Working from home

The biggest productivity experiment of the decade. Will the way we work today be the way we work tomorrow?

In March 2017, a video of two young children interrupting their father’s BBC interview about South Korea went viral. Professor Robert Kelly was quoted as saying: “I thought I’d blown it in front of the whole world,” when his children entered his home office during the exceptionally stoic online interview. Kelly calmly was shown gently shoving his eldest away before his panicked wife ran into the room, grabbed the disruptors and removed them. This kind of interruption during an online meeting certainly was not the norm – and may even have been frowned upon. But fast forward a few years into a pandemic, disturbances like these are commonplace and they’ve become a standard part of the work-from-home landscape we all find ourselves in.

Eleven months ago, when news of national lockdowns across the world broke, uncertainty and fear rippled across the globe. Work-from-home orders were issued and those who could, set up temporary offices on dining room or kitchen tables, ready to tackle work in a very different way. Businesses scrambled to ensure all employees were set up properly at home, with access to high-speed internet connections, video conferencing software and comfortable office chairs. Working from home has arguably been every commuter and office-bound employee’s dream and this quick shift from office-to-home work conditions was something of a welcome novelty. Early adopters of the work-from-home trend carried on as normal, unfazed by the shift around them.

Routine communication with staff will not only motivate them to succeed, it will make them feel valued

The way we work has changed dramatically and business leaders have had to become more agile in their approach to managing their workforce. Managers need to take cognizance of the fact that some people in their workforce draw their productivity through extrinsic factors in the workplace. Some team members who thrive in a fast-paced, noisy office environment may find working in isolation challenging. It’s important to remember that not every employee has the discipline, drive and emotional intelligence to produce their best work while not being corralled by office walls and routine. In these instances, regular, open channels of communication are essential and clear goal setting is of the utmost importance to ensure a team’s success. Routine communication with staff will not only motivate them to succeed, it will make them feel valued and seen, and a positive employee experience will always lead to business success. It’s never been more important to know your staff and the shift towards more casual interactions on video conferencing has certainly set the stage for this.

The philosophic concept of the separation of church and state can be used to compare the separation of work and home. Whilst historically we went to work, finished our day and came home and tried not to bring work home; our work now is literally and figuratively brought home. The relentlessness of lockdown and government mandated stay-at-home orders means that our church and state aren’t separated at all. The results of this lack of separation of work and home have led to blurred working hours, far longer than eight hour working days, and lunch at our desks. Not to mention far more hours in front of a screen than is deemed healthy. There are many lessons to be learned from this. Managers should be taking special interest in the physical health of their staff and insisting that they leave their desks regularly during the workday, as well as taking walks outside or exercising often. Should the world of work return to some semblance of pre-COVID normality, companies should certainly be planning for higher levels of flexibility for their staff. Whilst the vast majority of people would certainly return to normal working conditions, they’d value the offering of split working, varying the days working from the office and at home.

Now more than ever it’s imperative that we pay attention to work-life balance. Going forward, whether or not the way we conduct our work returns to a pre-COVID norm, perhaps it’s time leaders relook at the way they manage their workforce and conduct business. We’ve met family members, even if by accident, we’ve learned that it’s not always necessary to enforce strict working hours and micromanaging creates feelings of anxiety and mistrust. We’ve learned that while deadlines are important, not everyone does their best work between 9am and 5pm. Perhaps some workers operate optimally when their family is asleep or after they’ve gone for their much needed run. An important lesson learned during the last year is that flexibility in the way we live, and work is paramount when it comes to the health of self and of business.

According to Harvard Business Review, research conducted during COVID-19 shows that a large number of managers are struggling with the effective management of people working from home. This translates into workers feeling untrusted and unfortunately, micromanaged.  There are enormous consequences of poor management during a crisis like this which have far-reaching negative effects, not only for employees and their families, but for businesses too. This suggests that managers need help to develop their managerial skills in this area. Merely bringing this to a manager’s attention is unlikely to result in changed behaviour. Like staff need continuous professional development, so do managers and organisations need to implement this kind of training for high-level staff.

Managers should be taking special interest in the physical health of their staff and insisting that they leave their desks regularly

Here are five ways forward, according to Harvard Business Review, that will support managers who are finding it challenging to manage staff who are working remotely:

1. Implement change at the top. It is very difficult to expect managers to lead differently to their leaders. Managers who struggle leading remote teams have low job autonomy themselves and are likely managed by controlling bosses. Therefore, we must affect changes to leadership style right at the top of the business.

2. Provide effective communication and support. Organisations need to move past merely talking about supporting flexible working and actually support it. For example, ensure your staff have adequate equipment, encourage staff well-being by not expecting them to keep office working hours, and offer training in support of flexible working. These changes will not only help workers who are operating from home but will also help managers because they give a strong signal about the company’s full commitment to the flexibility.

3. Educate managers and staff members about the potential benefits of well-designed remote working. Research has shown that it is possible for staff to be more productive while working from home. If autonomy is low and micromanagement high because of managerial mistrust, the benefits of remote working are unlikely to become evident. Why expect your staff to remain at their desks from 9-5 when they’re living in their office? Managers need to understand the work designs that need to be put in place in order to support effective remote working.

4. Check in rather than check up on. Simply telling managers to trust their employees won’t enact change. They need to learn the skills of delegation and empower their staff to do their best rather than controlling their output from afar. This will in turn promote overall employee satisfaction. Frequent, positive communication with staff is even more important now than ever. But rather than checking up on what your team is doing, perhaps check in to see how they are doing instead. Provide guidance, information and support and encourage autonomy in the process.

5. Manage by results not by input. Managers need to focus more on results and not hours worked. Managing by results goes hand-in-hand with job autonomy. When staff are given the discretion to work the way that suits their situation, they are more likely to yield excellent results.

Inviting colleagues and strangers into our homes via video conferencing certainly brought a much-needed human connection to the somewhat cold world of boardrooms, suits and formalities; not only because of isolating COVID-19 restrictions, but also because as humans we crave tangible interactions with other humans. While we are all kept apart, having access to video conferencing applications such as Zoom, and Microsoft Teams is a welcome replacement for office water cooler chats or a visit to the pub at the end of a long day. It relieves the monotony of lockdown and has brought us closer together and certainly made the world seem much smaller. For now.  

Debbie Walton is deputy editor at ERP Today