What will work-life balance look like after the pandemic?

Emma Deriu

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Coronavirus has forced us to hit reset on our lives. We’re rethinking how we spend our days, what’s working and what isn’t.

And, according to recent research, most of us aren’t prepared to revisit long commutes, rigid working hours and other office-related stressors, even once the pandemic is over.

But is our ‘new normal’ here to stay?

Defining work-life balance

Work-life balance is the ability to harmonise different aspects of our lives, both personal and professional. Working long hours can wreak havoc on our health and wellbeing while increasing stress (which isn’t great for work performance either).

Striking the right balance is key to living well and getting our best work done. But for years workers have debated the ideal way to achieve work-life balance, and only now has the pandemic shed new light on what’s working in the office and what's likely to change.

How has working from home influenced us?

Suddenly we have more time on our hands, more flexibility in how we structure our day, more money that would have been spent on commuting… How many things were we doing for the sake of filling time, getting from A-B, keeping up with the world around us?

Studies have found that since heading indoors—and for over a third of Australians working remotely—we’re sleeping more and stressing less. For many, remote working has led to more flexible working hours. Night owls are no longer held to standard 9am starts, and we can restructure our calendars to suit lifestyle preferences and natural sleep cycles.

As a result, we’re more energised, less moody and more productive. Not to mention, healthier. Sleep disturbances have been linked to a range of health issues—physical and psychological—affecting our cognitive functioning, immunity, mental health and risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke, along with a range of other illnesses.

Is remote working here to stay?

Despite the health and productivity benefits, flexibility stigma has held us back from remote working. Women don't want to be ‘mummy tracked’, those in lower paid jobs are worried about losing their income, and across the board, workers fear that asking for more flexibility will negatively impact how they’re perceived, their performance review and likelihood of getting a pay increase or promotion.

As a result, many have sacrificed their health and happiness, and employers have indirectly picked up the cost of that. But we’ve started the hard work: breaking down the psychodynamics and stigma around flexibility that have been comprising almost every aspect of our lives. Companies who were once resistant to change are now seeing the benefits of increased flexibility.

So what will the office actually look like when a vaccine is found?

Interestingly, a massive 81% of workers say that now, they won’t accept a role without the option of working flexibly. Considering most of us were working from the office everyday prior to the pandemic, that’s a striking statistic.

Even more striking is one study that found 99% of workers say that their preference is to continue working remotely for the rest of their careers, at least some of the time. And 95% of these workers are also recommending it to others they know.

According to WordPress and Tumblr chief executive Matt Mullenweg, “millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick… This might be a chance for a great reset in terms of how we work.”

Mullenweg’s company is already distributed, having seen the benefits of remote working long ago, and hopefully others will follow suit. “[it] might also offer an opportunity for many companies to finally build a culture that allows long-overdue work flexibility.”

Eastlake Studio principal Christina Brown adds “that sense of power over our own lives is a taste we won’t forget when we go back to the office. When we break down the barriers of social norms in the workplace, we start to see a lot more understanding. We’ve seen into each other’s homes; we’ve seen each other in our street clothes or with our hair undone. The trust we place in each other at those vulnerable moments gives us a better sense of empathy.”

Now that many employees have been trained and set up to work from home, we could see a more permanent shift to this style of working. Further, employers who want to seek top talent will no longer be restricted by location when hiring, and can access a much wider pool of talent.

But, it’s not sunshine and roses for everyone. While we’ve seen lots of positive changes to work-life balance since the pandemic began, we’ve also magnified pre-existing issues in a way that’s hard to ignore.

Many have referred to the economic crisis as a ‘she-cession’ given female unemployment has now hit 15%. We’ve seen male unemployment drop off too, but only by 6.2% compared with 8.1% for women.

According to associate professor, Alysia Blackham, who researches workplace discrimination at the Univerity of Melbourne, women are more likely to be hired on a contract or insecure basis with no paid annual leave or entitlements.

Given the current circumstances, looking for a job has become even more difficult for many women, who are not only facing a competitive job market but also looking after kids.

The other issue we can’t afford to ignore right now is mental health. Anxiety and depression have risen since the abrupt shift to remote working, and it can be hard even for the most introverted workers to stay healthy when cooped up indoors.

If we’re not careful, we’ll see rates of anxiety and depression continue to rise, so we need to do our part in regularly checking in with one another, making sure we’re still getting out and about, exercising and interacting, even if that’s via Zoom or over the phone.

The bottom line

Working remotely works, and it makes sense to embrace the capabilities our modern world has to offer.

Along with the benefits come new responsibilities, but when we get the balance right, we'll likely see the standard of working change in favour of flexibility. The office as we know it could soon become history.

Emma is our Senior Copywriter at Valiant. Working closely with our lending experts, she enjoys educating SMEs on the latest in business finance, and empowering them to achieve their entrepreneurial goals.

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