We’re hearing how, due to Coronavirus (Covid-19), the biggest ‘work from home experiment’ is taking place with thousands of people being asked to stay home to try to prevent the spread of the disease. In one instant, large swathes of the population are suddenly experiencing the reality of working from home. (We have an issue of the magazine dedicated to Flex.)
If nothing else, this is giving businesses an opportunity to put remote working to the test. A chance to examine their resilience and how well they could cope, not just with a sudden health alert, but longer-term with an expanding remote workforce. This enforced practice-run is temporarily changing the working landscape but might expedite more enduring flexible working practices.
The experiences of many of the employers and employees demonstrate how an abrupt switch to working from home is not always as simple or easy as might be perceived.
There are security issues, communication barriers, technological glitches, not to mention employee stress at not knowing when to clock off and feeling as if they can’t leave the house.
In the same week, The Telegraph interviewed me about flexible working and work-from-home opportunities. It followed the news that due to two employees at Network Rail who were “distracted” while working from home, there was a near-miss between two trains.
Suddenly, it’s as if there’s a death knell sounding for “working from home”. The short version being: it’s dangerous, it’s distracting, it’s damaging.
Adjusting to working from home
One of the reasons I founded The Homeworker was because I realised that working from home is not always easy. It’s not as simple as rolling out of bed, starting work, being productive and ending your day at 5pm. The reality is much different and my aim is to support as well as encourage those of us who do it on a regular basis.
What the last few weeks have shown, is that when it comes to homeworking, there’s an adjustment period that needs to be allowed for. It is not easy, or even fair, to turn around and ask your employees to just “start working from home” without adequate provision and support.
It’s not that working from home is rocket science, but it is different.
There are new distractions and temptations to block out, different kinds of pulls on your time, communication and boundaries to be established with family members as well as colleagues. There are daily adjustments such as having no commute or need to dress for the office. (These are often positives but they are changes to routine none the less and I know from experience, they can impact on mindset and behaviour.)
In The Homeworker magazine, corporate employee, James Edmondson talked openly about his initial scepticism about working from home, admitting to “raising an eyebrow” when a colleague had the WFH acronym blocked into their calendar. I am sure he is not alone with his initial reaction being that this was the acronym for: stay at home, watch TV and get on with a few domestic chores. However, when he began to adopt flexible working himself, he described the “low-level anxiety” he felt at not being logged on and answering emails instantly. This feeling that you have to go over and above when not physically in the office and the stress of trying to constantly prove yourself and stay connected is one shared by many.
Work from home challenges
There are challenges for both employer and employee. To expect a sudden move to a flexible working policy to go ahead seamlessly would be naive. How easy the transition depends largely on the size of the organisation and the nature of the work involved. Some jobs are simply not practically done from home, for instance, due to specific equipment needs.
Organisations need to be confident that the technology works, that security can’t be breached, that outcomes will be achieved without ‘undue inefficiencies’ and importantly, that employee wellbeing is not going to suffer either.
In this Guardian article, for which I was also interviewed, homeworkers talk about the negative effects of stress, isolation and a lack of discipline and boundaries when working alone.
The reality of working from home and loneliness
Of all these challenges, it is possibly the isolation and resulting loneliness that should be the one we’re most conscious of.
The famous 80-year-old Harvard study on happiness – the longest of its kind – concluded that relationships and quality human connections are what protects our bodies and our brains. Those in satisfying, close relationships are the healthiest and happiest as they grow older. The director of the unprecedented study, Robert Waldinger, explained in his TED Talk that “loneliness is toxic.” It sees our health and brain function decline sooner and we live shorter lives than those who are well-connected.
These findings are echoed in issue 5 of The Homeworker magazine where psychologist, Sharon Draper talks about the impact of loneliness and how to combat it when we work alone. In the same issue, transcriptionist, Claire Hone, shares a very personal reflection of her struggle with the isolation and subsequent stress and negative emotions that she experienced.
I recently spoke with GP, Dr Dan Petrie, who has founded a community space in his town for the sole purpose of encouraging better conversations and human connection. As a doctor, he sees first-hand the damaging impact of isolation on mental health.
So after all this, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re all in danger of losing our minds, spiralling into a deep depression and an inability to achieve anything once we’ve left the confines of the office.
You’ll be pleased to know that working from home is not a sentence to misery and doom.
The flex appeal of working from home
In fact, the reality of working from home is that it has huge advantages.
With preparation and planning, even roles you might think impossible to do from anywhere but the office, are feasibly done elsewhere. Radio presenter, Chris Evans, broadcast his Virgin Radio Breakfast Show live while on holiday in Portugal. In issue 3 of The Homeworker magazine, Business Consultant, Sarah Banks explains how she took her business abroad and travelled around the world for several months whilst continuing her work.
Business Reporter shows that the future of work is still flexible. It reports that LinkedIn data shows flexible working to be in the top six most desirable benefits of a job. If you want to attract and retain the talent, you need to offer some degree of flexible working arrangements.
When we do get the freedom and flexibility to work around our lives rather than the other way round, we regain a sense of control and autonomy, which, as this article also explains, are fundamental to our overall sense of wellbeing – something documented in The Journal of Personality.
The reality working from home and productivity
In issue 5, authors and business development consultants, Katherine Thomas and Emmanuel Gobillot, describe the ways we need to lead ourselves when we work from home. It is necessary to be self-disciplined, have self-awareness and be proactive with self-development. Having a combination of all of these will set you up to keep on top of your workload whilst also maintaining boundaries, keeping up with evolving practices, nurturing your network, and taking care of your physical and mental health.
More of us want to do it, more of us are now able to do it and in some cases, more of us are having to do it.
The technology has existed for years to allow us to video conference, share documents and stay connected to colleagues. For the self-employed as well, the ability to set our own hours, be around for school-runs and participate more fully in family life has huge advantages and allows us to nurture those all-important relationships.
No situation is perfect; homeworkers will probably always lament the distraction of the laundry pile and the fact they become a post depot for their neighbourhood.
I know many people who say they can focus much more easily at home without the disruption of colleagues talking about their latest pet saga – and some studies show productivity in remote workers actually increases.
Stress levels also lower because they are one step closer to that elusive work-life balance.
Finding the right balance
So, despite all the apparent negativity, I am a huge fan of and advocate for flexible working and working from home. There are undoubtedly things to safeguard against as an employer and individuals need to create a positive work environment from which they can still be effective from home. The ideal scenario would be some kind of balance whereby employees have true flexibility and freedom to work from wherever: some days at home, some in the office.
Those who work for themselves need to be proactive with scheduling in time outside the office to meet other people and being disciplined about switching off in the evenings.
And let’s remember, the reason we’re all talking about working from home right now, is because people are wanting to protect themselves and others from spreading a contagious virus. Working from home does mean fewer illnesses… I mean I haven’t had a cold in three years… Touch (highly-sanitised) wood.
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