There are those who are used to working from home, and those for whom it is still quite a novelty. We are a team of ten individuals who probably do at least half of our work remotely and have introduced the concept of home working in some client organisations. Provided that you can deal with the solitude and the additional self-discipline necessary for productive home working, it can be an enormous time saver, but it’s not all upside, and you have to find a way of enjoying the upside whilst handling the downside.
There are a few mechanisms that can make the experience even better and it’s also worth looking at this through the eyes of the employer as well as through the eyes of the employee.
Many individuals now find themselves working from home quite unexpectedly, without much warning, and employers might not always realise the obligations that lie with them. Even for those who are already habituated to home working on frequent occasions, dealing with the sudden solution of “total” home working to keep business going, has often meant that shortcuts have been taken. So, looking at home working from the employer’s point of view, it is worth remembering that there are certain obligations on employers in terms of liability. The most obvious challenge is to ensure that IT can provide employees not only with good access to company drives and systems, but also that mechanisms are in place for constant communication. Communication becomes even more important when people are working remotely, not only to ensure that business continues in the best possible way, but also for the sake of staff engagement and morale. The maxim that no one is ever criticised for over communicating applies even more in the current situation.
Importantly, and often forgotten at this time, is that employers still have a legal duty of care for someone working at home, in terms of their health and safety, both for their physical and mental wellbeing. It is very important to ensure that communication mechanisms cover the latter need as well, so that businesses are not more adversely affected than necessary.
If individuals are working from home, it’s very important to consider what your liability insurance actually says. What will happen, for example, if the individual has an accident in the home during working hours, and then makes a claim against the company? I remember the au-pair of a friend of mine breaking her toe on one occasion, from kicking the dining table whilst hoovering. It sounds like a tall story but did happen. Accidents can easily happen at home. Does your relevant employer insurance policy cover you? We’ve all also faced the embarrassing experience of throwing tomato soup, or equivalent, over a keyboard and wrecking it, but, of course, most of us are working on work laptops if working from home, and the potential damage is even greater. Does your relevant employer insurance cover your employee’s equipment? Likewise, if an employee is injured because of a piece of inadequate equipment, there could be a liability on the employer…. Then, there’s the old hazard of trailing cables.
So, the question is, what to do? Just as in the workplace we carry out Risk Assessments, both from a physical and mental health point of view, it might be worthwhile for an employer to provide employees with some sort of self-assessment check list, and the employer can then put the onus on the employee to provide a signed and completed form confirming their set up is adequate and safe for their needs.
I will write separately on another occasion about resilience and mental health, but there is not only the physical safety and health of the employee to consider, but also the mental health.
From the employee viewpoint, home working suits some of us extremely well. There is no wasted travel time and one can focus and take breaks very productively, by putting in the washing or going for a walk without breaching a contract. So, the output from an individual (rather than the hours spent) can be greater than when we are in the workplace. If you have a bit of a down day, in the workplace, you can always have a chat at the coffee machine or talk to a colleague. This opportunity has an upside and a downside. It can be extremely lonely at home, particularly with the sense of entrapment that lockdown gives some individuals. On the other hand, some individuals love being alone and relish the choices that the time not spent travelling to clients and the workplace gives them. Some will find that working from home is the answer to everything, to all the challenges they’ve been facing. They will become, therefore, very well-suited to it and are dreading the return to what might be described as normality. Employers should ready themselves for a potential increase in requests for greater flexible working in the future.
Home working does not suit everyone and the current circumstances driving home-working will exacerbate the lack of social contact. Therefore, communicating with colleagues, in exactly the same way as we do when we are at work, but using technological media, is important. The employee can take as much time on this as required, without affecting productivity, to boost morale during the day. The employee has a role to play in team working as well as the employer, even though the team is a remote one.
If we were all perfect communicators there would be no challenges, either domestically or in the workplace. Every exit interview we’ve ever done indicates that individuals regard lack of communication as one of the ‘push’ factors in leaving an organisation. Employers and employees both take a responsibility in making sure that communication works well, and that individuals speak up when they feel it is not working well - before it is too late. It’s probably a good moment for employers to look at all their media accounts and communication channels so that their communications systems are not only effective but also costs are controlled, and impact is maximised with the minimum of outlay.
It’s worth having regularly timetabled meetings within teams, and across the company, as well as with business partners, so that these are not forgotten with a much more ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation. Employers will find themselves unable to hide behind written communication, and much greater reliance will be placed upon emails, which are often misunderstood if dashed off in a moment. Although the level of care, morale and mental health varies from company to company, the way you write emails has an enormous effect on the morale of the recipient, and possibly it’s worth slowing down and making sure that these hit the right note and express some measure of some concern for the recipient.
There is no substitute within the normal, physical workplace, for face to face communication, so we have to extrapolate from that and make sure that there is enough communication through visual media, however uncomfortable managers and leaders may find it. Taking the time to communicate will produce dividends when life returns to whatever the new normal is going to be.
Tolerance of individual styles of working and life-management needs to increase with remote working and yet, in times of stress, such as now, tolerance tends to diminish. Self-discipline is critical for productivity and people have varying levels of self-discipline. If it doesn’t come naturally, then it’s a hard thing to practise but, without it, good time management goes out of the window along with productivity and the renewed mental and physical fitness that we are all trying so hard to cultivate.
Time for a bit of coaching perhaps?