(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The banging comes first, followed by the screaming. I could try to blot out the noise and carry on, but proximity to family is supposed to be one of the benefits of working from home. My one-year-old son knows there’s a computer keyboard on the other side of the door that needs a merry bashing with his tiny fists. I relent, as always, steering him toward an old desktop rather than my work laptop. He soon tires, and toddles off in search of fresh excitement.
Like hundreds of other employees in Bloomberg’s Hong Kong bureau, I have been working from home for the past several weeks. How long exactly is hard to say, without checking. With no clear separation between the home and work, the hours and days blur into each other. There’s a constant sense of extended hiatus. Like the residents of Casablanca, we are waiting, waiting for that plane (or subway, rather) out of here and back to the office.
For futurists, the business disruption wrought by the coronavirus is a dream come true. In 2014, a study by researchers at Stanford University challenged the notion that employees permitted to work from home might spend their time eating popcorn on the sofa and watching Netflix. On the contrary, they found that home working led to a 13% performance increase, while employees who volunteered for the nine-month trial reported improved work satisfaction and their attrition rate halved. The company in that case study, perhaps prophetically, was Chinese: Ctrip (now known as Trip.com Group Ltd.), a Shanghai-based and Nasdaq-listed travel agency then with 16,000 employees.
Now the global spread of the coronavirus offers a far larger and wider natural experiment in the technical, logistical and human challenges of having large numbers of people work remotely. Companies from Twitter Inc. and HSBC Holdings Plc to Dentsu Group Inc. have advised, encouraged or required at least some staff to work from home. How well businesses function under these conditions could have a lasting impact on our approach to work.
For me, the technical hurdles have been insignificant — trivial, to use a word beloved of techies — and nothing that Bloomberg’s technical support team couldn’t sort out relatively quickly. I have found the principal challenges to be physical and psychological.
Hunching over a small laptop screen for a full 10-hour working day, for days on end, is an entirely different proposition than occasionally doing a bit of work from home on an evening or a weekend. After a while, I start to feel aches and pains in my neck and back. I didn’t fully appreciate how seamless and ergonomic my office set-up was until now.
The most obvious solution would be to buy a standalone monitor and keyboard. So far, I have resisted this step, hoping that this will finally be the week that we get the call to return to the office. To invest in hardware would be to accept the semi-permanence of the situation. It would feel a little like buying a house in Casablanca.
So instead I take frequent breaks and remind myself to pay attention to my posture, lest I end up like another foreign journalist I know, who told me he’d ended up partially paralyzed after spending two years covering a major story on a laptop from a hotel room in Shanghai. In 2006, while based in Shanghai, I started taking lessons in the Alexander Technique after an episode of severe back pain. I credit that training in body consciousness with keeping me free from any serious problems since then. Would I be in worse shape now without that awareness? Quite possibly.
The size of Hong Kong apartments compounds the physical and mental challenges. Working at home, I tend to move less than I would in the office, where the trip to the coffee machine or the meeting room requires a journey of at least a few hundred meters. My apartment is bigger than average, at just under 800 square feet (74 square meters), but it takes me only a few seconds to walk from one end to the other.
There have been days at a time when I haven’t gone out, having no desire to expose myself to any more risk of infection than necessary. This has left me feeling a little detached and fuzzy on occasion.
I’ve realized how much I relied on the daily, small social contacts the office provided. Journalists can be strange animals: often lone wolves, whose job is nevertheless to insert themselves into the affairs of other people. Maybe we need that contact more than many of us would readily admit. While our team holds a video conference call every morning, my gut feeling is that working from home isn’t good for team building. There is no substitute for face-to-face contact, though how much is necessary is an elastic question.
One friend at a bank in Hong Kong is working alternate days in the office. That’s a neat way of thinning out the number of desk-based employees and cutting down the risk of infection. Perhaps that could become a permanent model for some companies. I could be persuaded.
Now, the good news: just as I was finishing up this column, we got word that we should be able to return to the office next week. And if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my popcorn. Casablanca’s on, and I always did love that film.
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Matthew Brooker is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. He previously was a columnist, editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News. Before joining Bloomberg, he worked for the South China Morning Post. He is a CFA charterholder.
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