Have we seen the end of office parties?

Exploring the pros and cons of permanent work from home.
In the wake of COVID-19, many people are suddenly finding themselves being a part of a worldwide work from home experiment where instead of rushing out the door and fighting traffic in the morning to get to the office, they simply turn on their laptops to work in the comfort of their homes, possibly in pyjamas.
Globally, many employers are contemplating the implementation of work from home as a permanent feature. Recently, Twitter employees were informed by their CEO Jack Dorsey that they could keep working from home indefinitely, even after COVID-19 lockdowns end.1 In Malaysia, work from home has also been offered as a permanent option for employees of Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB), as announced by the former president and chief executive officer Jalil Rasheed.2
While rolling out of bed and straight to work sounds like a dream come true for many, it is not without its struggles and drawbacks. The following are some of the reasons working from home could be a double-edged sword.
Not having to spend time on long, dreadful commutes anymore, employees presumably have more stress-free hours to dedicate towards productivity. However, the question of productivity is entirely dependent on which space provides them with more focus, be it at home or the office.
Some experience heightened productivity levels when they work alone in their homes, sans distractions such as inefficient meetings, office gossip, and the distractions that come with open office spaces. As great as it is to work from the comfort of our homes, distractions still appear, just in different forms. While in the office, the distractions may be a co-worker dropping by, the coffee service going by, or a loud printing machine, at home we are interrupted by household chores or the temptation to binge-watch the latest Netflix series. Productivity also nosedives when employees are juggling work alongside attention-seeking children or aged parents, and even more so if they lack a designated workspace. Shut doors often do not work against these interruptions as effectively as they do in the office.
Work-life balance
Working from home appears to put our pursuit of work-life balance to an end as it seems to be more attainable than ever. Working from home is especially useful for employees who have a variety of caregiving responsibilities – children, the elderly, the disabled, and even pets. Employees are able to spend the majority of their time with their families and attend to all their needs as working from home comes with the flexibility to structure the day however they want as long as deadlines are adhered to.
While some thrive on working from home, the lines between working hours and leisure time may be blurred for the rest. With a lack of delineation between work and personal time, it is all too convenient for employees to always be on the clock — or to feel a sense of guilt when they are not. As this is most likely the first time many employees are experiencing working from home, there will be struggles to establish healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives. To indicate their commitment and dedication, they may be reluctant to switch off and feel pressured to be available all the time. As afternoons descend into evenings and weekdays blend into weekends, employees have little to no time for themselves, causing mental health to spiral downward.
The lack of a commute saves a great deal of money too. Employees can save money when it comes to office attire and meals. However, there are costs associated with working from home, some of which are not always immediately anticipated. Examples include investing in an appropriate workspace with a desk and a comfortable chair, upgrading internet services, and purchasing office supplies, on top of increased consumption of everyday items such as electricity and food.
There is an obvious upside for employers in terms of costs. The sudden transition to work from home makes it possible for organisations to assess workforce needs and eliminate redundant personnel. There are savings in terms of office space and related overhead costs like utilities, office supplies, repairs, maintenance, parking, etc. By enabling employees to work from home, besides earning the coveted reputation as a flexible and welfare-oriented employer, organisations could be rewarded with increased employee satisfaction which in turn may result in better talent retention rates and reduced employee turnover. This allows organisations to reduce hidden costs that often come with attrition and recruitment.
Another exciting prospect for employers is the limitless possibility of tapping into the best talents in the country, or even the world, at a fraction of the usual cost considering geography becomes immaterial where work from home is concerned. For employees, especially for those in big cities, this could mean a substantial decrease in living expenses as moving out of the city becomes a viable option.
New rules, policies, and work systems
Investments in technology will be necessary to facilitate a seamless work from home experience. Along with it comes training and the implementation of new policies on work from home etiquette, data security, and performance management.
Employers have to ensure that each employee’s devices come with adequate encryption and security protections as working from home significantly increases the risk to confidential or sensitive information. Employees should be reminded to be aware that information displayed on their screens may not escape the inquisitive eyes of others. There is a need for employees to be trained in maintaining confidentiality.
There is a perception that employees working from home are not “really” working. In all honesty, there is a fair chance that some of the employees are doing anything but work as employers are deprived of opportunities to watch over their employees’ shoulders and catch them malingering. It is clear as day that the existing method of performance management needs to be revamped to focus on clear and data-driven output indicators. Vigilant employers may even dabble with the idea of installing monitoring software that tracks everything from employees’ online activities to keystroke logging. Although all these additional requirements may seem burdensome and costly to employers, this pandemic may be a wake-up call to most organisations to finally dispense with outdated policies and practices and to fully embrace the future of work.
Company culture and team spirit
Collaborating and getting in touch with team members is easier than ever. Options from the conventional WhatsApp to the more robust Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, Slack, etc. are available at everyone’s fingertips, and are evolving to cater to the demands of the home-working population. The emergence of various tech tools has enabled employees to communicate in real-time with both audio and visuals, which makes these tools an important alternative. However, they are just that – alternatives – as they may never match the value of face-to-face interactions. Whether it is for team building, motivation, encouragement, accountability, or mere inspiration, being in the same space matters.
On the other hand, working from home may hinder organisations from developing and improving their company culture, especially when it comes to new hires who have yet to be accustomed to the team and the work, let alone acclimated to the company’s culture. There could be an argument that working from home may be more suitable for senior employees, as interns and new graduates gain more value from work when they are in the same room with their managers, mentors, and colleagues. Valuable communication can get lost when working from home. As such, additional communications strategies have to be put in place to maintain a similar level of team cohesion and bond within the organisation as before.
Excelling at work from home 
Many employees can be successful when they are independent of direct supervision as they relish the flexibility and autonomy that comes with working from home. Thanks to their discipline, willpower, conducive home environment, and personal preferences, some people are just better suited to working from home. It is however undisputable that intense and deliberate planning is required to excel when working from home.
Having a designated place to work and being surrounded by people with the same objective in mind helps to keep employees on their toes and maintain their momentum throughout the workday. For most, working remotely without constant supervision requires a great deal of self-discipline, motivation, focus, and self-organisation. In fact, employees are required to be more responsive at all times to avoid the presumption that they are slacking off. Employees may compensate for the lack of direct personal communication by over-communicating with the team using emails, video calls, and chats.
Working from home also challenges employers to rethink employee assessment. Since many employers advocate a culture that rewards presenteeism, mere status reports updating what the employees had done for the day may fall short. As being the first in the office and the last to leave is still expected by many orthodox bosses, working from home, especially if by choice, may impact personal career growth. Support from peers, recognition from superiors depend on more than the quality of work churned out. Leadership, camaraderie, and ability to make and take office jokes are a big part of determining whether one is suited for a promotion. Many employees may fall into the classic case of “out of sight, out of mind” if they do not step up their game to gain more visibility and recognition while working from home.
As the COVID-19 pandemic forces millions to stay put in their homes, it is amazing to witness how business operations have overhauled. For the first time, many organisations are discovering and recognising that working from home is possible and is proving to be successful. There is a rush to make working from home more permanent, which is followed by the pursuit of employers towards maximised productivity and enhanced efficiency. Employees who are constantly connected in order to fulfil their employers' unrealistic expectations may risk burning out sooner compared to if they were working the conventional 9-to-5. On top of that, with no after-hours drinks, lunchtime banter, or office parties to make real connections; coupled with the absence of a firm handshake or a straight look in the eye, relationships falter. Despite the obvious perks of working from home, its success or downfall is highly dependent on the manner in which employers execute and structure their new work from home policies. The debate between working from home and office continues – is work from home here to stay? Or will it just take its place in history as a temporary side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic?
This article is contributed by Associate, Sareeka Balakrishnan.

1 Coronavirus: Twitter allows staff to work from home forever. 13 May 2020. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52628119 accessed 22 May 2020
2 Work-from-home now permanent option: PNB chief. 10 May 2020. New Straits Times. https://www.nst.com.my/business/2020/05/591382/work-home-now-permanent-option-pnb-chief accessed 22 May 2020