Many workers greeted working from home with glee at the start of the spring lockdown: no more grim commutes on crowded carriages or feeling your life ebb away on the M6, the chance to spend more time with family, and the opportunity to avoid the distractions of a noisy open-plan office.
But, as John Spencer, CEO at BizSpace explains the novelty of homeworking has started to wear off, and the cracks are beginning to show.
Among many issues reported by homeworkers is the feeling of isolation and other mental health problems, longer working hours, stress caused by no separation between home and working life and missing office camaraderie. Furthermore, the office environment helped to provide structure to the day while the physical domestic environment is far from ideal, with many workers stuck in homes with no set space to work, sitting on unergonomic, ache-inducing furniture and making do with sometimes unreliable internet connections.
A study by The Martec Group, a global market research firm, of how pandemic homeworking has impacted on 1,214 people from various sectors, found that whilst some employees blossomed working from home, the majority found a significant decline in mental health, job satisfaction, job motivation and company satisfaction.
Increased working hours arising from the shift to homeworking during the pandemic might be adding to worker stress. While daily working hours in France, Canada and Spain have remained the same as pre-pandemic working hours, they have increased by two hours in the UK and three hours in the US, according to a study by universities in the UK and New Zealand.
Worker burnout has risen over the past five months, attributed to a clash between private and working life and unconsciously extended home working hours, according to German health insurance companies. An always-on culture isn’t helping, with a fifth of respondents in a LinkedIn study reporting they felt constantly under pressure to answer e-mails faster.
Excessive homeworking is also taking a physical toll on workers. Four out of five report musculoskeletal pain, with backpain being the most common, according to the findings of a study by an arthritis charity.
Despite these issues, the pandemic has shown homeworking can work, but only with effective management. This means deploying a range of tools, from regular group check-ins to help make people feel included, through to one-to-one conversations to ensure remote workers are happy and providing effective communication – through meetings and video calls and not just e-mails, which can be easily missed.
However, most workers want a choice in picking the best mode of working and a hybrid model, mixing working in the office and remotely, is the most popular. Google conducted a survey in the summer and found 62% of its employees wanted to return to the office, but not every day. As a result, the tech giant is developing a hybrid model of working and looking at longer-term homeworking and office arrangements. A spring lockdown Working at Home survey by the Chartered Management Institue revealed 59% of managers want to work from home a couple of days a week. This means firms expecting to return to five days a week in the office could face difficulty in retaining and attracting staff in the post-pandemic world when competitors are offering more attractive, modern and flexible arrangements. Not a good move when the battle to find the right talent is a top CEO concern, according to a survey by HR Drive.
Although the pandemic has shown that businesses can operate with staff working from home, conversely its enforced nature has made us remember what is important about the office. Effective working usually depends on collaboration. People work with their colleagues to overcome challenges and find the best solutions for their clients. Face-to-face meetings help to build up trust and social networks, which are particularly important to develop at the beginning of younger workers’ careers. Then there is the importance of casual meetings, the so-called watercooler chat, where a conversation can lead to a serendipitous moment – a bright idea and a problem solved. Working from home often means virtual meetings fixed in a diary, killing spontaneous, casual exchanges. Another benefit is being surrounded by colleagues you know, providing a break from the loneliness that can be the lot of the homeworker.
The importance of the office remains and, perhaps surprisingly, this is endorsed by the tech sector. Despite Google’s pandemic push to working from home, the firm committed in the summer to its vast King’s Cross headquarters in London.
With working from home’s advantages and disadvantages highlighted by the pandemic, the coming year will be an interesting one, where we’re likely to see businesses take a fresh look at where and how their employees work. For some, this could mean offering staff a range of locations where they can enjoy a professional environment close to home on days when they don’t need or want to travel into city centres.
A business’s main asset is its people. Thanks to technology and the urgent impetus created by the pandemic, working from home has now become a normal way of working and it is unlikely that we will now go back to the more rigid work patterns many companies previously favoured. People have found they can be more productive, but they have also discovered homeworking’s limits. What is needed is a flexible approach that allows choice in finding the best way of working, whatever the location. And to make this work will require careful consultation and management.