WFH, Zoom fatigue: The new normal at the workplace - Hindustan Times
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WFH, Zoom fatigue: The new normal at the workplace

ByDhamini Ratnam
Mar 01, 2021 06:15 AM IST

As 2020 progressed, several companies adopted a hybrid plan: a fraction of employees came to office while the rest worked from home; an alternative model saw employees working out of the office for at least a few days a week.

Most corporate offices may share a common workplace design — hotdesks, pods, meeting tables, and open seating — yet chief executive officers around the world diverge greatly on what constitutes the “new normal” for working professionals a year after the global pandemic began. Last month, Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon said at a press conference that remote work was “not the new normal, but an aberration”; meanwhile, social media companies Facebook and Twitter, and technology giants Microsoft and Tata Consultancy Services have already made remote work a permanent possibility in their organisations.

A person points on a tablet computer in Karlsruhe, Germany, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. The German government on Wednesday agreed on a strategy to boost the use of data for commercial purposes and signed a deal with state education authorities to fund laptops for teachers who have to work from home because of the virus lockdown. (Uli Deck/dpa via AP)(AP)
A person points on a tablet computer in Karlsruhe, Germany, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. The German government on Wednesday agreed on a strategy to boost the use of data for commercial purposes and signed a deal with state education authorities to fund laptops for teachers who have to work from home because of the virus lockdown. (Uli Deck/dpa via AP)(AP)

As 2020 progressed, several companies adopted a hybrid plan: a fraction of employees came to office while the rest worked from home; an alternative model saw employees working out of the office for at least a few days a week.

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Soon after lockdowns were announced around the world — in India, a 68-day lockdown began on March 25, 2020 — employees moved to a work from home (WFH) routine that caused ripples across industries. Furniture makers began to focus on special WFH lines and video conferencing applications made a lot more money than they ever did. Godrej Interio launched 30 new products in the WFH furniture range, Subodh Mehta, senior vice president (B2C) Godrej Interio said.

As more people began to work out of home, the use of digital tools saw an uptick. Video conferencing app makers, Zoom Video Communications, saw a dizzying 367% year-on-year jump in its third quarter posting a total revenue of $777.2 million. “Work from home has placed technology centre stage as we have been able to connect remotely, mostly seamlessly and flexibly. Yet Covid has also shown us that we miss the human connect, for which workplaces remain essential. Social distancing, especially during meetings, will become the norm,” author and columnist Aparna Piramal Raje said.

A study by Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, published a paper that studied the underlying cause of what is being billed as “Zoom fatigue” — based on an over-dependence on video conferencing apps. Some of the underlying causes Balienson found were related to the “non-verbal overload” of meetings conducted over video rather than in person, such as “excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze” and “increased self-evaluation from staring at a video of oneself”.

According to a global report released by American furniture firm Steelcase’s research division, at least 87% leaders of the companies surveyed in 10 countries, including India, said in September 2020 that they would allow more flexibility about where, when and how people work — in April, only 38% had allowed for this possibility.

The Steelcase report, which distilled responses of 32,000 respondents to a series of studies conducted between April and September, found that on an average over 41% people were dissatisfied with their working situation. In India, work-life balance, speed of decision making, and isolation were the biggest issues people working from home felt.

Aparna Khera, a 38-year-old producer in a television channel in Mumbai, worked from home for nine months before shoots resumed towards the end of 2020. The hardest part, she said, was the lack of fixed work hours. “The first 4-5 months were exceptionally challenging. The lockdown severely impacted our business, which meant we were also working much harder to get it back on track,” she said.

Architects have begun to rethink the open office workplace, applying design thinking to what remains a very real challenge of curbing the spread of an infectious virus in a closed-off air conditioned space.

And till that happens, there’s always the plexiglass sneeze guard that several companies with open floor office plans have installed, which serve to not only create physical barriers to prevent transmission of germ-carrying aerosols but also offer a visual reminder that there is indeed a new normal to reckon with.

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