Has the Coronavirus pandemic brought about a dramatic and permanent change in how and where people work?
As Coronavirus lock-down measures are removed, will working from home become normal for a large proportion of the UK’s workforce?
This article looks at the potential pros and cons for employees resulting from this possible change. It studies ways we may potentially conduct business and the challenges for employers of some or all of their team working remotely.
Before the Coronavirus pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics, only 1.7 million people in the UK were permanently working from home. That figure increases to 4 million when those who work from home for some of their work-time are included.
Worldwide, the growth of home working has increased steadily over the years. According to a recent Global Workplace Analytics report, between 2005 and 2017, there was a 159% increase in remote work. However, the UK lags behind the rest of the world. Only 8.7 million of the 32.6 million UK workforce have ever worked from home in their current job. This is less than 30% of the workforce.
A survey completed before the coronavirus lockdown by Leesman*, revealed 26% of UK firms don’t encourage working from home, and 15% simply don’t allow it. Some 17% of all employees do not even have the devices needed to make home working possible. Even if they did, only 41% of sporadic home workers have a dedicated work-room, and 39% don’t have a designated workstation or desk.
Coronavirus has caused a seismic shift in working habits and methods. At the end of April 2020, an estimated 20 million of the UK work-force has now relocated to home offices.
On 30th March 2020 Gartner* released a survey of 317 CFO’s and business leaders. 74% expect at least 5% of their workforce, previously working in company offices, to be working from home permanently after the coronavirus pandemic ends.
Will an accelerated increase in the number of people home working be a legacy of the pandemic? Similarly, will the 2020s be the decade in which working more from home simply becomes the new way of life? Technology infrastructure is likely to improve – 5G home broadband, for example, will mean faster internet connections. This will enable big file downloads within seconds and better-quality video conferencing.
The Coronavirus crisis is illuminating both the pleasures and pressures of working from home, and we share these with you below:
*Gartner is a global research and advisory firm providing information, advice, and tools for leaders in IT, finance, HR, customer service and support, communications, legal and compliance, marketing, sales, and supply chain functions
Companies that encourage and support home working often report several benefits from their approach. Typically they enjoy higher levels of employee retention and engagement, reduced turnover, higher employee satisfaction, increased productivity and autonomy.
Employees generally appreciate a company that allows them to conduct home working and research has suggested that this could also boost productivity for the employer.
Two-thirds of employers report increased productivity for employees home working compared to employer-office workers
The absence of employer-office necessities such as commuting and buying lunch every day, saves the average employed worker £44.78 weekly.
The average daily commute time in the UK is now 59 minutes. This means that people home working save almost five hours a week normally spent in transit. This is great news for employees. It could also be good news for employers as some of this saved time may be spent working.
A benefit for the whole UK population during the coronavirus crisis is reduced carbon emissions and pollution. Amongst other factors, this is a result of workers not commuting to employer-offices, and temporarily inactive manufacturing companies. Suggestions are that post Coronavirus, if those who have found working from home possible during the crisis continued that practice for half their work-time, results would be significant. It could, for example, result in saving 54 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. That’s the equivalent to taking 10 million cars off the road.
The full impacts of the shutdown and the environmental benefits are not yet known in the UK. However, estimates for the reduction of pollution in China include:
Isolation is one of the biggest challenges
As the Coronavirus lockdown results in an increased amount of working from home, 20% of remote workers report struggling with loneliness. As more work remotely in the future this will increase, yet this aspect of home working is among the least discussed. Talk about home working with many and it’ll probably result in a conversation about answering emails whilst dressed in pyjamas! However, far less discussion takes place about how lonely it can be when home working.
The loneliness of the long-distance worker is an enigmatic issue. On one hand, solitude can be immensely beneficial to productivity. On the other, constant isolation can quickly become its own terrible distraction.
Business Insider* recently asked people who work remotely to share what they found challenging in their work arrangements. Here’s what a couple of respondents had to say.
“With no colleagues in your living room, socializing with your peers can be a challenge and make home working pretty lonely”.
“Without having an office where you need to share pleasantries with your colleagues, boss, and clients, you need to find alternative methods of socializing with people in your own time.” “It can be hard, especially for an introvert, to muster up the motivation to go out and meet people after a long day of work.”
The lack of interaction that accompanies home working can also be detrimental to team building, often achieved during meetings, lunches, or even water cooler conversations.
Through not regularly attending a corporate office and having the opportunity to mingle with colleagues, home workers can increasingly feel isolated. This then leads to home working employees feeling they don’t belong, that they are outsiders merely looking in. This can then impact on commitment, loyalty, and pride which ultimately reduces corporate cohesion.
A breakdown of effective communication
Frustrations with communication can build if a colleague is unresponsive on a video conferencing call. Email or other online media often compounds a problem.
When working in an office it’s straightforward to meet and discuss a misunderstanding. However, it’s more difficult to get clarity and direct answers if colleagues are uncommunicative on digital channels.
Networking is also much more difficult for home workers as working remotely creates barriers to creating and maintaining colleague relationships.
The challenge of measuring productivity levels
All those home working must have the same understanding of what work patterns and productivity are expected. Suspicion from one or a set of colleagues that others are not “pulling their weight,” can be frustrating and destructive. Therefore targets and possible monitoring need to be agreed and maintained.
Does the removal of the morning commute mean that those home working should be spending this freed-up time working? Similarly, without the unannounced interruptions that are typical of all offices, is it realistic to assume that homeworkers will be able to work continuously without interruptions?
The challenge of avoiding distractions
When home working, it is potentially very easy to get distracted by young children, pets, and household chores. Contrary to statistics provided at this article’s opening, many argue productivity is lower at home than in a traditional office. Supporting this, a recent study by a Quest client, PWC, showed about half of businesses expect a productivity dip during the pandemic. This drop will be due to a lack of home working capability.
A lack of routine and structure can leave room for unnecessary distractions. Unwanted interruptions from friends and family exploiting home workers’ availability. Wanting to sleep in, or the temptation of good weather, outdoor attractions, and ditching work. To achieve qualitative productivity when home working requires discipline and focus.
When working in an office, there is likely to be a fixed structure in place. Everything from agreed office hours to set breaks and lunchtimes. When home working, these time-bound structures will not exist.
One of the biggest challenges faced when home working is to maintain a strict work-life balance. It can, to start with at least, be effortless to overwork. When the home is also the office it is easy for home workers to feel that they never leave work.
Time disciplines need to be set and adhered to. At the end of the normal workday, home workers should resist the urge to check mail and work-based social media. Home working offers temptation to open laptops and do “just five minutes of work,” which quickly becomes an hour. After a time this can become harmful normality, and feelings of burnout can follow.
Technical and laptop issues may not be resolved as quickly as they would in the office, and further add to home working difficulties. Internet connectivity and speeds vary greatly across the country and loss of Wi-Fi add to the challenges of home working.
Video conference technology is still far from perfect, participants often talk over one another, and conversation can be stilted. It is also very easy for the participants in the meeting to “zone out” under the radar. They have a visual presence at the meeting, but their mind is elsewhere.
Revitalising the economy in the months and years ahead
When the Coronavirus crisis passes, creativity will be required to help businesses recover, and the economy to grow again. Yet there is a school of thought which believes home working stifles that very creativity. The continuance of widespread and long-term home working will, therefore, need to be carefully considered across all business sectors.
Some people lack the discipline it takes to focus in an entirely new environment, especially if that involves home working. Others simply can’t work without that busy office buzz or the casual chat and conversation of their cubicle colleagues. Whatever the reason, not everyone is suited to remote work – and that’s okay.
One of many emerging clichés from the Coronavirus crisis is that it’s provided the opportunity to “press the reset button.” It’s a cliché being applied to business, travel, sport, health and fitness, domestic life, and work-life balance. Cliché maybe, but it’s one of the occasional few that have resonance and meaning.
Quest believes there are three main challenges as we move through and past the Coronavirus crisis. Employee isolation; creating and maintaining clear communication channels, and enhancing and protecting team morale. Overcoming these challenges will be most effectively achieved by introducing a regular programme of face-to-face team meetings. The content, structure, and regularity of the meetings will vary. They should include monthly team meetings on-site (within the company’s offices) to enable colleagues to share experiences. These should be combined with quarterly meetings of one or two-day duration (preferably offsite). The focus of the off-site meetings should be on building strong working relationships amongst colleagues, and networking.
The quarterly meetings should incorporate some team building events into the day. A formalised programme such as this will ensure that team development is addressed at regular intervals during the year. Significantly it will also ensure that one-off spasmodic sessions will become a thing of the past. Typically, pre-Coronavirus crisis, team building events were something organised in a random, irregular fashion by many companies. This approach often left colleagues feeling frustrated and disengaged at the infrequency of team development. Post-Coronavirus, as businesses urgently refocus their management of staff teams, team building, development, and maintenance should become a planned priority.
An example of the type of team development that could be delivered is corporate social responsibility team building activities. Team building events like these provide opportunities to undertake a beneficial community project, which in turn generates a positive corporate identity for employees. In addition to making worthwhile contributions, these projects enable teams to provide community assistance, whilst catching up and networking with colleagues. A positive outcome of the Coronavirus pandemic has been the desire for people to support and help their wider community. There is a wonderful opportunity for companies and businesses to build on this positive outcome in the coming years.
In addition to monthly meetings, and quarterly off-sites, ideally one annual event should be arranged. The celebration of achievements and success will become even more important post-Coronavirus. Annual events will enable colleagues from across the organisation to celebrate together theirs, their colleagues, and the company’s achievements over the year.
Individuals and teams must be mentally prepared and supported for working from home to be part of the new working practices post coronavirus. As important, infrastructure needs to be fit for purpose too.
Businesses must ensure that systems and technology are in place to enable employees to continue and develop home working efficiently. Proper training needs to be undertaken so that employees are comfortable using the various interactive software platforms. In addition, support mechanisms should be in place and easily accessed when assistance is required.
Home working suits some but not others. Recruiting should accommodate that and the fact that those people embracing home working will require training.
In other words, the home working element of their job is a skill that needs training, developing, monitoring, and managing.
One certain fact is when some normality returns companies will want to re-motivate and re-focus their teams. Individuals will also need to reconnect with their colleagues after an extended period of home working. Certainly, those organisations that can do so most effectively, will be the first to benefit from the seeds of recovery.
In short, there has never been a greater need to build strong teams and invest in your staff. And we would love to help you. Contact us and let’s ensure we all emerge from this crisis in better shape.