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It’s been over a year since our homes turned into offices, and today almost two-thirds of UK and U.S. employees are still working from home.

The mass remote working experiment brought about by the pandemic slowly but gradually turned into workers’ new reality. 

At first, it seemed like a dream come true, with a whopping 70% of employees in July expressing an interest to work remotely full-time.

Nearly a year down the line, 22% of employees WFH say it’s gotten worse for them. 

In the grand scheme of things this mightn’t seem like a significant number, but the factors behind WFH fatigue shouldn’t be ignored. 

Here, we use our Zeitgeist research in the UK and U.S. to debunk some of the common preconceptions around WFH and also show where remote working falls short when it comes to employee wellbeing.

This not only points employers to the issues their employees face, but should also inspire enterprise software companies to design solutions geared around some of the most pressing problems.

Flexibility

Expectation: employees will have greater flexibility than ever

Reality: less than half of WFH employees have worked more flexible hours

One of the key predictions for 2021 in our Connecting the dots report is that sticking to the 9-5 model of work will inevitably sap employee productivity, especially in a WFH setting. 

Unfortunately, for a large chunk of employees adhering to strict working hours is still a reality.

Our ongoing GWI Work research showed that while remote working is up, flexible working (for example, empowering workers to choose when they start and end their day) has only seen a very small increase between 2019 and 2020. 

What not many leaders realize is that juggling a strict 9-5 at home together with other responsibilities – like childcare, for example – has had a negative impact on employee wellbeing. 

In fact, our data shows that employees who say that WFH has become worse for them are much less likely to have worked flexible hours compared to those who say WFH has actually gotten better (37% vs. 50%).

These are revealing stats, because they speak to the fact that for many, WFH is still treated as an interim solution rather than a long-term reality. 

Remote work without flexibility equals burnout and cannot be maintained in the long run, especially during a pandemic. 

With 49% of employees expecting to continue to WFH in the future, safeguarding workers’ wellbeing should be a top priority for any employer.

Normalizing flexible working practices could be a first step in the right direction. 

The office

Expectation: the office will become redundant

Reality: fatigued workers are much more likely to want to return to the office

At the start of the pandemic there was talk of offices becoming redundant, with companies like Twitter announcing a fully remote workforce.

Productivity was high, with a third of those WFH in August going as far as to say that remote working was better for their productivity.

However, five months later in December 2020, workers across eight markets identified productivity as the biggest challenge they faced.

It’s unclear whether “panic productivity” was the driving force behind employee output, but what our data shows is that WFH is starting to take a toll on employee productivity and satisfaction.

Chart: office crucial for job satisfaction

When we asked workers what would help them feel more satisfied at work, a return to the office was one of the most prominent answers – especially among those saying WFH has gotten worse. 

Of those who experienced WFH getting worse, 36% claim returning to their workplace would make them happier, compared to 31% of those saying WFH has improved for them. 

This speaks to the value of the office in mitigating fatigue and supporting employee wellbeing.

Looking at the factors causing fatigue in the first place reveals the value of coming together in an office environment even further. 

Lack of social interaction is the top reason employees give for feeling worse over time – something we’ve identified as being closely linked to productivity as well.

In December last year, 23% of professionals said one of the biggest challenges of working from home is that they’re feeling less productive, rising to 43% among those who’re struggling with isolation.

It’s clear that the office remains a crucial part of a happy, collaborative, and connected workplace.

We’re already seeing leaders in the finance space like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan rejecting the plausibility of the long-term remote work model due to the nature of their business. 

Meanwhile, others in the tech space like Google are gravitating toward a hybrid model, tempting workers back to the office with privacy robots and balloon walls. 

This isn’t to say that a return to the office is the only solution to alleviating isolation. New software solutions can certainly play a role in fostering team building online. 

Captello, for example, announced the release of its Workplace product which allows HR and department managers to organize team activities and “office” parties in a fun and engaging way. 

Video calling

Expectation: who needs face-to-face when you have videoconferencing

Reality: there are strong links between WFH and Zoom fatigue 

Back in May last year, we asked consumers whether they agreed online interactions were just as real and valuable as face-to-face ones. 39% said they did, rising to 46% among those who said they don’t understand computers and new technology. 

Video calls, chats, and social media proved critical for keeping us sane, while transcending the boundaries of digital literacy. 

Similarly, in the workplace, our GWI Work research showed notable increases in the apps employees used, the emails they received, the meetings they had every day, as well as the projects they worked on. 

But it wasn’t long until digital overload started taking a toll on employee wellbeing.

Chart: zoom fatigue linked to WFH wellbeing

The chart paints a clear picture: although remote working might not have been possible without the technology we have today, these same tools directly contribute to WFH fatigue.

Fatigued employees are over twice as likely as those who’ve enjoyed WFH more to say they’d prefer to use videoconferencing tools less frequently (33% vs. 14%).

It looks like what was previously communicated via emails has now turned into calls. In fact, our GWI Work research shows that emails have somewhat lost relevance in the new workplace. 

The share of professionals saying email is an effective method of internal communication has decreased by 10 percentage points between 2019 and 2020. 

At the same time, the pool of people who typically have 3 or more meetings per day has increased from 34% to 40%.

The lack of face-to-face communication has been compensated by back-to-back meetings, which our data links to fatigue.

We’re already seeing companies like Google address the issue by introducing official ‘no meetings weeks’ which “create space for Googlers to either focus on independent work, or make it easier to switch off entirely and take a vacation”.

There’s plenty of opportunity for enterprise software businesses to help alleviate the digital overload employees feel. Microsoft, for example, made it possible for users to automatically start or end all meetings early to ensure a break in between.

Work-life boundaries

Expectation: there should be strong boundaries between work and personal life 

Reality: strict work/home boundaries can actually do more harm than good

We’ve been told repeatedly that we need to separate our personal lives from our professional lives to maintain balance. 

Before the pandemic merged the two, the office was key. It provided a clear physical distinction which allowed workers to better separate their work life from their personal life and “leave their problems at home”. 

Does this still ring true in today’s new working reality? It’s different for everyone.

Chart: WFH fatigue influenced by anxiety about personal finances

The figures speak for themselves – fatigued employees are much more likely than the average WFH professional to say COVID-19 has impacted their finances and their income has decreased during the pandemic. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean they struggle with remote working because of their personal situation, but it clearly points to a need for leaders to address personal issues and support employees in need now more than ever. 

Remote working has been one of the biggest paradoxes emerging from the pandemic. It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. 

On the one hand, it gave professionals more time with their family, with 54% citing this as the biggest benefit.

On the other hand, it stripped them of the much-needed social interactions that foster productivity and satisfaction in the workplace. 

The future of work will definitely vary from business to business, but one thing is clear – employee wellbeing should be a top priority for any employer.

WFH fatigue is real and while a partial return to the office will likely help, there are other ways leaders can support their employees:

  • Reduce meetings and encourage more socials
  • Provide greater flexibility and focus on results, not hours
  • Be there, talk to employees empathetically, and address their concerns
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