wriiten by Marcus Thornley, CEO at Totem

The famous saying “be careful what you wish for” might now feel incredibly relevant for people who’ve been forced to swap their fancy office swivel chairs and temperature-controlled offices for their humble kitchen tables.

For many before the pandemic, working from home was a benefit that workers wanted but very few got. While 2020 was the year everyone received the ‘privilege’ to work remotely, many are now unfortunately tired of this apparent benefit. As early as April 2020, we had noticed trends in our Totem product data that told us something was going wrong with remote working. While there was an initial spike in employee engagement as lockdown began, it quickly started dropping across the board. Despite this though, many of our customers were reporting increased productivity and outputs. What we’d later find out, was that while people’s work ethic stayed strong, their familiarity with others was being chipped away.

Working from home fatigue

While office workers found the novelty of working from home exciting and different – from the five-minute commute to being able to exercise during the day – many now long for a partial return to the office to rebuild those interpersonal relationships with their colleagues.

In a recent survey by the Financial Times, remote workers reported feeling “overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed.” One respondent, heartbreakingly, admitted that her “runs are an outlet not just for exercise but so that her kids do not see her cry.” The Telegraph recently revealed too that remote workers are on average working an extra two hours per day. With an increasingly burnt-out workforce, many leaders wondering how they can run a successful business, while also supporting their people as much as possible.

Closing the ‘familiarity gap’

One of the hidden costs of working from home has been the lack of familiarity between colleagues and issues around onboarding. Our research, The Hidden Impact of Hybrid Work, found that “without a sense of familiarity, anxiety when communicating increases whilst confidence and trust decreases.” This lack of physical presence leads to a loss of confidence not only from new people, who may already be feeling anxious about working with a new team, but also from those who have worked at a business for many years. This decrease in confidence and familiarity during lockdown has sparked concern within companies who believe the rise in remote working will lead to a fall in innovation and collaboration. As such, the Bank of England’s chief economist has warned that a decline in face-to-face interaction will destroy creative expression and innovation in the workplace.

So how can companies mitigate these impacts? With businesses acknowledging the issues of remote working, many are introducing new initiatives to counter these effects. Forward thinking companies have turned their attention to their benefit packages, with some companies contributing to household bills and offering home workspace grants. Others are focusing on using digital tools to address workplace loneliness and a lack of employee interactions.

One of the difficulties for HR teams, while their people have been working remotely, has been gauging morale among their workforce because of the lack of physical contact with them compared to pre-pandemic. Getting a clear indication of fluctuations in employee morale is vital, but businesses need to steer clear of releasing repetitive weekly surveys to measure this and instead look at other means of listening to their workforce.

To get a true representation of team morale at work, an ‘always-on’ approach is needed. Using AI and machine learning technology can allow HR departments and business leaders to see team morale at work in a holistic and honest way, reported through data insights in real-time. Totem, for instance, measures team morale through how people interact with others on the platform. Leaders can view fluctuations throughout a day or week to understand if they need to do more to improve team morale.

If workplace morale is shown to be low, HR leaders and line managers need to ensure they have adequate systems in place to help improve it. Whilst the world continues to work from home, it is important that businesses look to nurture team relationships. Scheduling daily ‘walks and talks’ or virtual coffee mornings are just a couple of examples of ways to increase familiarity amongst colleagues whilst working from home.

It’s also important for companies to use these insights to identify the moments that matter most to your people, whether that is the onboarding phase or leaving, and ensure these key moments are supported regardless of the person’s location.

With the end of lockdown on the horizon, a rise of hybrid working is inevitable.  The biggest influencer in transforming outcomes in an organisation is their willingness to adapt existing ways of working, and business and HR leaders need to ensure they are constantly listening to employees and are prepared to try new solutions to overcome obstacles created by flexible working.


By Lisa Baker, Senior Editor

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.