with conditions that will make them happy and engaged in a social aspect. This is a challenge that is yet to be met.”

Many people come to work to fulfill not only their professional needs but also their social needs.

“They want to be social; they want to talk with people, think and meet together, do things together with co-workers, Rom added. “While working from home we cannot actually fulfill this need. And this is a challenge that is yet to see how it can be solved.”

So, in the absence of this social interaction, what will happen?

“We are just going to have to look for different alternatives to fulfill these needs.”Rom said.

WeWork Israel’s Benjy Singer (Courtesy)

Creating an efficient and comfortable working environment is one of the main challenges people face while working from home, including being able to work without distractions.

The IDI study shows that more workers without children said they were able to work efficiently from home than did workers with children. Among workers without children, 55% said that they were able, to “a large or fairly large degree,” to carry out their work at home as efficiently as in the workplace, compared with 35% of workers with children.

In total, 40% of respondents who worked from home said that they were able, “to a large or fairly large degree,” to carry out their work at home as efficiently as they did at the workplace. Among salaried workers, 42% said this was the case “to a large or fairly large degree,” 28% “to a moderate degree,” and 15% to a “fairly small or very small degree.”

Most people “are not set up for working from home,” WeWork’s Singer said in the interview. “You see kids flapping all over the place and meetings are in people’s living rooms and kitchens. We need solutions for this.”

Before the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, “there was a huge consolidation of workplaces,” Singer said. “Companies that had multiple locations, also in Israel, said we want to get everyone in one place.”

The office as we know it is going to change, he said. “Now, we are already starting to see that people want to have a dispersed workforce.”

A WeWork Israel facility (Shiran Carmel)

“Companies are going to say we don’t want to sign long-term leases — there may be another COVID or another something: why would I want to take another long-term commitment if I could just take an office for the short term and be more flexible about the future of my company,” Singer said. This could point them toward flexible office space — for example for a few days a week, with other firms using the space on other days.

With all the advantages of working from home, people will still want to work physically next to each other, he said.

“I don’t think people are culturally or socially capable of distancing themselves from people,” Singer said. “It is against human nature.”

In Israel, he said, people generally have a lot of social life outside the office, but in the US “for a lot of people their whole social existence is their work, their office. That is where their relationships are, where they find meaning. You can’t take that away from people. The importance of going to the office is going to be even more important.”

And so, Singer said, as time goes by, the working-from-home trend could soon become a working-close-to-home trend — with joint co-working spaces getting a likely boost as workers choose to work in a hub close to their home, rather than their kitchen or living room.

“If your office was across the street, you’d work from the office. You’d go back and forth whenever you want. You are only working from home because it takes you so long to get to office, it is not worth it,” Singer said.

Interior of the SAP building in Ra’anana, designed by Yashar Architects Ltd. (Courtesy Uzi Porat)

Office buildings are also likely to change. Whereas before the virus a key trend was sharing — office-sharing, bike-sharing, transport- and apartment-sharing — “the new trend that is emerging from this crisis is that of anti-sharing,” said Tel Aviv based-architect Avner Yashar, who is behind the design of SAP’s new headquarters in Ra’anana and Apple’s R&D center in Herzliya, the US giant’s second-largest center in the world.

SAP inaugurated its new headquarters in 2017 — a striking building with bubble-like shapes marking its exterior that can be seen gleaming in the light from the highway. The structure has joint seating spaces peppered with couches, private rooms, a gym, cafeterias, a patio with seating and lobbies that connect the various spaces.

The atrium of the SAP building in Ra’anana by Yashar Architects Ltd. (Courtesy Uzi Porat)

There are currently “no plans in place to change” the headquarters, said SAP’s Melamoud. “We are focusing on making the building and common spaces more sterile and overall, a safer place for our employees to come to work in.”

All of these office space designs — created for the tech world but having spilled over to other industries as well — promote interaction not via formal meetings but through joint space so people of different teams and on different projects can bump into each other, chat, exchange ideas and find solutions together.

But that trend may well be reversed.

“It is clear that the impact of coronavirus pandemic will stay with us for a while, and is affecting the way we live, for all of us,” said Yashar the architect. “It is difficult to predict what will be. But the virus has spurred a new period.”

His office is currently working on a number of office space projects and the final specifications of these spaces still need to be determined. “Will they want smaller workspaces instead of wide open spaces and central air-conditioning where external windows cannot open?” Yashar asked.

“We need to keep all options open,” he added. “When there is such a global event, there has to be an effect and we are seeing it gradually. We are inside the event now, and it is not over. In a month we may be wiser.”

Avner Yashar, owner of Yashar Architects Ltd., at his Tel Aviv office, Ocober. 2, 2017 (Shoshanna Solomon/ Times of Israel)

Surveys conducted in Israel and around the world have shown that those who are most able to reap the benefits of working from home are those with higher income and academic qualifications. Largely, those employed in lower-paid work — waiters, cleaners, salespeople — cannot benefit from this trend, the IDI report said.

This, along with the other challenges associated with working from home, such as access to an efficient workspace, may in fact broaden social and economic gaps rather than narrow them, the IDI paper said.

“It is the government’s responsibility — both as the country’s largest employer and as the driver of its socioeconomic policy — to ensure that increasing the number of those working from home does not generate greater inequality,” the report said.

“This must be done by ensuring a proper working environment, internet connectivity for all the residents, including those living in far places and disadvantaged groups; and providing good conditions for every employee working from home.”

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