Working well in uncertain times: the benefits of working at home

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By Dr Daniel Wheatley
Department of Management, University of Birmingham

Work has a central role in the quality of our lives. An increasingly large body of research has emphasised a range of features that influence the experience we have of work, such as: pay and reward; length of working day/week; job security; development opportunities; working relationships; and flexible working arrangements. ‘Good work’ is at the heart of a flourishing society, and is essential to the health of individuals and the organisations they work in.

Recent steps taken in a number of nations to limit the spread of coronavirus have included limiting population mobility and employers are moving toward remote working. While remote working is not possible in some jobs, it is for many of us; despite this, we don’t often work at home. At these challenging times, it is important that we emphasise that working at home for those who are able to can actually deliver a range of benefits for both the individual and the organisation.

Research that I conducted using data from the British Household Panel Survey published in 2017 in the journal Work, Employment and Society evidenced the positive impact that working at home can have on job and leisure satisfaction. In the same year, I published research in Work and Occupations using two separate years of data for 20,000 employees from the Understanding Society survey. This research further showed that the greater the levels of control someone has over their work tasks and schedule, the more significant the wellbeing benefits. These findings demonstrate some of the benefits which can be realised from workers having greater levels of control over their own working lives, enabling better management of work alongside household responsibilities.

However, working at home is not plain sailing all the time. There is often tension between workers and their employer over the use of company time when working at home, which can result in high levels of monitoring worker activity when they are not physically in the workplace. In addition, more recent analysis I performed with the CIPD on their 2019 UK Working Lives Survey highlighted the potential for significant overwork amongst those working at home. This shows the importance of taking ownership over how we work when outside of the traditional workplace and ensuring we balance work effectively, including taking breaks, so that we are able to work productively and preserve our wellbeing.

My work with the CIPD also highlighted a high degree of unmet demand for flexible working in the UK labour market, as over two-thirds (68%) of the employees surveyed stated a preference to work flexibly in at least one form that is not currently available to them. In the current difficult circumstances, it is evident that our weddedness to more traditional workplace-based employment has left us less than prepared to adapt efficiently to changes in the external environment. Employers need to better embrace flexible working and move away from the current focus on insecure employment such as temporary and zero hour contracts.

Fully embracing flexible modes of work such as working at home – including relevant investment in technology to enable this – will not only deliver the benefits highlighted in my, and others, research but also increase the adaptability of the labour market in the short and longer term. Although perhaps not the central concern of many in the current climate, ‘good’ home-based work is achievable and perhaps even a solution to the current work-based dilemma created by COVID-19, and should be a common goal for individuals, organisations and society.

Quick guide to working from home:

  • Create a positive work environment
    Prepare your workspace. It is important to work in a comfortable environment. Locating close to a window allows natural light and for you to change your focal length at frequent intervals to minimise eye strain. Make sure the temperature in the room is comfortable and that you have a source of fresh air.
  • Divide space
    Where possible it can be helpful to divide your work and non-work space e.g. if you can allocate space in a spare bedroom or home office to working at home. However, this is not possible for all of us. In these cases managing separation between work and home can mean simply packing up your work area at the end of each working day so that you can create a separation and avoid feeling as though you are constantly connected to work.
  • Divide time
    One of the major potential benefits of working at home is managing your own work schedule. How to spend the extra time gained from not commuting is one aspect to consider. Employing a structure to your working day, whether that takes the forms of a 9-5 or something quite different e.g. 8am-12pm and 4-8pm, is a good method of ensuring that you continue to work at a healthy and productive level.
  • Take breaks
    Take breaks, but also remember that a change is as good as a rest. Taking breaks is essential. A simple method for ensuring you take breaks is to set a timer when working. It is hugely effective in ensuring you get a physical break from sitting at a visual display. It helps avoid eye strain and physical aches and pains from sitting for long periods. Breaks also provide much needed thinking time. Some of the best ideas come when giving your mind time and space away from work.
  • Keep social
    We benefit from a wealth of potential methods of keeping in direct communication with colleagues when working at home. Use of video conferencing facilities such as Skype for Business and others, as well as many forms of social media (e.g. WhatsApp groups), allow for us to maintain virtual (face-to-face) contact when working remotely. It is also important to remember you can simply pick up the phone and have chat with a colleague. Regular contact with others is a good way to ensure we look after the mental health of ourselves and others during this time.
  • Be mindful
    Taking time to take notice of the present, experiencing the environment around us and our own thoughts and feelings, has been shown to improve our mental wellbeing. There are lots of resources available to support us being mindful, including resources such as Headspace and the Calm App. Within CoSS we also have ten trained Mental Health First Aiders who can offer support during the time you are working at home.

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