Lifting the lockdown: Towards permanent homeworking

Many organisations moved to large-scale homeworking overnight when coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown arrangements were introduced. But as governments ease restrictions, some are now actively considering whether or not the arrangements could be made permanent.

An HR survey found that two-thirds of HR professionals (66.5%) thought employees would be reluctant to return to the workplace once lockdown ended, with nearly three-quarters (72.4%) anticipating that a return would cause family or childcare difficulties for employees.

Twitter was one of the first employers to announce that employees could, if they wished, work from home “forever”, while Facebook and Google have said that they will continue homeworking until the end of the year.

But how does longer-term homeworking differ from arrangements that many have put in place over the past three months, with employees joining video calls from bedrooms, spending days at kitchen tables on non-ergonomic chairs, and juggling work and childcare?

Talk with employees

A good start is to survey how employees feel about returning to work, says Phil Flaxton, chief executive of not-for-profit campaign group Work Wise. “This should not be one-size-fits-all. Some people may find they’re more productive without the interruptions of the office, but others do not like the isolation. For those that wish to continue working from home, do they have the right equipment?”

If the organisation decides that it makes sense for those who wish to work from home to continue, have a discussion around their routine and workspace, he says. “It’s important to have a mental and physical separation between your place of work and your home, that they can walk away from at the end of the days.”

Some individuals will prefer to return to work, if possible. “We need to recognise that not all employees are able, or want, to work from their current home for the long-term. Some people in small apartments or house shares don’t necessarily have a dedicated space to work from or there may be other people and disturbances there during the day,” says Charles Alberts, head of health management at insurance company Aon. He points out that many will have “made do during the pandemic, but doing this in the longer term is an entirely different ballgame”.

Check equipment requirements and GDPR

Typically, HR, IT and facilities teams will have worked together early in the pandemic to equip employees with necessary equipment such as laptops and chairs. Claire McCartney, resourcing and inclusion adviser at the CIPD says the focus should now be on making processes more sustainable: “If there’s not already been an electronic risk assessment to make sure the home workspace is suitable, that would be helpful. Remind people about health and safety policies and if supplying equipment, make sure it passes the relevant safety tests.”

Data protection obligations also continue, she adds, particularly where employees are using their own equipment that may not have up-to-date anti-virus software or are sharing equipment with family members. “It pays to remind employees of the principles [of the General Data Protection Regulations], they may have already received training but it is easily forgotten”, especially when out of the office environment.

Satellite communications company Avanti Communications employs around 250 staff across nine countries. Group HR director Debbie Mavis is now in the process of supporting teams to get buildings COVID-secure. “In our London office there are 125 desks, meaning we can take 38 people back full time, which is around 25% of capacity,” she explains. “We’re not going to do that; instead we’ve agreed with everyone that they can do their job from home.”

As a technology company, employees were well set up when lockdown was enforced, now it’s about what the workplace will look like post-pandemic, she says. This will involve more flexibility around working hours and arrangements, more coaching for line managers to manage remote teams, and adapting processes such as performance reviews. Mavis says: “We do twice-weekly calls with managers to discuss any challenges they’re having, helping them to understand that someone doesn’t need to log on at a certain time, as long as they’re clear about deliverables and how they will achieve them.”

Support line managers

Support for line managers is crucial. Dirk Buyens, professor of HR management at Vlerick Business School in Belgium, believes this is two-pronged: “There’s the mental side, helping them to build trust in employees even though they can’t see them, and secondly there’s the skills side,” he says. “Encourage them to set more specific and shorter objectives – so perhaps something is needed by the end of the month but can be broken into smaller pieces. Avoid a situation where they’re expecting people to supply a list of everything they’ve done that day.”

Penny Pullan, author of Virtual Leadership: Practical strategies for getting the best out of virtual work and virtual teams, argues that all employees will need to step up as hierarchies become flatter. “Virtual teams don’t work well with command and control,” she says. “You can’t micromanage as an autocratic leader in an office would. So, the mindset needs to shift to one of facilitator, where the manager gives people the conditions and support to do the best work they can.”

Use technology as an enabler

Technology also has an important role as employers shift working arrangements – after an initial feeling that managers needed to “see” everyone on video platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, how such tools are used should be reappraised as remote working becomes more permanent. Pullan adds: “8am to 8pm on video meetings isn’t virtual working; technology needs to be approached in the same way we use electricity, as an enabler.” This means looking at the work that needs to be done and the options available, whether that’s a real-time conversation over phone or video or asynchronous communication (such as email or a collaboration tool such as Slack) so someone can respond when they are able. “Video should be used for something where it is important to see someone’s body language; it’s not as rich as face to face but richer than a phone call,” she says.

With the likelihood that organisations could be operating with some people in corporate offices and some at home, consider running meetings so everyone has to dial in, not just those who are remote. Professor Buyens adds: “There could be an imbalance between those who are in the office and those at home, so those at work should go behind a screen as well.” He adds that customers’ expectations should also be taken into account, and in turn these could affect job design and employee engagement going forward. “There may be structural issues, such as can you do sales in a remote way? If the customer finds virtual meetings more efficient, some salespeople might find that the element of the job they enjoyed (the human interaction) is not there anymore.”

Put mental wellbeing measures in place

Employees’ mental wellbeing has to be at the centre of any more permanent move to remote working, and measures need to be put in place both to monitor wellbeing and support employees if needed. “Working from home can be isolating, especially if people live alone. Even if they have a family around them, they may feel disconnected from their team; and loneliness can have a negative impact on our mental health,” says Bupa’s clinical director for mental health Pablo Vandenabeele. For this reason, managers need to be “more proactive, clear and thoughtful” about how they communicate and work with remote employees, argues Matthew Dickason, global managing director of Hays Talent Solutions.

This approach may differ slightly depending on an employee’s role, preferences and length of tenure, he adds. “When you have a new starter for example, you need to really think about how you effectively onboard them remotely. Your manager has to create that time to get to know them, which might historically have been done in an informal lunch or coffee break. You might get an ever better reaction by sending them that virtual welcome pack of goodies, such as a branded mug for a virtual coffee meet with their line manager.”

Software company Cherwell re-created these informal moments by moving its regular “break room” event, which had been popular in the office, online. At the start of the pandemic this happened weekly and is now every fortnight, explains Kim Osaba, director of talent management. “These are a chance to familiarise employees with the tools they can use, educate them on setting boundaries between work and home, but also to have fun,” she says. The company also flags up services such as its employee assistance programme and access to healthcare advice over the phone. “If it’s 2am, you can’t phone the benefits team to ask about healthcare but you can talk to a doctor, and during a pandemic these requests are likely to have been very specific. Offering tools like these also reminds managers that they need to address wellness in a different tone now – more than just asking ‘are you OK?'”

This regular communication is the difference between checking in and checking up, says McCartney from the CIPD. Some employees may be tempted to work more hours than usual as they don’t leave their desk and end the day in the same way as they would in an office, leading to a form of virtual presenteeism. “Look out for that, have regular one-to-ones and ask open questions. Give people clarity around what they’re doing and empower them to set their own boundaries,” she says.

Further into the future, as commuting becomes safer and social distancing rules are relaxed, how we use offices could change altogether. Matt Stephens, founder, and CEO of Inpulse, an online employee engagement platform, says the onus will be on employers to make the case for coming to an office. He believes the workplace will become “a crucible of creativity, collaboration and professional development”, where employees come together for learning and engagement opportunities, rather than an everyday place of work. If this is the case, how we organise, manage, and reward work will also need to evolve.

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Author: Jo Faragher

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