Is working from home ‘working’ for us?

The Covid-19 lockdown saw workplaces close overnight, with Government advice in the UK being to 'work from home if you can'.

Is working from home ‘working’ for us?

The Covid-19 lockdown saw workplaces close overnight, with Government advice in the UK being to ‘work from home if you can’. However, it is now unlikely that the world of work will ever be quite the same again. Will 2020 be the end of the office and see us packing up our desks for good?

Aided by digital tools and video conferencing, we have seen legions of workers relocated to their kitchen-tables and spare-rooms. The pandemic has meant that long-held debate on whether working from home actually ‘works’ has been put to the test.

Some large employers ‘ including titans like Twitter – are sold on the benefits and planning to make their remote working arrangements permanent. With a major shift in working trends on the cards, there are predictions that demand for office space will plummet as businesses look to cut costs.

However, businesses of all sizes need to better understand the implications and impacts of working from home on their operations and employees. Small businesses owners especially need to ensure that it is the right thing for their business.

At home with change

Remote work was already on the rise, with a 74 per cent increase in the number of people at least partially doing so between 2008-2018 in the UK, according to the ONS. A lot of this was driven by staff demand, and the CIPD found that two in three workers would like to work more flexibly.

Inadvertently, many employees have now won the war to work from home without the battle. Throughout the pandemic employers have developed a newfound trust of their employees, as they have proved willing and productive.

It is no surprise that employees broadly welcome the opportunity to work from home. With no stressful commutes and more time for families and hobbies.

It is those SMEs that embrace and support agile working practices that are most likely to see the dividends. Remote working brings a business benefit from the flexibility of staff, the removal of constraints of local labour markets and the opportunity to build more diverse and inclusive remote teams.

Potential pitfalls

However, working from home also has the potential to negatively impact productivity. The lockdown has been challenging for people juggling childcare or other caring responsibilities. It has also not proved easy for those living in shared accommodation or without a workspace or high-speed internet.

Another challenge is maintaining work-life balance. The prospect of greater flexibility is regarded as a benefit of home-working, yet the reality can be somewhat different! While some are able to compartmentalise their lives, for others the lines between work and home have become too blurred. This can negatively affect well-being, especially where workers struggle to ‘unplug’ after work.

Despite being hyper-connected across a multitude of platforms, working from home can mean that social interaction with co-workers is lost. There is no virtual equivalent of the corridor conversation or substitute for congregating at the water cooler, which can leave some workers feeling lonely and isolated. Being creative here is a challenge, but promoting employee engagement needs to be a priority.

New ways of working

Those organisations that had already embraced and encouraged remote working before the crisis were ahead of the curve. The use of digital technologies is regarded as critical to the future competitiveness of firms, and so the rest are having to catch up quickly or risk being left behind.

Technology is certainly vital, but so is how you use it. Those companies exploiting the functionality of core software packages, such as Office365, can automate workflows, implement document automation and utilise existing machine learning services without further investment. There are programmes available to support businesses adopting digital and new technologies, such as through local business schools.

Using technology is not simply about enabling the same ways of working remotely. Remote teams need to function differently to be effective. Here, the value of leadership and culture should not be underestimated. As well as focusing on goals and outcomes, it is crucial to be clear about roles, responsibilities, tasks and processes when employees are working from home.

In navigating the virtual world of work some people will thrive with more freedom and autonomy, while others will find structure helpful. Establishing expectations and boundaries can ensure that staff are not overwhelmed by endless video calls. Ensuring that leave is taken and respected is also necessary to prevent burn out!

Working it out

The public health crisis posed by Covid-19 has passed its peak, yet working from home is a trend that looks to be here to stay. The initial importance of working from home was to avoid spreading Covid-19 in offices and safeguard staff, but it has demonstrated the art of the possible. Employees and employees have proven that working from home can ‘work’.

As businesses look to put the pandemic behind them, it is likely we will move to a more blended model of work. It is inevitable that working from home will persist and that the daily pilgrimage to the office may be relegated to the history books. This is, however, about more than what employees want, as businesses realise cost-savings and productivity gains when implemented effectively.

The way we work is going through a revolution, and now is the time to reimagine work so that it works better for us all.

Tim Vorley
Tim Vorley

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