Professor Gail Kinman surveys the emerging research on how we have been working in lockdown, assesses the positives and negatives, such as burnout, and suggests how employers can support workers over the next months.
To reduce the risk of fuelling the COVID-19 pandemic, in March this year the UK government advised that all workers who could work from home should do so. Almost overnight, the number of homeworkers increased to almost 50% of the working population. While some have found it a positive experience, others have struggled to adjust to their new working patterns.
From the early days of lockdown, we have been monitoring people’s experiences of working at home and found considerable variation in their circumstances; some had comfortable, well-equipped home offices, while others were obliged to work from their kitchen table, their bed, or even the garden shed.
Many struggled to achieve ‘business as usual’ and were obliged to juggle the demands of a high- pressured job with their domestic responsibilities. Organisations also found transitioning to homeworking to be a challenge, with a survey of HR global professionals finding that many had difficulty keeping remote employees engaged, productive and connected.
The large-scale experiment in homeworking has encouraged many businesses to re-evaluate how work is done. Some have found that productivity has increased, as staff are spending quality time working with fewer distractions.
Nonetheless, homeworking has risks that must be carefully managed for staff to be happy and productive. Firstly, supporting the health and safety of people working at home is just as important as those in traditional workplaces and guidance is needed.
Home offices must be set up ergonomically and regular breaks are needed to minimise discomfort and avoid musculoskeletal problems. People can be tempted to overwork if their home is also their office and if they feel they need to prove their worth in an uncertain job market.
There is evidence that working hours have increased during the pandemic and work has become more intense – a recent global study of over three million people from more than 21,000 companies found that the working day was, on average, 48 minutes longer. Other studies suggest that this is a considerable underestimation and many people are putting in between two and three additional hours per day. The number of video meetings has understandably increased substantially during lockdown, but they can be time-consuming and drain energy.
There is also evidence that working patterns have changed, with many people logging in later in the day but resuming work at night in order to balance work with caring responsibilities and home-schooling. People may feel they have no alternative, but this will not be sustainable over the longer term. Children are now returning to school, but the situation is uncertain and future lockdowns are possible.
According to a US survey conducted during the pandemic, more than four out of 10 workers were experiencing signs of burnout due to an increased workload, poor communication and support from their employer and difficulties balancing their personal and professional life.
Studies show that people differ in the extent to which they prefer their work and personal lives to be integrated or separated. The key to success is having an arrangement that meets their needs and control over their working patterns.
During lockdown, people had no choice over working at home and were given little guidance on how to manage this in a healthy and sustainable way. Several months later, our research suggests that people have generally adjusted to homeworking, but some continue to experience problems juggling their work demands with their domestic responsibilities. Again, people have different preferences about the future. Some would prefer to work from home permanently, while others miss the change of scenery and the opportunity to interact face-to-face with their
There is evidence that some people even miss their daily commute, as this can prepare them for the day ahead and help them wind down from work before arriving home.
Working from home is here to stay for many people – many organisations are encouraging their staff to work at home for the foreseeable future, some have abandoned their offices altogether, while others are planning a ‘hybrid’ approach where working at home is combined with a few days in the office.
The good news is that many companies are offering people choice and flexibility about where and when they work which has the potential to accommodate people’s diverse needs and improve work-life balance, wellbeing and productivity.
Nonetheless, it is crucial that employers help their staff develop the skills and competencies needed to work at home safely and effectively and recognise and address the risks of remote working. Particular attention is needed to ‘Zoom fatigue’ by limiting the number and duration of online meetings and ensuring that only people who really need to attend are invited. Managers also need to act as role models for self-care by setting appropriate boundaries between their work and personal life.