Homebased working in a time of crisis and uncertainty
Unlimited broadband, video conferencing tools and remote desktops are just some of the innovations that have made homebased working increasingly common. This technological base meant that, as COVID-19 rapidly became a pandemic, governments pursued a rapid full-time homebased work agenda for their populations. COVID-19 has forced businesses to embrace homebased working at such speed that they have had little opportunity to consider the impact on their workers or to develop the management systems needed to effectively support them.
Such rapid and radical changes in work organisation will likely impact productivity, wellbeing and, potentially, the viability of businesses with forms of social distancing and remote working likely to continue in different forms for months to come. Not everyone has the luxury of the highest quality broadband access or top-of-the-range home computing facilities. Despite progress in homebased working adoption, the division between work and private life, where staff are expected to choose among priorities (e.g. high productivity or children), remains widespread. Such pressures are currently heightened, presenting a signification burden on the effectiveness of homebased working.
Managing homebased working for ourselves and our employees will be vital for maintaining the productivity, collaboration and flexibility needed for businesses to survive and, moving forwards, to continue and to thrive. This blog highlights some of the potential areas where people may need particular support.
In 2013, a study by The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service found that 75% of homeworkers believe that their productivity is higher at home than in the office and also allows them to achieve a better work–life balance, making it easier to juggle work and family responsibilities. However, in 2020, the challenges and potential dangers of homebased working are likely to be heightened by the intensive nature of working in a time of crisis and significant uncertainty.
Research has found that work can present a greater invasion into peoples' non-work lives when they adopt homebased working. For example, someone who works in the same building that they use for leisure, might miss out on important opportunities to ‘switch-off’ because artefacts and associations with work await them in the adjoining room. Our efforts to relax in the space where we’ve been working all day may be frustrated because we are surrounded by reminders of the stressors associated with work. Even when a work laptop is switched off, we often need a change of physical and psychological space to enable true relaxation. Homeworkers therefore frequently require additional support to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
The reality is that homeworkers need access to office resources, not only physical equipment but also the social contact that is part of everyday working life. Studies of white-collar homeworkers have looked at how, despite the technologies available, there remains a need for social contact to overcome issues of isolation, loneliness and motivation. It is no wonder that ‘old school’ homeworkers are frequently found bent over their laptop in coffee shops and cafes. Yet, it is not only social isolation that has a potentially negative impact on the homeworker. Many of the important processes of teamwork happen informally - in breaks and incidental moments of social contact which as useful as it is, are difficult to replicate using software such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Homeworkers need opportunities to maintain and develop social relationships.
The impact of locating work in the home extends beyond the homeworker to co-residents - often creating tensions. It is not only the homeworker themselves who may find that work intrudes on their domestic relaxation and enjoyment. Recent research has looked at how bringing ‘work’ into the home can have potentially negative implications for family members and other co-residents. How can home now function as an office, a place of relaxation and security as well as for many, a school?
To create a good working environment it makes sense to have a few rules about how other residents behave, to avoid disruption to the worker. For example, there may be limited access to the 'office’ area or co-residents may be asked to keep quiet during specified times. However, establishing these rules can have implications for how other people use, and feel, about the space that is their home. A note on the door telling children to keep out while a meeting takes place may appear innocuous but create feelings of discomfort or anger. Many of us associate ‘home’ with freedom and relaxation, but rules introduced to facilitate homebased working might disrupt this sense of ‘home’ and even create tensions over whose interests should come first. Will working from home disrupt the lives of family members or other co-residents?
The challenges of homebased working
The challenges of homebased working are not all about motivation and commitment and, as the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic persist, employers will need to work to support their homeworking employees. This is equally true for those self-employed people who have suddenly found themselves operating a homebased business and need to think about how to manage their home (and their time) effectively. Maintaining a clear work-life balance can be difficult at the best of times, but the relocation of work due to the current global health crisis makes this a more significant challenge for many more people. It will be important to not lose sight of these factors as we all try to adapt to the ‘new normal’ in our working lives.
By Dr Oliver Mallett, Stirling Management School, University of Stirling
Find out more about the ‘Working@Home’ project led by researchers from the University of Stirling or how you can participate in the research: https://workingathome.org.uk/