Remote work and worker well-being during the pandemic

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By Dr Daniel Wheatley
Department of Management, University of Birmingham

This article has been produced as part of research for a joint ESRC Festival of Social Science and Work Inclusivity Research Centre event which will be held at 3pm on Thursday 12th November 2020. You can register for the event at the Eventbrite page, which also includes joining instructions.

During 2020 we have witnessed an unprecedented and unexpected expansion of remote working in response to the global pandemic. Now, some months after many workers encountered this sudden shift in their working patterns, it is timely to consider how working remotely can be best employed in the post COVID-era.

Working at home offers a range of potential benefits for workers, organisations and society more broadly. However, this requires careful balance and consideration of how working remotely influences our well-being. A key distinction present in the recent expansion of homeworking is that is has been imposed, and is for many employees acting as the sole mode of work, rather than it reflecting a more flexible approach. In many nations, Government guidance is influencing the short-term prevalence of homeworking, requiring working from home where possible. While this rapid change in working routines is, in principle, temporary, it has prompted wider debate around more permanent moves to homeworking and led some high profile businesses, including for example Capita, to make the decision to close some workplaces.

Traditionally, remote working has been most prominent among self-employed workers who have been 100% home-based, and among employees with higher degrees/professional qualifications who have job autonomy and work at home on a more ad hoc basis. By no means are all workers now working at home either. Data from Eurofound suggests that at peak during April 2020 around 40% of workers across the EU reported their home as their place of work. Working at home has quickly become a privilege that is most widely available in managerial, professional and associate professional occupations, leaving some of those unable to work at home subject to furlough or even redundancy. In addition, data from the International Labour Organisation estimates that only around 18% of workers globally could work from home, and there are stark differences in relative levels of homeworking potential between high and middle/lower-income countries.

These contextual points acknowledged, a significant increase has been witnessed in remote working and it is therefore important to consider its impacts, and how it can best be employed into the future. Existing evidence suggests working at home is associated with higher levels of productivity and job/leisure satisfaction. Working at home allows us to avoid the regular commute, often cited as one of the least appreciated daily activities, and this of course has wider societal benefits in regards to reductions in the environmental impacts of cars and other transport. Working at home can also increase inclusivity, as it offers enhanced accessibility for workers who may find employment in standard workplace environments difficult e.g. due to caring responsibilities or disability. Organisations, meanwhile, can benefit from cost reduction, as they are able to reduce the size of, or close, workplaces.

However, the practicalities, both spatial and temporal, of conducting the entirety of a job in the home generates a number of challenges. Not all employees will find remote working a stress free experience, including juggling work with childcare responsibilities, domestic disharmony, and lack of appropriate home space for a workstation. An obvious practical challenge faced is in the capacity of organisation systems to cope with large-scale remote working. This has exposed the limitations of ICTs and in some cases lack of investment in these tools by employers, some of whom have remained too strongly wedded to traditional work routines. Concerns of trust in completing work tasks has historically been a site of conflict between workers and their employer, acting to limit application of remote working or resulting in high levels of monitoring of homeworkers. But, monitoring must be balanced carefully against the negative impacts which can arise from reductions in autonomy. Where work is to continue to take place remotely, employers should consider ways to redesign tasks and assignments, so that workers are judged on their outputs rather than their (virtual) presence.

Recent analysis performed on the CIPD’s 2019 UK Working Lives Survey highlights the potential for significant overwork amongst those working at home. Expectations around workers always being available and difficulties in separating work from home life can act as drivers of this behaviour. Workers must, therefore, take ownership over working routines when outside of the traditional workplace and balance task completion with the need for down time. Employers have an important role here in empowering workers and creating a culture that promotes positive working behaviours. In addition, while the aforementioned time gained from not commuting could be used to exercise, in practice often it is not. The reality for many is that working at home is a sedentary activity, and can have a number of health impacts including eyestrain and musculoskeletal problems. Employers can support workers through provision of guidance and good practice including taking breaks from workstations to aid work recovery and reduce eyestrain, and working in different ways e.g. conducting standing or virtual walking meetings. Workers, though, ultimately have a responsibility to look after their own physical well-being when working at home.

While most of those working at home have adapted quickly to using online platforms for meetings and socialising, relationships can be difficult to maintain virtually. Professional and social networks may become stretched, strained, or even be dissolved where workers do not keep in regular contact. There is the very real potential for workers to become isolated when working at home all of the time. Organisations must also address the loss of benefits associated with informal knowledge sharing and idea development (e.g. water cooler chat). A number of potential solutions are available including use of formal and informal buddy and mentoring schemes, and provision of broader social support within work teams or departments (e.g. regular catch-ups, team meetings). This is an area where more careful monitoring may be necessary to ensure employees are able to contribute effectively and feel a sense of social support from colleagues, supervisors and the organisation as a whole.

The evidence tells us that perhaps the greatest benefits are to be realised from combining working at home with some time at a workplace/space. Despite the enforced nature of the expansion of remote working, the majority of workers do show a preference to continue to work at home at least some of the time. Although challenging in the current climate, embracing flexible and agile approaches to work – including relevant investment in technology to enable this – will deliver both employee and organisational benefits, while avoiding some of the negative impacts associated with 100% home-based working.

Often organisations are too reactive in their approach to the well-being of workers, turning to external provision of mental and occupational health services. However, a reactive approach is founded on the assumption that work is detrimental to worker well-being. Instead, organisations should focus on creating a culture and environment that promotes, supports and even enhances well-being. The shift to remote working currently being witnessed offers a significant opportunity to rebalance work in this way, assuring the well-being of workers and their organisations. This is an opportunity that should not be missed.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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