The shutdown of entire economies overnight has prompted the biggest experiment in home working in a generation. Companies sent home millions of employees with a laptop and a login and expected them to remain productive. These were exceptional times, and as the lockdowns have eased, so businesses have looked to maintain home working as a longer-term strategy.
While the technical and process aspects of remote working are understood, the softer cultural aspects can be ignored. My first exposure came in the early 1990s as a Lotus Notes consultant working on projects to bring people together across different geographies. While colleagues busied themselves with code, I was more interested in how remote working affected employee motivation, culture and behaviour. It’s an interest that I’ve maintained for almost three decades.
In this article I explore the softer issues in home working. I consider some risks and benefits, how employees can feel isolated and demotivated, and offer some suggestions to improve performance. I’ve used a conversational interview style, which I hope is clearer and more engaging.
Could you start by outlining what remote working is?
In the normal running of a business, staff work side-by-side in offices. Remote working lets people work from customer premises, flexible offices or even the employee’s home. It’s working from home that’s gaining popularity, although it comes with distinct risks.
Could you expand on these risks?
First there are physical risks. We configure an office to optimise the working environment. Furniture, equipment and layouts are set up to meet or exceed a minimum standard of ergonomics. An employee working from home is unlikely to apply the same standards when they’re working from a kitchen table or only supplied with a company laptop.
Perhaps more damaging are the ones associated with isolation. Working from home separates the employee from colleagues and the wider corporate culture. The longer they’re isolated from the culture, the more likely they are to experience stress, lose confidence and find it difficult to separate work and personal life.
Let’s tackle the physical issues first. How does working from home differ from being in an office?
There are minimum ergonomic standards companies should meet. These usually involve having a separate keyboard and mouse, an ergonomically appropriate chair, adequate working space and appropriate lighting. Transferred to a home setting, these minimum standards are harder to apply.
Instructing staff to work from home usually involves giving them a laptop or asking them to use their own equipment, which is becoming more common. There may be an email from HR about setting up a workstation or some sort of self-assessment.
Few companies I’ve encountered provide the accessories a laptop user needs, such as a monitor and keyboard. Fewer offer to provide a chair. We assume this is supplied by the employee.
Then there’s the physical space. I’m sure you’ve seen articles on working from home with the smiling and attractive young person at their bright kitchen table sipping coffee and using a MacBook. There is truth in these images: surveys I’ve run have found the kitchen table is the most likely place home workers will base themselves. But this is necessity rather than choice. Typically, I’ve found as few as a quarter of remote workers have a space they can dedicate to work. The vast majority will “make do” in cluttered rooms where closing the door or avoiding distractions becomes impossible. Poor working environments are amplified where employees are sharing with partners or flat mates who are also home working.
To put it simply, we have not designed housing to function as home and office. Those whose homes can work in both roles are typically more senior and less likely to appreciate the conflicting demands of asking someone to work in a space they call home.
Does this impact employee morale?
It seems to have a negative, cumulative effect. There are studies that show poor home working environments contribute to lower work satisfaction and increased stress.
You mentioned culture. Could you expand on this?
Culture is a nebulous thing that’s hard to define and yet has a profound impact on business. The simplest definition is it’s “the way we do things”, which includes as all the formal structures needed to keep the business running. A lot of the formality needed to run a remote workforce is understood and reasonably well supported.
However, the “way we do things” also refers to the informal. It accumulates through the stories we tell, heroes we celebrate and rituals we perform that are outside of formal processes and policies. We pick these up through our day-to-day interactions with colleagues.
Perhaps more important, and more likely to be disrupted by extensive home working, is the cultural network. This is the informal network of influencers around the business who keep it running. They’re the ones we turn to for help and guidance outside of our teams and reporting lines.
When we’re isolated from this constant stream of culture, its effect declines. You can see this in colleagues who return from long-term sick leave, or secondments to other teams or clients. There’s a period where they’re a little disoriented until cultural memory kicks in and they settle back into being “one of us”.
How does a business protect itself against losing culture?
There are two questions to solve here. The first is how to maintain culture for those already exposed. The second is how to bring new hires into the culture when they won’t be immersed.
My experience suggests a purely technology driven approach will not work. Usually companies will provide informal chat rooms, leave Zoom meetings open for drop-ins, encourage informal conversations on Skype. These are great measures, but can’t replace the power of people being in the same room.
Businesses have to plan to bring people together at some point. This isn’t about having a get-together in the pub (when they open); they need to be working together in a quasi-normal environment. The approaches I’ve seen work best either bring staff in one day a week, or have one week a month at the office. The longer people are together, the longer the effect seems to last.
There also needs to be some cross-pollination to help cultural networks develop. Scheduling office-days so there’s overlap of teams will help. You may also need to force the intermingling a little.
New hires are a little more difficult. I’ve seen remote onboarding and development approaches trialed at contact centres. I’ve not seen a distance learning approach that works as well as putting a group of people in a room and training them as a team. Then there are the management and developmental issues as they get out on the floor.
What kinds of management issues have you seen?
A lot of “management” happens informally. A team leader will hear something that prompts an intervention, yet never appears on a report. Or a team member will need help and catch their manager’s eye or see they’re busy and save it for later.
For new employees, even those in senior roles, being near their teams builds their knowledge and confidence. It helps them to understand the personalities they’re working with and how to interact.
When this interaction is taken away, we’re lost. Email doesn’t have a tone of voice. Conference calls don’t do body language. Video calls are awkward for many. Now throw an unfamiliar person into the mix who’s struggling to find their place in the team.
As managers lose control, many will focus on what they can see. I’ve seen a few too many excellent managers regress into supervisors when tasked with looking after remote workers.
What toll does this take on employees?
This creates a bit of tension for employees. On the one hand, remote working promises to free up the time we’d waste on commutes so we have more leisure time. We’ll be able to have lunch with our families, run small personal errands and have flexibility to deal with childcare issues. These are the big benefits often sold by organisations to employees when they look at remote working.
The flip side could be a higher risk of problems with personal wellbeing and mental health. We’ve already discussed the loss of social cues and connections as we’re isolated from our teams. We’ll also encounter a pressure to be “always on”, which can lead to longer working hours. Working from home also means losing aspects of work / life separation. One pan-European study has suggested home workers are twice as likely to experience mental health issues as their office based colleagues.
Is there any benefit to home working?
There’s little doubt many employees enjoy the flexibility of working from home. There are also those who thrive in a home working environment. However, we’re in unfamiliar territory with the outbreak of coronavirus and I think we have to be cautious before we close offices completely.
Contractors and “digital nomads” have worked remotely successfully. Why do they differ from office staff?
Contractors and consultants are not your staff. They’re typically used for specific deliverables and are task oriented. There is also a convincing argument those who contract are already pre-disposed to effective remote working.
Don’t write them off though. They have valuable lessons to teach about productivity and self-discipline.
It seems remote working will be difficult to make work?
I don’t want to sound like you should never do remote working and force your staff to come to work in an office. There are sound reasons to allow people to work from home or different locations. Putting together the formal structures and processes shouldn’t be too difficult either.
However, it needs careful management. You can’t expect staff to work from home without the right support for their work environment and wellbeing. Relying on digital tools to recreate the tacit, informal networks and knowledge that builds culture will not work.
Teams should be brought back together to work periodically. They should also overlap with other teams to allow informal networks to reform and grow.
New hires should have their early training and orientation in a physical location, and ideally not alone. If training will be provided digitally, it needs investment and structure to compliment human-to-human interaction. You can’t put the PowerPoint online with a talkie track and expect it to work.
A daily huddle within teams will help keep some direction. One approach I’ve seen work particularly well was a formal daily stand-up first thing to set the direction for the day, then an informal “huddle” at 5:30 to finish it. This latter gathering signalled the end of the working day and gave everyone permission to stop working.
Finally, managers have got to work harder to lead their teams. They can’t rely on ad hoc encounters that won’t happen, or for team members to bring problems to them. Reaching out to employees informally has to happen regularly and not just as part of the formal one-to-one cycle. They also need to remember the formal reports are not the only factors that influence team performance and morale.
Should companies use remote working?
I think there’s little doubt that it has a place in the suite of tools business leaders use. I’m not keep on mandating staff work from home as some kind of cost cutting measure, or a quick fix to social distancing. It needs thought and planning, which I don’t think happened beyond the practical steps when lockdowns started.
Now we’ve had time to take a deep breath and think about what works and how to make it work better. Good support for home working is essential, so too is giving people space to come back and work together for a while. We need to offer our people support to adapt to working from home as they will have to learn a few new skills and strategies to remain productive and mentally fit. Finally, we have to recognise a sizeable minority may prefer to work from an office either for practical reasons, or to maintain a work / life balance that suits them.