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To make WFH work, keep the cameras on

Workers need to employ identity transition rituals and must also try to maximize eye contact in online meetings

Photo: iStockPremium
Photo: iStock

Facebook founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg believes that Work From Home (WFH) is the future of work. He expects about half of Facebook’s employees to be fully remote within the next decade. But, on the other hand, companies such as JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs are reverting to the tried-and-tested office work environment. Goldman’s chief David Solomon called working from home an “aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible." And JPMorgan chief Jamie Dimon had this to say about exclusively remote work: “It doesn’t work for those who want to hustle. It doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation. It doesn’t work for [corporate] culture."

It is also pertinent to look at the points of view of employees on WFH. A study by Jose Maria Barrero of the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology, Bloom and Chicago Booth’s Steven J. Davis found that nearly six of every 10 workers reported being more productive working from home, compared with just 14% who said they got less done. The researchers argue that the work-from-home trend is here to stay, and they calculate that these arrangements will increase overall worker productivity in the US by 5% as compared with the pre-pandemic economy.

But another study, ‘Impacts of Working From Home During COVID-19 Pandemic on Physical and Mental Well-Being of Office Workstation Users’, by Yijing Xiao and others published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine had a very different take on the effectiveness of WFH. The study found that while working from home, individuals found themselves surrounded by other people (such as partners, children and parents) who were carrying out different activities in the very same house at the very same time. Along with reduced communication with co-workers, other distractions while working and adjusted work hours, that created noteworthy repercussions on both the physical and mental health of remote workers. Another study by the American Psychiatric Association had findings in the same direction. This study found that the majority of employees working from home, more so females workers, say they had experienced negative mental health impacts, including isolation, loneliness and difficulty getting away from work at the end of the day.

What’s the main cause of this mental distress? We all have multiple identities. Each of our identities surfaces on the basis of the context we are in. Before the pandemic, people were used to living in their homes (normally reserved for private life) and going to workplaces for work. Apart from exceptional cases, these places were kept separate from each other. One of the main stressors of WFH is that one is forced to don two distinct identities, the home identity and work identity, both in one place, causing many a traumatic clash of these identities.

Individuals have traditionally had physical and mental rituals while leaving home for work. These rituals facilitated a smooth transition from one identity to another. So one practical suggestion is to create a healthy form of estrangement from the home environment while still working at home. The WFH employee’s home needs to become ‘less of a home’ and ‘more of an office’ to re-establish physically and mentally healthy work-versus-home psycho-social boundaries. At the same time, WFH cannot be a cut-paste of a 9-to-5 work schedule onto a home environment. Companies have to clearly define the time of day when an employee is expected to adopt a work identity and interact with work colleagues and when that individual is free to return to his or her home identity.

One’s dress has always played a significant role in defining one’s identity, both for the wearer and someone interacting with the wearer. In normal circumstances, what one wears at home does not complement one’s work identity. Earlier, changing into work attire and commuting to office were daily rituals that helped a person effectively transition from one’s home identity to one’s work identity. Today, those working from home must not ignore the importance of these rituals that go with transiting from one identity to another.

When one is dressed for work, it also provides another advantage. One of the reasons often given for not switching on one’s camera during online meetings is that employees are not comfortable putting their personal territory on display to office colleagues. Online apps solved this by introducing artificial backgrounds that could cover up the actual home space. But still, many employees are reluctant to switch on their cameras because many are in their home-identity attires. Once employees transition to a work-identity attire, however, this reluctance to switch on cameras should reduce.

For millions of years, humans worked best with visual inputs. So more than 90% of the brain’s processing capacity is kept aside for processing of visual stimuli. So it is not surprising that eye contact is a primary signal of human connectivity. Behind switched off cameras, this ability to forge relationships of trust with others is handicapped by WFH. It is a major drag on the effectiveness of work meetings. So if WFH has to be a successful way of doing business, cameras can’t remain switched off during online meetings.

In a 2021 survey, 75% of US employees reported a personal preference for working from home at least one day a week, and 40% indicated they would quit a job that required full-time in-person work. Yet, to make these intentions work out well, those planning to work from home should make some crucial behavioural changes.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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Updated: 14 Jul 2022, 12:40 AM IST
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