Working from Homesuzette
Working from home (WFH) has become an increasingly common practice over the past few years with the expansion of technological advancements in communication and software development.
The Corona Virus global pandemic has however acted as a catalyst for the growing work-from-home trend, forcefully changing millions of people into remote workers almost overnight as companies seek to continue operations amid the unusual circumstances.
Having employees work from home raises a few questions for employers such as:
- Is it a useful management practice for raising productivity and profitability?
- Will working from home deteriorate work-life balance, or improve it?
- How do you preserve or build a strong company culture with a remote working force?
- Do I need to pay expensive rent every month for big office buildings or what will our future office look like?
This article will address the different questions relating to working from home, and aim to give employer’s food for thought on how to implement measures practically from what we have learnt whilst working from home due to the Corona Virus.
Working from Home is not a viable option for everyone
Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, famously conducted a two-year-study (published in 2015) of a major Chinese travel company that found working from home made employees more productive and less likely to quit.
There are, however, a few major differences between the conditions of the study, and the conditions under which many more people are turned into de facto remote workers due to the coronavirus pandemic. Such differences are:
The 2015 Stanford University Study
Corona Virus situation
|The study gave the participants the choice to work from home and working from home worked well for employees who chose to work from home.||People don’t have a choice. Everyone (that is able to work from home) is being forced to work from home, whereas in the Stanford University Study (2015), only half of people even wanted to work from home. The half that didn’t choose to work from home (but were required to do so) said it was very lonely and isolating.|
|Employees were working from home for four days a week. On the fifth day, those working from home were going into the office, and that was good enough to keep them tethered to the workplace. Physically going into work at least one day a week (but typically two or three) allows you connectivity to the workplace and helps with creativity. Most creativity is sparked in face-to-face environments or interactions. It encourages you to be ambitious and motivated. It allows for people to “bounce” ideas off each other, further amplifying the kinds of creative ideas and solutions generated.||Team-based employees will find it especially difficult to be creative and to self-motivate in an isolated environment.|
|People were trained on how to work from home.||No training, nor preparation.|
Even though the Corona Virus has not provided the ideal conditions to “test” the working from home concept, it has granted businesses the opportunity to explore the option as a serious and viable alternative.
Joubert & Associates conducted practical research regarding Working from Home, during the initial Level 5 National Lockdown period, in the form of a Survey Monkey questionnaire. The questionnaire was distributed on social media channels as well as forwarded directly to our client base. Throughout the article, the findings will be shared.
Working from Home can be a romanticised idea in many employees’ heads. There are, however, important factors that should be taken into account.
Firstly, working from home is not a viable option for all industries and job types. Industries such as manufacturing and production will inevitably require most of their operational employees to work on site. On the contrary, for an industry such as professional business & financial services, remote working may be a viable option. Working from Home also depend on job types. Employers have to determine, according to employees’ job descriptions, if and how much of their Key Performance Areas (KPA’s) can be achieved whilst working from home, as well as the measurability of such KPA’s.
After employers have determined that Working from Home is a viable option for their company or for some/most of their job types, there are further factors that need to be taken into account to ensure success (be it success relating to productivity, profitability etc.).
The J&A study indicated that 46% of the respondents felt that they were more productive working from home, whilst 43% felt that they are relatively as productive working from home compared to working from the office. Only 11% of respondents felt that they were less productive whilst working from home. This can be due to a number of reasons.
We summarised important factors in the following categories namely structured routine, workspace, communication and performance management, to ensure that all relevant information is taken into account.
Having a structured routine – what does it entail?
- Get dressed
There is not necessarily a need to dress as formally as one might for work, but the simple act of changing one’s clothes serves as a signal that it’s time to wake up and start the day. It will be tempting to stay in pyjamas all day, but giving into that temptation will most probably result in a much slower start and being less productive overall.
- Build transitions in and out of work
One’s morning commute not only gets one to work—from one physical location to another—but it also gives one’s brain time to prepare for work. At the end of the work day, the evening commute does the reverse. Transitions in and out of work should be built to signify the difference and mentally “switch” on and off at the necessary times.
- Keep regular working hours
The easiest way to get the best work done, is if all employees stick with their regular, contractual hours. In addition, if teams work more collaboratively, being on the same schedule as the rest of your colleagues makes working together much easier. This also helps with separation, establishing boundaries and cutting down on distractions when one lives with family members or other people.
- Taking breaks
In order to be productive, it is recommended imposing structure on yourself. The J&A study indicated that 50% of the respondents have a structured routine that they follow most of the time whilst working from home (i.e. regular working hours, taking breaks etc.).
Working from Home can easily result in long, unbroken periods of work, juxtaposed to continuous interruptions at an office. It is, however, important to give oneself some time to recharge in between tasks, as one would at the office. One should be wary of not falling into the temptation of distractions whilst having a break. Therefore, the best suggestion is to set times and limits for any breaks. This can be an effective way to break the day up and to maintain concentration levels.
- Having a dedicated workspace
One of the big challenges when it comes to working remotely is keeping work and home lives separate (i.e. work-life balance). Many jobs have irregular schedules, whereby workers cannot anticipate their work schedule from one week to the next. Many workers are on-call, work shifts or work during evenings, nights, and weekends. Workplace flexibility has been touted as both one of the benefits and costs of Working from Home.
When one goes into an office each day, the separation between work and home is physical, which helps with the mental separation too. One should strive to recreate that as much as possible with a designated physical workspace at home. This will allow the designation of physical work areas and physical “relaxation” areas.
The J&A study indicated that more than 70% of respondents have a comfortable, dedicated workspace whilst working from home. Ideally, for the best results, employers should only allow employees to work from home if they have suitable infrastructure and equipment to do so.
- Be aware of ergonomics
Risk factors to get a repetitive strain injury (RSI) include repetitive work, the use of sustained or excessive force, awkward and static working postures, and doing the same thing for long periods without taking breaks. Working from home can increase the risk for RSI’s, especially if employees don’t have suitable office equipment (desk, chair etc.). Employers should ensure that employees are educated on correct posture, the importance of movement and exercise, as well as having the correct equipment.
- Having suitable support
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of working at home for parents with younger children (especially during the Corona Virus pandemic) is managing their kids. The closure of schools and transition to “distance learning” for students has forced many working parents to take on the additional job of full-time home-schooling teacher. One requirement for a successful work-from-home programme for any business is the requirement that children are in school or day-care, or that there is suitable support at home for caretaking.
- Offices of the future with a remote working force
Companies moving to a remote working scenario, will most probably invest in a “hybrid” environment. Instead of switching to a remote based environment completely, they will be working from home for a few days per week and the rest from an office. In such a way, they will be progressively tackling the known remote work isolation or communication challenges. This will most probably have the implication that “workspace” (in the traditional office sense) will rather become a “meeting-space”.
The most important fact to bear in mind, is that the workplace must at all times reflect the needs of the company and its team. There seems to be a trend that future workspace solutions need to be varied enough to accommodate a vast set of needs, while also being able to change rapidly. Concepts like “open plan”, “breakaway rooms”, “hot seats” and “desk sharing” have already become popular more than a decade ago, and will most probably only increase in prevalence.
- Set up communication routines
Organisations should have a plan that lays out expectations for how often one should check in, whom one should check in with and how any changes or new assignments will be conveyed to one another.
One way to structure communication is to schedule calls with the whole team as the first thing in the morning. It is important to make time for that first-getting-into-work small talk, or carve out time for other check-ins throughout the day. Regular catchups, with a good meeting structure, go a long way in ensuring that all team members have the opportunity to check-in on how they are doing, share their work updates, raise any key roadblocks they need help with and work out the issues with the relevant team member’s support.
- Use richer communication types
If there is one thing that has increased exponentially in the National Lockdown period, it is the use of video-based communication. Video communication has the benefits of cutting down on miscommunication and breaking up some of the social isolation that may result from working from home. Employers should invest in “richer” communication infrastructure and also establish which video platform (Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom or even WhatsApp video call etc.) works best for them. Notwithstanding the growing popularity of video calls, the J&A study indicated that participants still prefer e-mails and WhatsApp text messages as communication mediums.
- Structured online meetings
They J&A study indicated that 85% of respondents perceive video meetings as being structured and productive, versus only 15% indicating that they perceive it as unstructured and a waste of time.
Running an efficient and productive online meeting is a critical skill to bring team work into remote work. The format and process of a videocall are very important, particularly when four or more people join the meeting. One should take into account that the basic senses of knowing who needs to talk and when they need to talk, are not as accessible over online channels.
Firstly, it is absolutely vital that someone is chairing the meeting. This person needs to determine the speaking order and call people to speak, as well as pick up again when the speaking is finished. Ideally, the call can be done using a method which allows people to signal to the chair that they would like to speak without interrupting someone else.
- Make time for social contact
When the whole office suddenly starts working from home, a lot of the casual social interactions are cut off. Prolonged isolation could also potentially impact on morale and productivity. Making time for social contact would usually make one feel less lonely and break up the monotony of work.
In J&A’s study more than 50% of employees indicated that “limited interaction and ability to bounce ideas of colleagues” are one of the biggest challenges of working from home.
A suggestion is for teams to try to sustain a semblance of normalcy and camaraderie in unconventional ways. The idea of translating in-office social activities to an online environment has been proposed, e.g. celebrate birthdays, make time for casual conversations and give public praise for goals reached and projects completed.
- Preserving your employer brand & culture through communication
A 2018 study on remote work engagement by researchers at Walden University found that remote workers experience strengthened and sustained levels of workplace engagement more when working in environments where they have a personal connection to the organisation’s mission and vision, and where they feel the work culture is familial. This seems to be the same for employees working all together at an office building. The question however remains, how is that culture maintained if everyone is not in one place?
Work-from-home policies can impede on the development of company culture in a variety of ways such as colleagues and teams being siloed from each other, as well as feelings of isolation among remote employees. Enthusiasm about building and growing a business is also harder to foster. It is thus important to look at measures to counter such consequences.
Culture not only can be converted to a remote scenario, but should be converted to prevent remote worker isolation, increase employee engagement and enhance productivity.
The participants unanimously agreed that though there are engagement challenges in the remote working environment, there are also methods that leaders and managers can employ to strengthen and maintain remote workplace engagement. Investing in interactive communication tools, promoting employee managed social events, and hosting recurring face-to-face team engagement meetings are ways organisational leaders and managers can strengthen and maintain remote workplace engagement.
Working from home means employees will have to learn to rely on self-motivation, self-discipline, focus and concentration. It seems as if certain personalities prefer working from home more than others. Self-driven individuals with extremely well-developed self-management skills, seem to prosper in this type of environment.
Time-management, organising, goal setting, self-motivation, stress management etc. all become extremely important with a remote working force. It may be worthwhile for employers to invest in Emotional Intelligence testing and training, to enhance these absolutely non-negotiable skills.
- Managing a remote team’s performance
As a leader, managing a remote team might be an entirely new experience and challenge, but it doesn’t have to be a painful one. Gallup’s workplace research shows that to get the best out of a remote worker, managers must firstly individualise.
Accepting a remote worker’s method and reasoning helps managers coach to the individual on behalf of the company. Individualisation helps remote workers “feel cared for as a person”, which is a fundamental element of engagement.
Secondly, expectations should be defined clearly. Managers need to be explicit about what the remote worker must produce. The parameters, deadlines and metrics of tasks must be crystal clear, but so should the manager’s personal feelings.
Thirdly, a trust relationship should be built through individualisation, keeping promises and frequent conversations. Lastly, talent should still be developed. It may take diligence, creativity, resourcefulness and a great deal of conversation to develop talent over a distance.
Respondents from the J&A study ranked the benefits of working from home in the following order:
- Reduced time and expense incurred with commuting
- Flexible working time
- Fewer interruptions from colleagues / managers (quieter working environment)
- Working less hours but getting the same amount of work done (more productive)
- Convenience for lunch, coffee breaks etc.
When respondents were, however, asked where they would choose to work from if they were given the choice of working from home or from the office on a permanent basis, more than 70% chose a combination of the two.
Gallup discovered in their various studies that engagement increases when employees spend some time working remotely and some time working in a location with their co-workers. Weekly face time with co-workers and managers seems to affect engagement: the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time working off-site — or three to four days in a five-day workweek.
Covid-19 has accelerated how the new world of work will look in the future. We need to realise that we will not be going back to our normal working environments. A new normal will have to be developed and cultivated.
The modern workplace is changing each day and is becoming more globalised. The millennials who are saturating the current workplace (and generation Z who are the next generation to enter the workforce) are more tech-savvy and more interested in having work-life balance. Such balance can be achieved through flexible working arrangements. This will fundamentally shift how companies position their employer brands and value propositions. They will look towards the future in attracting a different set of roles and skills, revising their workplace environment to engage/interact quite differently to what was, and endeavour to retain employees who have remained loyal to their employers during these extraordinary times. Essentially, all employers can do is continue to grow and develop their companies while maintaining the best interests of their employees.
Bosua, R., Kurnia, S., Gloet, M., & Moza, A. (2017). Telework Impact on Productivity and Well-Being. Social Inclusion and Usability of ICT-Enabled Services, 201.