This may be an unfashionable perspective, but my view is that this working from home gig has gone too far in some instances.

I have recently been surprised to learn that the human resources teams of several large organisations work almost entirely from home, and attend all meetings by Zoom.  This seems bizarre to me given that the human resources function inherently requires direct engagement with other humans.  It also reduces the availability and accessibility of people in these roles and gives rise to other potential employment issues.

For example, in a recruitment context, many employers are now dealing with “COVID recruitment legacy” issues.  This situation has arisen due to employers being forced to run interview and selection processes by Zoom and other remote means, rather than in person interviews, during the lockdowns and covid restrictions.  The result is a greater than usual number of bad hires reflecting the difficulty in really connecting with, and being able to read, an interviewee over a virtual medium. 

Issues also arise in a performance management context where managers and human resources would previously have raised issues with employees on an ongoing informal basis as they occurred in the workplace.  Now, with remote working, such issues are less likely to be raised at the time they occur and may require a virtual meeting to be set up or email communication to be sent.  Both scenarios inevitably escalate the issue and increase the chance of misunderstanding and tension.  It is also more difficult to establish and demonstrate empathy in a virtual setting.

Where a formal employment process is commenced, and a meeting with an employee is sought to discuss the issue, insisting on conducting it over Zoom may result in claims of unfair treatment.  This is a difficult one because the employment institutions are now conducting mediations and Authority and Court hearings by Zoom, and you would think that if Zoom can work in these situations, it should be able to be used in any employment context. 

However grievances may result if an employee feels that they have not been properly heard, or that the process is token and not genuine.  There may also be cultural considerations where an employee requests a meeting kanohi ki te kanohi, and this should generally be accommodated if possible.

In relation to accessibility, employers also need to be aware that employees may be less likely to raise potential issues of bullying, harassment or poor management if they do not have direct access to management or human resources personnel at work.  It is far easier to pop in to have an informal chat with a trusted human resources advisor or manager in the first instance, rather than try to deal with this remotely. The risk of employees sitting on their concerns until such time that they have become serious issues is far greater in this environment.

More generally, the anecdotal evidence of many employers is that working from home does affect team communication and culture.   It is difficult to build and maintain relationships with people that you only ever see on a screen. Employee satisfaction, engagement and mental wellbeing may also suffer, as a result of being isolated.

Turning this around, there is a parallel question as to whether employees can insist on working from home.  This will depend on what their employment agreement says about the location of work, and any specific agreements entered into with their employer in this regard. 

However as in most cases, where the employment agreement provides that the employee will work at the employer’s worksite, working from home is a privilege, not a right.  This means that an employer could, following consultation, pull back existing working from home arrangements if they are not serving the best interests of the business.

There is something about getting dressed for work and interacting directly with work colleagues, over both work and personal matters, that builds and enhances workplace relationships, and creates a sense of loyalty and belonging. Ironically many workplaces are currently very focussed on building positive workplace cultures and aligning this with their stated vision and values, yet their employees work predominantly from home.  This creates a constellation of satellites rather than a cohesive team.

As an aside, this movement to Zoom meetings has also resulted in a noticeable degradation in dress standards in workplaces.  This is lamentable. I must admit to wearing jeans to work myself most of the time now, in the manner of a news reader.  I miss having the opportunity to parade down Lambton Quay in elaborate costumes on the way to client meetings, but really what is the point of dressing up if your top quarter only is scarcely visible on a small blurry screen.

Working from home and allowing employees greater flexibility should absolutely be embraced, but not at the expense of recognising that a successful relationship requires direct communication and engagement.  This is as true of an employment relationship as it is of a personal relationship.  If we forget this and take the human out of human resources, we hasten the march towards robots and AI taking over these roles and others.

originally published on on 19 April 2023