Working from Home: Disaster or Opportunity?

by Moris Kalderon

Looking back some months ago, we knew that welcoming the new decade would not be an all easy task. In the 2016 World Economic Forum Annual meeting the 10 key global challenges were singled out and is not of our surprise that issues such as climate change, food security and gender equality are listed among the most prominent global issues that humanity should confront. However, the third place of this list is occupied by an unexcepted, at least for me, question; What will the world of work look like in the future?

If we think about it carefully, work is one of the most important aspects of our life. We spend at least 1/3 of our everyday life working, preparing or commuting for work. Although, this is a fact that has not change throughout the years, everything else has changed. In the preindustrial economy, work was synonymous with craftsmanship, the creation of products or the delivery of complete outcomes. The industrial revolution changed this conception of work, as industrialists realized that products could be manufactured faster and cheaper if end-to-end processes were converted into repeatable tasks in which workers could specialize in. Now, with the onset of rapid cognitive revolution, work has once again be redefined to create valuable human-machine collaborations, shifting our understanding of work from task completion to problem-solving and managing human relationships. The majority of the production is automated, while labor work is substituted by people working on services. Large organizations took the place of small size companies and the scheme of locally produced-locally consumed goods is replaced by locally or globally produced to globally consumed services. This new motive is applicable to every human activity and has shown that despite the drawbacks many merits have also revealed, which have direct impact in our lives. For example, the real-time share of knowledge has helped scientists around the world to collaborate without the need of physical presence and contribute with new concepts instead of spending time rediscovering already existing findings.

Nowadays, not only the means of achieving this do exist but also the needs of both the “employee” and the “employer” have changed. The all increasing computational power and the evolution of broadband speed have set all the necessary tools that once were only available in workspaces or universities to portable devices with extraordinary capabilities. Consequently, the imperative need of physical presence to designated workspace due to lack of resources is in most cases redundant, while the alternative means of communication such as teleconferences, emails and customized platforms can replace or even prevail the face-to-face communication. The last few years big organizations started to promote Work-from-Home policies (at least part-time) understanding the advantages of such an arrangement. For employers, working from home can boost productivity, reduce turnover, and lower organizational costs, while employees enjoy perks like flexibility and the lack of commute. Nevertheless, this arrangement is not only based on mutual trust but mainly in a trade-off based on goals accomplished instead of working hours. Having a flexible schedule and working in an unsupervised environment may lead to endless working hours of reduced productivity without a clear boundary between working and personal time.

The work-from-home job force just got a big push from the current global coronavirus pandemic. However, in my opinion, the times of a pandemic cannot provide an 100% reliable example to test the efficiency of distant working. Being under the regime of a lockdown, with limited freedom of movement does not “simulate” normality. Work from home in this case can either show surprisingly good results or unprecedently disappointing ones. However, there are some specific professions that due to their nature, work from home for an extended period proves advantageous. Such a profession is the one of the researcher’s, due to the following points:

  • usually the outcome of a researcher’s work is not direct – a prolonged period of studying and trial and error is required,
  • a quite environment without interruptions is essential for Literature Review and assimilation of knowledge,
  • the results are measured qualitatively and not quantitively, and
  • composure and inspiration are the main ingredients for a breakthrough.

Taking the paradigm of Newton in the 17th century during the Great plague era and his discovery of the optic theory at the same time, we can not only justify the aforementioned elements but also gain inspiration and progress our research with curiosity.

Now, during this coronavirus pandemic I am lucky enough to participate as an early stage researcher in INSPIRE with my topic focusing on the development of acoustic panels with enhanced performance in the low frequency range. Working from home is an experiment for everyone and there is not a unique way of sorting this out. In my case organizing my schedule in such way that I am fully busy is the way forward.

My home office

The first thing that I do before I start my day is to prepare a big cup of coffee and cook some breakfast. Probably this the major advantage of staying at home. Together with the first sip of coffee, I check my to-do list and I have a quick look at the previous day’s work. Then based on the type of work I plan to do the rest of the day I select the most suitable playlist. Before I start, I usually have a quick call with my supervisor to discuss any issues and we set up the timetable. I work without a break till lunch time and then I continue till my afternoon walk. Walking gives me the time to clear my mind and rethink all my problems.

At the moment I am working on developing the theoretical framework of my research, which in my case means producing the suitable formulas that describe the response of a panel when a sound wave is traveling towards it. Being a bit rusty in math I started with revising some chapters of differential equations and linear algebra, and once I finished, I decided to grasp the opportunity and study some books and papers of vibroacoustic that I didn’t have the time before. On the meantime, I wrote all the derived formulas on my notebook, in order to have everything ready before I input them to MATLAB. Having just finished coding I compare my results with the ones of published data.

From my last month experience I am confident that working from home gave me the opportunity to delve into parts of my research that I needed isolation, time and clear mind. Spending most of the time coding and studying I found that the home environment helped me being persistent and undistracted without feeling tired. On the other hand, I miss the face to face communication with the fellow researchers working on the Dynamics and Structures Laboratory in NTUA. Asking for advice and discussing any potential issue with someone else is a very important process that cannot be disregarded. Team work always brings faster and better results. In my mind nothing is more relevant to these difficult times than Professor’s Noam Chomsky quote “We shouldn’t be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas”.

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