You’ve heard it so many times, but we’ll say it just once more. Working from home (WFH) is the ‘new normal’ for organisations across the globe.
WFH had already increased 159% since 2005 (Global Workplace Analytics, 2019) and 20% of the UK workforce already works from home some of the time (Eurostat, 2019). But with current restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic these figures have ballooned.
Changes in work habits will persist when the virus subsides. Having had enforced experience, both employees and organisations will recognise benefits (Financial Times 17/3/20) that will make working from home a more credible option when the lockdown ends.
If home working is here to stay, managers must develop the right skills for managing employees who work from home. In this article we look at the positives and negatives of home working and provide some useful tips to improve your WFH management skills.
The Benefits of Home Working
There are several advantages of WFH for employees and organisations.
A 2019 survey of 2500 workers around the world found the benefit of WFH most reported (40%) was the flexible schedule – being able to walk the dog instead of commuting, catching up with friends and not having to schedule time off for appointments. Next was the freedom to work from any location (30%), followed by time with family (14%).
A 2017 UN Survey of studies in 15 countries also found that 78% of employees cited a better work-life balance as the main benefit of WFH, followed by more family time (49%) and reduced stress of commuting (45%). Employee-oriented work-time flexibility can be beneficial to work-life balance and health, although irregular and unpredictable schedules can have the opposite effect. Also, a meta-analysis of 46 studies (Gajendran and Harrison, 2007) found that WFH leads to reduced role stress and increased job satisfaction.
In addition, evidence shows that WFH can be more productive. In one Chinese study (Bloom et al., 2013) remote worker productivity increased by 13%, and the 2017 UN survey concluded that WFH had positive effects on individual performance. In a 2017 survey of 5500 workers by Flexjobs, 66% of professionals said they would be more productive working remotely than in a traditional office, with only 2% saying they would be less productive. Plus, there are obvious financial savings to organisations in terms of workspaces, and to employees in terms of travel.
The Challenges of Working from Home
All these benefits of WFH make it attractive to organisations and employees. However, there are also challenges. Here we look at the most important problems faced by home workers and what managers can do about them.
The main challenges are:
- Work-life Boundaries
- Relationships with Coworkers
- Relationships with Managers
- Mental Health
- Physical Health
- Technical Issues
- The Influence of Personality
While many home workers report an improved work-life balance, a common issue is maintaining boundaries between work and home life. Remote workers may enjoy more free time and a flexible schedule, but often find home responsibilities intrude on their work. A 2017 UN survey found many remote workers report missing or neglecting family activities because of work activities. Research (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2014) covering employees in 30 Japanese companies found that 43.5% of respondents find it ‘difficult to draw a line between work and family life’. In a 2011 Ipsos study, 70% of participants said technology led to a blurring of boundaries because it brought work into their personal lives and 48% of them reported that WFH created more work–family conflicts.
Boundary issues work the other way too – many remote workers say that they neglect work due to family responsibilities. So while it may seem an advantage to be able to stop working to look after children or chat with a spouse, these activities can impinge on work duties.
Tips for managers:
- Be aware of the challenges faced by each of your team members with regards to maintaining work-life boundaries. Do they have a separate workspace, can they close the door to distractions?
- Help them create structure in their day so other tasks can be done without detracting from work activities. Perhaps you could agree an ‘on’ and ‘off’ time but keep some room for flexibility
- Communication is the key. The more you are aware of work-life boundary issues the more you can help them. By showing you understand their situation they will be more open to making positive changes
When WFH, how many of us switch off our laptops and phones at 5pm and don’t return until the next day? In the 2019 Buffer survey, the most commonly reported struggle with WFH (22% of respondents) was unplugging after work. The 2017 UN survey of 15 countries found that WFH leads to longer work hours. The Finnish national survey (Kandolin and Tuomivaara, 2010) highlighted the risk of increased stress in cases of prolonged working hours when WFH, due to less recovery time. The UN survey found that WFH consistently resulted in working not only longer but harder. This may account for the improved productivity of WFH, but poses a significant risk to the long term health of employees.
Without the office routine, it is easy to work longer than officially required. Work time can bleed into what should be family or relaxation time, leading to further stress, exhaustion and conflict. A lack of a clearly defined work space at home can make this even more difficult.
Even the vacation time taken by home workers varies widely. According to the Buffer (2019) survey, 42% of remote workers take 2 weeks or less vacation time per year – not enough for good health and wellbeing.
Regularly working long hours and worrying about getting projects done leads to stress, and in the long term, burnout. The impaired mental health leads to poor job performance or sickness absence, and costs more to a company than if if it had taken proper care of its workers.
Tips for managers:
- Encourage a clear schedule for work at home, with defined starting and finishing points, including breaks and holidays
- Set emails to return an ‘out of office’ message outside of work hours.
- Switch off work phones out of hours
- Managers should avoid calling remote workers outside of work hours or asking them to complete tasks which would require them to work late
- Allow realistic time to meet deadlines, factor in challenges when WFH
Relationships with Coworkers
In the 2019 Buffer survey, 17% of remote workers stated that collaborating and communicating with colleagues was challenging. A physical presence is preferred for building relationships.
A 2019 Nuffield white paper reported that more than 2.5 days per week of WFH leads to low productivity and poor coworker relations. Remote workers are considered by some to have an “easier life” which can be a cause of resentment among office-based employees.
According to a 2017 poll by the Harvard Business Review many remote workers feel that their colleagues in the office don’t treat them equally. They worry about mistrust and being left out. Their main concern was coworkers not fighting for their priorities, followed by colleagues changing projects without telling them in advance. They also worried that coworkers might say bad things behind their backs.
Each can resent the other: office workers envy the comforts and flexibility of working at home, while remote workers envy the ease of collaboration and social aspects of the office space.
Tips for managers:
- Monitor and reduce conflict by encouraging communication. Share the value and challenges faced by both ‘sides’
- Reassure remote workers that they are valued
- All employees should understand why some employees are able to work at home and any resentments should be addressed
- Model respect for all employees and show concern for each individual’s challenges equally, whether office or home based
- Ensure remote workers can communicate with coworkers and have access to the same resources
- Schedule regular online team meetings to involve both remote and office-based workers to give them opportunity to collaborate and feel connected
- Consider a mentor programme between employees
- Make time for non-work related socialising and plan inclusive social events
Relationships with Managers
WFH can lead to conflict with managers as well as coworkers. Most of the national studies in the 2017 UN survey found a lot of management resistance to WFH in many organisations. The studies agreed that this resistance is due mainly to the fact that the traditional ‘command and control’ style of management is not really possible with WFH, and many managers fear this loss of control. For example, the US national study notes, ‘Managers are often distrustful of teleworkers. Out of sight, they assume teleworkers are slacking off’.
This lack of trust may in some cases may be valid but studies show WFH increases productivity (Bloom et al., 2013; Harvard Business Review, 2019). And there is much managers can do to maintain good relationships with remote workers.
Tips for managers:
- maintain good communications with all remote employees. Everyone should feel they are important, so don’t neglect those you don’t like as much or with whom you have less in common. Any sense of favouritism will breed discontent
- Check in regularly with everyone, not just to see how they are getting on with work but how they are coping with working remotely. And chat to them about their personal lives too, so they feel they are more than just a cog in the machine
The very remoteness of WFH can affect mental health. According to the 2017 UN survey, poor sleep is a common feature of many home workers, while higher stress is most common in mobile remote workers. We have already noted the potential for stress due to:
- poor communication or collaboration with colleagues
- conflicts and resentments between remote and office-based workers
- blurred work-life boundaries, leading to family conflicts
- working both longer and harder
- feeling a lack of trust from managers
However the simple isolation of WFH can cause serious psychological harm. In the Argentina study featured in the 2017 UN survey, 62% of remote workers reported ‘less interaction with friends’, and 50% reported ‘being more isolated’ (Fundación CENIT, 2012). According to an Italian survey of managers of companies in the services sector, a serious threat to workers’ well-being arises from the lack of social interaction and loneliness (reported by 42% of respondents), and the lack of help from colleagues when working (30%) (Manager Italia, 2011). As well as missing social interactions, remote workers do not receive as much feedback, coaching, or encouragement from others, and have less visibility among coworkers.
While some studies have found reduced stress in WFH, and indeed nearly all remote workers want WFH to continue to part of their lives (Buffer, 2019), there is clear potential for mental health issues. Anxiety, depression, loneliness and burnout are all too common features of modern life, but can be hard to spot without face-to-face contact. Managers need to take extra care in monitoring the mental states of remote workers. Regular check-ins and chats about how the employee is doing are essential.
Spotting Mental Health Problems
To help you look for clues that an employee is experiencing mental health difficulties, use the mnemonic CLUES:
- C = Changes in usual behaviour, such as missing meetings or deadlines, or not taking care of physical appearance
- L = Language – such as making frequent negative statements, or interpreting events negatively (for example, taking neutral comments as criticisms)
- U = Unfocussed – lack of concentration and appearing distracted
- E = Emotions – showing stress, anxiety or low mood through facial expressions, posture, agitation, or describing those emotions
- S = Sleep – reporting poor sleep or tiredness
Tips for managers:
- Follow our ALRIGHT technique if you are concerned about their mental health. You are not in a position to give therapy and should avoid giving advice but many need to direct them to professional help.
- Encourage work-life boundaries
- Be a role model, share your strategies for coping with stress and demonstrate resilience
- Consider reviewing work demands temporarily to ease pressure
- Listen, supportively and non-judgementally
- Regularly check in and show you care about their wellbeing
- Understand that mental health issues are real
In a Finnish study reported in the 2017 UN survey (Turvallisuusuutiset, 2014) on ergonomic aspects of telework, more than half of the respondents stated that they had not paid any attention to ergonomics while working at home. 94% of them reported that their employers had not shown any interest in ergonomics either. Nearly half of the respondents did not have an office chair or a working desk at home, and 53% said that they suffered from shoulder pains; also 46% reported neck pains and one-third had experienced back pain. Overall, almost half of the respondents said that they experienced work-related pains. Such ergonomic issues were commonly reported by the countries in the UN survey.
Tips for managers:
- Establish that remote workers have a suitable work space, and then that they have an ergonomic chair and desk (and any other necessary furniture or equipment). Ideally the organisation should provide these items if the employee does not already have them.
- Remind employees of the importance of good posture, and taking regular breaks and exercise.
As well as ergonomic equipment, remote workers will require a computer and broadband to do their jobs. However, according to the 2019 Buffer report 75% of remote workers say their company does not cover their internet costs. With the current Covid-19 crisis, much larger numbers of employees are working at home, but some companies do not have the IT infrastructure to support this. In addition some workers are struggling to cope with the demands of remote working technology (Financial Times, 17/3/20).
Tips for managers:
- Consider if the team member needs additional IT training now they are WFH.
- Do they have IT support? if so ensure they know where to get support if needed.
- Ensure home workers have adequate IT equipment and broadband. Employees should not have to fund new equipment or internet costs necessary for them to do their job. The investment will be worthwhile; in addition to improved productivity, it will increase retention. In the 2017 Flexjobs survey 79% of respondents said they would be more loyal to their employers if they had flexible work options.
The Influence of Personality
While many remote workers will experience some or all of these challenges, managing employees who work from home does not require a one size fits all solution. Each worker will need attention paying to their specific issues. And one reason they will experience different problems is their own personality traits.
Countless studies of personality over several decades have resulted in a robust model of five traits, known as the ‘Big Five’ or OCEAN model:
- Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
- Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)
- Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
- Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached)
- Neuroticism (or emotional stability) (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)
Many more studies have examined the correlations between personality types and various outcomes. For example, more than any other trait, conscientiousness has been found to predict job performance (Sackett & Walmsley, 2014).
Neal et al. (2011) investigated the relationship between the Big Five and different aspects of work performance: proficiency (the ability of a worker to effectively perform their work duties), adaptivity (a worker’s ability to change working strategies in response to changing work environments), and proactivity (extent to which a worker will spontaneously put forth effort to change the work environment). They found that:
- Openness is positively related to proactivity at the individual and the organizational levels and is negatively related to team and organizational proficiency
- Conscientiousness is positively related to all forms of work role performance.
- Extraversion is negatively related to individual task proficiency
- Agreeableness is negatively related to individual task proactivity
- Neuroticism is negatively related to all forms of work role performance
Other researchers have found links between traits and job performance. For example, Perry et al (2018) found that employees reporting high levels of autonomy and emotional stability (low neuroticism) appear to be the most able to thrive in remote-work positions. On the other hand, employees reporting high levels of job autonomy with lower levels of emotional stability appear to be more susceptible to strain. They conclude that those who are lower in emotional stability may not need or want as much autonomy in their work. According to Rubino et al. (2012, cited in Perry et al., 2018) more neurotic employees perceive the autonomy of WFH as an additional threat, burden of responsibility, or need for accountability.
Extraversion has also been linked to performance in WFH. Hannay (2017) found extraverts struggled more with WFH, perhaps because of their greater need for social contact. Introverts in contrast enjoy being alone for long periods, and so can cope better with individual tasks than extraverts. Witt (2002) found that the effects of extraversion depends on conscientiousness. That is, low conscientiousness extraverts perform less well, perhaps because they are more likely to spend time chatting than working.
Tips for managers:
- Try to understand the personality of your remote workers and give support tailored to their individual needs. For example, employees who do not deal well with stress in the office will probably not deal well with it at home. This implies that they will need closer monitoring of their mental health and more support.
- Take our personality quiz https://delphis.org.uk/test/working-well-from-home-take-our-personality-test-to-find-out/ to help understand your employee’s specific needs.
- Use our mnemonic COSI to think about how to support your team: C = Conscientious, O = Open, S = Stable emotionally, and I = Introvert.
COSI stands for the traits of the ‘ideal’ remote worker. However such a person will be rare, so the point here is not that only COSI employees should be allowed to work remotely. Rather the COSI Model can help managers identify which employees may be more or less suited to remote work. At present with the Covid-19 crisis many more employees are working from home, so the COSI model can help a manager identify which employees will need more support. To summarise:
- Conscientious workers are more internally motivated to work, and so will need less monitoring or motivation to keep on task than those low in conscientiousness. Those very high in conscientiousness may have more difficulty unplugging, and be at more risk of stress.
- Open workers will be more proactive at individual tasks and so are well suited to more creative or independent types of remote work. Employees low in openness may work better in teams.
- Stable employees will cope better with the stresses and isolation of WFH. Those lower in emotional stability will need more monitoring and support of the types outlined in the section on mental health.
- Introverted remote workers will cope better with the isolation of WFH better than extraverts (who need more social interaction)
In these challenging times, many employees are now working from home. This gives managers new challenges, which will persist after the crisis is over, with WFH potentially increasing permanently. In this article on managing remote workers we have examined 8 of these challenges and their solutions.
To help you remember some of the key points, try this mnemonic: REMOTE
R = Reassure – Reassure remote workers that you and the team value their skills and their contribution. This will build trust, confidence and good team relationships.
E = Encourage boundaries – Discuss the employee’s work situation, whether at home or elsewhere. Do they have a dedicated workspace? Do they have issues with family life encroaching into their work? Or does their work cause them to neglect family? Help them find solutions, such as having a clear and fixed work schedule and not answering messages outside of hours.
M = Mental health – Monitor their mental states and look for signs of stress, anxiety or depression (SAD). Be a good role model of resilience and self care, and make sure they take breaks and holidays to unplug.
O = Offer support – Make sure remote workers have access to the information, technology and resources they need to do their jobs, whether that comes from you, the team, or elsewhere.
T = Talk – Regular and frequent communication is key. Use video conferencing and phone calls to make sure you know how work is progressing, but also just to have a social chat. This will help remote workers feel more involved with the team and less isolated.
E = Ergonomics – Make sure they have ergonomically sound equipment, especially their chair and desk, to avoid physical issues such as back pains. Encourage them to use good posture while working and to take regular breaks.