Thursday, 26 March 2020
With remoting working becoming an urgent challenge for many during the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor of Work and Wellbeing Tim Bentley explores the pros and cons of working from home.
Never before has working from home received so much public attention. The evolving COVID-19 crisis has made remote working a necessity for knowledge workers, as Australian organisations battle to keep the wheels turning in the face of unprecedented social and business restrictions, and escalating fears.
COVID-19 has brought about a change in mindset amongst workers and their managers. While ‘working from home’ has traditionally been thought of as a perk and, for some, a chance to skive-off, we are beginning to think of work as an activity, more than a physical place we go each morning. This cultural shift is having us see the workplace less as a place of containment, and more as a place where we meet and collaborate. The question is, will this enforced change in mindset and shift in culture prove enduring?
Coronavirus aside, flexible work arrangements such as working from home have become more and more popular over recent years. Indeed, working from home has been regarded as a genuine ‘win-win’ form of flexibility, with workers enjoying reduced commuting costs and improvements to work-life balance, while employers see benefits in terms of savings in office space and other costs associated with having employees working on site. However, this mode of working carries risks for worker wellbeing and performance where it is not managed effectively.
Research has shown that working from home has the potential to enhance employee productivity, although studies are not conclusive on this issue. Much of the added value of working remotely comes from the time saved through reduced commuting time, reduced distractions from other staff and reduced meeting time, and the benefits of greater autonomy in where and when one undertakes the different tasks that comprise a job.
Research undertaken in New Zealand and Australia by myself and Professor Stephen Teo, along with New Zealand colleagues, has indicated that a hybrid model works best. Better performance outcomes are observed for individuals who work from home between one and three days per week, compared to those who worked remotely all week and those who did less than one full day of remote working.
This research, consistent with other studies, also found that working from home was most effective in terms of productivity and wellbeing where workers perceived they were well-supported by the organisation. Workers had best outcomes where they received the support and trust of their line manager, as well as co-worker support and support for their technological needs.
Research also tells us that the organisational support for those working from home can be a challenge where line managers do not trust those staff who work remotely. This failure to trust is a cultural hurdle that organisations are having to overcome very quickly, as many switch to working from home due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Failure to trust workers we cannot physically monitor is understandable as most managers and supervisors have always worked within organisational cultures that place most value on inputs: hours spend working and the need to monitor staff to know they are working productively. However, new ways of working, such as working from home require a shift to an ‘outputs-based culture’, where the focus is on what is produced, not how long it took to do so.
Working remotely has often been associated with its positive benefits for wellbeing. These include the restorative benefits of being in one’s home environment, less stress brought about through adverse interpersonal interaction in the workplace and organisational politics, and improvements in work-life-balance.
While we found that a balance between working from home and the workplace was most effective for wellbeing, too much of a good thing had a negative impact. For example, for those that only worked from home, there was an increase in work-family conflict and social isolation, resulting in more stress and reduced work satisfaction.
It is important that individuals who have switched to working from home quickly establish a suitable place within the house where they can work without disturbance. Ideally, that is an office or room that is away from the main family area of the house.
In some cases, organisations are able to provide office furniture to ensure an ergonomically suitable workspace. If this is not possible, ensure you take time to stretch and move around frequently to avoid sitting for prolonged periods with poor posture.
Finding an appropriate workspace may be more of a challenge if your partner is also working at home . Furthermore, if schools do close, working from home may prove a real problem for parents.
Clear boundaries will need to be set in both time and space. We know it takes time for other family members to get used to someone working from home for the first time. All family members need to respect the fact that the worker needs a quiet and uninterrupted opportunity to work, and their presence in the home does not mean they can be called upon to carry out domestic chores during their worktime.
It is also very important to maintain close virtual contact with your team and line-manager. This will help overcome concerns around social isolation, and fears of missing out on anything related to your role and future career.
Businesses should support remote workers through social and technical support. The research is very clear on the fact that if individuals working from home perceive their organisation supports them, they are more likely to be productive and enjoy good wellbeing.
This support includes the trust of their line-manager. This is probably the biggest challenge to organisations seeking to rapidly adopt remote working. It just doesn’t feel right for many managers to not be able to physically monitor those who they are supervising. Having understood this, it is critical to introduce a new mindset where the focus shifts from inputs to outputs.
This will also require a different style of management, moving to a more goal-setting and feedback-based approach, and a leadership style that is more people than task focused.
It is also essential to communicate effectively through digital means, helping bridge the gap between virtual and face-to-face working. Good communication with remote working staff will also help offset social isolation problems that often arise when staff do not attend the workplace regularly.
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