A variety of professional workplace environments is the way forward
The office is being redefined, putting unbearable pressure on employees already juggling work, family and other commitments, especially when prolonged travel is thrown into the mix. But recognising stress exists is not enough - business must act to make employees' lives more acceptable or face low morale and poor productivity.
A workforce under stress isn't new. In the last century the working population faced a range of challenges that changed society - from two world wars to the birth of the home computer.
But today's employees are under strain in ways our immediate predecessors could never have imagined.
Two decades of revolution in the way we live and work is putting the workforce under pressure that's untenable in the long term. The urgent need to deal with the impact is underlined in a report commissioned by Regus.
Written by workspace expert Ziona Strelitz, Liveable Lives alerts employers to the tensions people face when their workplaces are relocated, usually through office consolidation. Strelitz suggests viable ways to make staff happier and operations more productive.
Convergent change, mounting stress
Not since the first industrial revolution have so many changes to the nature of work and society converged at once to place so much pressure on people.
Technology has led to an increasingly mobile and remote global workforce. At the same time, we're facing a demographic time bomb. People are living longer after retirement and increasing their dependency on active adults, while the young continue their education and remain dependent on parents for much longer.
In Mexico City, Istanbul and Los Angeles young people make up around 26% of the population, while 19% of the populations of Tokyo, Shanghai and Berlin are over 65.
Stuck uncomfortably in the middle of all this is what Liveable Lives calls the ‘sandwich generation' - an increasing number of people responsible for the children below them and their elderly parents above.
And with more equality in the workforce, the care of young and old is putting unprecedented strain on workers struggling to have it all in a culture of ‘what we want' expectations.
Work is where you are but is it where you want it?
All this is driving change in the way business operates. Corporations continue to consolidate their real estate - closing branches to focus on large offices in one location as part of workplace strategies that cut overheads and introduce the flexible working options people demand.
This has had a detrimental effect on employees who have to travel across large conurbations to get to work - making them tired, irritable, unproductive and unable to achieve the work-life balance they crave.
In the City of London, one in five workers travels more than 40 kilometres to work, while in New York 47% of the workforce spends over 40 minutes travelling.
The panacea for everyone, especially in the knowledge industries, seemed to be homeworking. Digital technology has given us a wonderful means to break the link between time and place. You can work anywhere there's a table for your laptop and a link to the Internet. And that includes home.
Homeworking offers many benefits to both employer and employed, not least the chance to reduce workspace costs and travel time, to the environment's gain. It gives staff the chance to manage the conflict between work and family.
But working from home - continuously at least - is neither the be-all nor end-all that employees or their companies hoped for. It fails, for example, to offer the sociability an office provides, with resources on hand and access to brainstorming or mentoring with others.
Profiling the problem
The eight people profiled in the report show how difficult it is to mix childcare or care for the elderly/vulnerable and homeworking.
Some asked for homeworking; others were offered it; some were cornered into taking it. Whatever the reason for homeworking, stories illustrate the mental strain - isolation, loneliness, monotony and lack of energy - and the practical: some homes are physically constrained or used by other family members.
At the heart of many people's struggle to align work and home arrangements is the global scale of modern cities.
In the report's examples, one person can't work at home because his partner is a homeworker; two fathers are pulled between the needs of childcare and work; a lawyer is exhausted by train travel but needs a business environment to function; another is so lonely at home that she endures a costly, tiring journey; a woman is conflicted between putting her father first and the impossibility of visiting him because the office is out of town.
Yet another is torn between the pull of the office buzz and the needs of an ailing spouse, while a mother with a long journey to the office barely gets to nursery in time to pick up her son.
The bottom line is that homeworking doesn't suit everyone or every company. Maurice, a 29-year-old management consultant, has had his firm's agile working policy foisted on him. If you don't need to be in the office you don't get a desk.
For Maurice, it means he's struggling to find a suitable place to write reports. Coffee shops and libraries are noisy and his partner is running a business from home.
"If quality matters they [the firm] should provide the framework and resources to deliver it," he says.
What to do about it
Is the answer that simple? HR management and support, says Strelitz, is necessary to make remote working work. But while technology can enable people to work without travelling to their office, they still need to be managed.
For the company's wellbeing, as well as the employee's, it's important to ensure remote workers are invited to engage with business colleagues.
Even when work can be done at home, it's not always sensible that it should. Sometimes there are strong reasons to be in the workplace. Working at home should be ‘sometimes' rather than ‘all the time' for these people, while for some it will never be the solution.
Work-life harmony cannot be realised until everyone recognises that work and care responsibilities are incompatible. Looking after a child or disabled relative can't be done at the same time as concentrating on work - period.
Getting from home to office in reasonable time is a challenge that will continue as long as companies carry on consolidating offices in large single buildings and campuses outside cities. There's no sign that this trend is stopping.
Although this has many advantages in terms of cost savings, there's a big travel burden on staff that, if left unaddressed, will take its toll on productivity and wellbeing, to the company's detriment.
HR has a key role to play in corporate real estate if we're to address common employee problems within the framework of the changing workplace. Strelitz concludes that a distributed network of professional workplace environments, local to people's homes should complement the office rather than replace it. Employees can use it some of the time.
If we're to ensure staff have more liveable lives, a shift to distributed work venues, connected to the main office, is the only way forward.
Mark Dixon is CEO of Regus Group