23rd June, 2020
By Jayani Chakravarti
Coronavirus and the Working from Home Revolution
The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has made it necessary for many employers to close their offices and ask employees to work from home (WFH). This development excites some, worries others, and raises several important questions. For example, how does working from home influence employee wellbeing and productivity? What will happen once the pandemic is over?
There is some good news for companies that are worried about the effects of working from home. For example, researchers conducted an experiment with a large travel agency where they randomly assigned employees to either work 1) from home or 2) in the office for nine months. Their analysis showed that working from home led to a 13% increase in employee performance. This effect was attributed to employees taking fewer breaks and sick days, in addition to being able to work in a more convenient work environment.
Not being required to go to the office also gives employees greater flexibility around location and time schedules. Employees can structure their work around the time periods that they are most productive and this could lead to reductions in work-related stress and turnover. This type of flexibility has also been positively associated with commitment to the organisation, enhanced quality of relationships with leaders and fewer work-family conflicts.
There is, however, also some bad news. Working from home often results in a decrease in the number of social interactions that people have with their colleagues, it can reduce the organic transfer of knowledge, and induce feelings of isolation. Longer periods of working from home is also linked to poorer relationships with co-workers and negative perceptions related to career progression. Further, it can affect team cohesion, collaboration and innovation.
Remote workers also report having trouble “switching-off” from work and often feel more stressed than usual. Many remote workers are, for example, constantly logged in to mobile devices, have problems getting in touch with colleagues, and lack quiet spaces where they can take conference calls (this situation is likely exacerbated by the fact that parents are taking care of their children at home during the pandemic). One study found that 42% of home workers reported having trouble sleeping, compared to 29% of their counterparts who only worked in the office. It also showed that 41% of home workers felt stressed “always or most of the time”, while the same statistic was 25% for office workers.
So how do we make it work?
Organisations can take certain steps to reduce the negative effects of homeworking. Regular communication and opportunities for social interaction can ensure that knowledge is effectively transferred, and feelings of isolation are reduced. Drafting and following a project team schedule can also help in adding structure and staying up to date on what co-workers are doing.
Separating time for work and personal life and letting colleagues know about your schedule can play an important role in managing stress. Employers should also be sensitive to the needs of workers who are managing children or other personal responsibilities and allow for greater flexibility in scheduling meetings around these duties. Further, it is helpful for managers to mandate that employees use a common set of remote-working tools (videoconferencing, project management, and so on) but avoid micromanagement and let workers have greater autonomy over their work.
Studies find that several key factors have to be at play for remote working to be successful. First, the organisational factors linked to productivity such as, communication, and employee morale, need to be maintained efficiently. Second, individual factors that affect employee wellbeing such as work-family balance and employee satisfaction, need to be successfully managed. When these factors are effectively in place, remote working can lead to increased productivity due to greater flexibility, optimal usage of efficient work hours and reduced work interruptions. In some cases, however, productivity may be reduced due to reduced communication, fewer opportunities for interaction and inaccessible IT resources. Organisations should thus aim to encourage the positive factors associated with remote working wherever possible, and support employees with any technical and communication barriers that could disrupt productivity.
Employee beliefs and attitudes about remote working can also shape how productive they are while working from home. For example, people holding positive attitudes towards computer usage show better performance in computer usage tasks. Employees that have positive beliefs about working from home are also more likely to show higher productivity during remote working. If organisations can make remote working a positive experience for employees, this will shape their attitudes in a positive manner and lead to improved performance.
What happens after COVID-19?
The worldwide response to the pandemic has shown that working from home can be better than what we expected and can also produce significant environmental benefits in terms of reduced traffic congestion and emissions. This now raises an important question for governments and organisations – can this be a viable option even after the crisis is over?
While remote-working has numerous merits an provides greater flexibility in workplace practices, it cannot completely replace face-to-face contact. Sufficient levels of in-person contact are essential to offset the negative effects of remote working on staff-wellbeing, team cohesion and knowledge sharing. Perhaps, what we need is a workplace solution that balances the flexibility of working from home and the essential team interactions that spark innovation. Organisations have started recognising ways in which different working environments can be utilised to create more sustainable work practices that are better for individuals and the environment, while still preserving the merits of collaborative team working.
Another change we can expect after the pandemic is over is discussions around structuring collaborative spaces and organisational policies. “The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor” (Scott Birnbaum, CEO at Morf AI, Inc.), and while this concept is nothing new and has been around for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic will make organisations view collaboration in a new light. Organisational and employment policies may also be revisited to identify areas of improvement. For example, the US Society for Human Resource Management and its UK counterpart, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) have advised on practices related to paid sick leave.
This pandemic has demonstrated that meeting rooms and breakout spaces are not the only solutions to productivity and moderate periods of homeworking can have many benefits. Coronavirus will not mean the demise of the traditional office but will have us thinking about adopting a working culture that better caters to the complexities of modern work.
We are grateful for the services of essential workers who are putting themselves at risk and acknowledge jobs that cannot be switched to a homeworking model and people that may be experiencing financial difficulties because of the same.