Will working from home remain the norm after lockdown?

Prof. Dr. Laura den Dulk is Professor of Public Administration, she conducts research into the balance between work and private life. During a study at three public organisations on flexible working including homeworking, the corona crisis broke out and everyone was forced to stay at home. She discusses with the HR policy adviser on ‘blended working’, Michelle Verheij, the pros and cons of working from home and how things will continue after corona.

Laura den Dulk, what do you see in the most recent research on working from home?

Laura den Dulk: "We are still working on it, but I can say something about the initial results. First of all, we see that inequality and differences between groups of people increase during the corona crisis.

We’ve asked people in a study: how satisfied are you with your work-life balance compared to before the lockdown? One third of the participants was more satisfied, one third was as satisfied as before, and one third was less satisfied. If one third of the people is less satisfied, that's quite a lot. A disturbed work-life balance has negative consequences for one’s well-being and health. 

It was sometimes due to circumstances: for example, giving home education to young children next to work. On the other hand, the more satisfied group also included people with young children, who liked to spend more time with their families. Something else that people find difficult about working completely from home is finding a new time routine and managing the boundaries between work and private life. When do you start working, and when do you stop? Do you turn off your computer at six o'clock? During a lockdown, a lot of social activities drop out, if the computer is always turned on, it is difficult to let go of work".

Late April, Erasmus University Rotterdam surveyed students and members of staff to find out how they are coping with studying and working from home, the conclusion was that pressure and stress seem to be even higher than before. What would you like to add to this conclusion?

LdD: "I haven't done any research into that myself. I can only speak from my own experience. I have my own office at home, that's nice, for me the difference is not that big. My research shows that having a separate office is one of the factors that have a significant effect. If you work in the same room where you relax, the boundary between working and relaxing fades. Another negative factor that has increased during working from home is work pressure. My impression is that for both support staff and academic staff the workload has increased, because it takes a lot of effort to provide good hybrid education".

"If you work in the same space where you relax, the boundary between working and relaxing fades"

Michelle Verheij: "It also differs depending on your home situation. People who live alone, in a small apartment, can go crazy working at home for five days. I myself don't have a separate room in the house. And my partner teaches piano in the room next door, sometimes via zoom, which makes our internet connection slow. I would rather work at the office.

We've seen that if you don't have your own office, you can also create a kind of pop-up workspace for yourself. A place that you build up in the morning and build down again in the evening, so that it looks less like the living room where you are for your relaxation".

Michelle Verheij, you went to see Prof. Dr. Laura den Dulk because you wanted to see if flexibility in work time and work location can be integrated for EUR employees. With what we now know, is that desirable?

MV: "As Laura den Dulk's research shows, it is a double-edged sword. Flexibility can have many advantages, but there are also major risks involved. One of these risks is, as Laura called it, that work and private life overlap too much. Then you get that people can't let go of their work and can't recharge in their spare time. It is very important to continue the dialogue and discussion on this issue, so that you see the benefits above all".

Is the problem of working from home rather that people don't work hard enough, or that they work too hard when there is no longer a boundary between work and private life?

LdD: "The risk is that people prolong their work hours at home. As an organization you have to indicate clearly when it is good enough. And make sure that people have enough free time to recharge".

MV: "A manager can set a good example by for example not sending emails in the evening at eight o'clock, or at the weekend. By doing so they might unconsciously send the message: it's normal to still be at work".

Will working from home remain the norm, or will we all be back at the office one day?

LdD: "I do think we are in the process of learning skills on working from home that we can continue to use. Some administrative tasks can be done very well and even faster at home, for some people the threshold to work from home once in a while will now be lower".

MV: "We have also been able to see what we miss when we work from home only. For example, the interaction on the work floor. A meeting where you enjoy each other's energy, get new ideas by sparring at the coffee machine. Working 100 percent from home will not happen. But you can ask yourself what the function of an office will be in the future. Should it be a place where everyone has a fixed place to work, or more of a place with flexible opportunities to get together"?  

LdD: "In my research, people say: I won't go halfway across the country for a meeting if we can also call by video. That's a real gain. If you give people autonomy, and they can decide what suits their own situation and needs, this can lead to a better work-life balance, which in turn contributes to better performance at work and a lower work pressure".

More information

• “Everybody who works for Erasmus University should be able to get the best out of themselves”. Read here the interview with Dr. Roos Schelvis about work pressure.
• Prof. Dr. Arnold Bakker researches the working conditions that make people very stressed, and the conditions that give them pleasure.
• For EUR employees there is a platform about working from home.

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