Charles Darwin famously said that ‘it is the one that is the most adaptable to change’ who will survive. With COVID-19 meaning that home working is no longer an option but a necessity for many, what are the potential side effects on our health and work performance…
The internet is flooded with anecdotal advice and tips on how to make the best of home working during lockdown. However, this guidance only really covers the immediate and obvious effects. For those who can work from home, with the weeks and months passing, what are the hidden and long-term implications?
Across our teams, we are all sharing similar, sometimes unexpected, changes to behaviours, communication and productivity. For instance, why do we seem to be working longer hours but feel we are achieving less? Why do I spend more time communicating now than when in the office?
We looked back at previous studies on remote working by leading researchers for some answers to how we are feeling and insights into what we can expect.
Effective remote working requires greater self-control and discipline to avoid the boundaries between work and your personal life becoming blurred.
A study on home working (Harris, 2003) cited that work time becomes more interspersed with ‘free time’, and thus boundaries become ‘more elastic’. Interestingly, the struggle with boundaries is shared equally amongst employees and managers. Of the remote workers surveyed, over 40% experienced an increasingly blurred work-life balance, compared with 20% in the case of office workers.
In another study (Edenhall, 2011), 70% of the respondents reported that technology led to a blurring of boundaries because it brought work into their personal lives, and 48% of them also reported that telecommuting created more work-family conflicts.
Research has shown that, in general, homeworkers tend to work longer than office workers and this increases with the use of technology. Homeworkers do benefit from greater working time autonomy, but how effectively this is applied depends on the discipline of the individual.
A UK study also suggests that flexibility and autonomy have a role in improving performance, but with some nuances (Beauregard et al., 2013). It can be concluded that the potential performance increase associated with remote working is mainly related to the spatial and temporal flexibility that such work offers the employee. Individuals who are used to daily supervision will require a new set of skills to autonomously plan, deliver and communicate their work. Time management, decision making and reporting are essential tools for the remote worker.
In Mintra Group, we have identified a bundle of online courses to help our teams manage the work/life balance and the potential side effects. We have now made these courses available for our customers to provide to their teams:
Effective Remote Working (10 courses and over 7+ hours of online learning)
- Management of Change
- Lone Working (Employees)
- Smart Workplaces: Responsible Social Media for Team members
- Business Writing: E-Mail Techniques
- AEC Success: Effective Decision Making
- Webinars – Conducting a Web-based Presentation
- ABCs of Managing Time & Effort: The 80/20 Way
- Smart Time Management: 7 Steps to Regaining Control of Your Day
- 3-way Communication
- Smart Customer Service 3: Effective Verbal and Nonverbal Communication
Isolation & Burnout
Maintaining health and well-being while working from home encompasses many areas, including ergonomics, preventing feelings of isolation and effectively managing stress.
Studies have found that more than half of people working from home had not paid any attention to ergonomics, and 94% of them reported that neither had their employers. Nearly half of the respondents did not have an office chair or a working desk at home, and 53% said that they suffered from shoulder pain, 46% reported neck pain and 33% back pain. Overall, almost half of the respondents said that they experienced work-related pains (Turvallisuusuutiset, 2014).
One of the most problematic aspects of home working is the isolation and the lack of access to day-to-day informal interactions (Eurofound, 2015). A serious threat to workers’ well-being arises from the lack of social interaction and emotional support, and increased feelings of burnout due to working long hours remotely (Delagrange, 2014). The lack of necessary rest breaks during the working day can also affect performance and lead to fatigue.
Fundación CENIT 2012 state that biggest disadvantages of remote working are:
- less interaction with friends
- working while being sick
- being more isolated
While remote working enables greater autonomy, it also leads to higher levels of work intensity. The potential of working longer hours and the perceived expectation of constant connectivity to work can result in employees experiencing high levels of stress.
Problems with sleeping, a specific symptom related to stress, has been highlighted in a European Commission (2010) study as a potential consequence of remote working. The graph below shows that a higher proportion of both regular home-based teleworkers (42%) report that they wake up repeatedly during the night, whereas only 29% of those always working at the employer’s premises report this.
However, a notable reduction in stress occurred due to a reduction in time spent commuting (Lasfargue and Fauconnier, 2015a). The ‘24/7’ availability for work can also result in family conflict and stress. Ojala et al. (2013) recommended the following key areas to promote a positive work-family interface:
‘Parental ability to cope with children and amicable resolutions of conflict about working hours, household work and personal time in the family.’
A strong knowledge and awareness amongst management will help prevent isolation and burn-out in team members. The health and well-being of remote workers can be improved by managing their work intensity, ensuring support from colleagues and respecting their free time.
For our homeworkers’ health and well-being, Mintra Group has provided the following online courses to our teams:
Healthy Home Working (12 courses and over 9 hours of online learning)
- Stress Awareness
- Working Time Limits and Fatigue Management
- Display Screen Equipment (DSE)
- Health and Safety for Home Workers (Employees)
- Medicine Awareness
- Smart Health: Sleeping – How to Ensure You Are Well-Rested & Energized
- Smart Mental Health: Managing Anger and Emotions
- Smart Mental Health: Keys to Successful Parenting
- Smart Health: Drinking Responsibly
- Smart Mental Health: Reducing Stress and Anxiety
- Smart Mental Health: Mastering Marriage
Autonomy & Complexity
Managing remote teams and business continuity are operational priorities for companies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote working allows some operations to continue and facilitate flexible work schedules, which typically improves individual performance. However, greater flexibility and leading teams remotely puts a greater burden on managers and makes supervision more complex.
The highest share of remote workers has previously been found amongst ‘knowledge workers’ – highly qualified and experienced employees. A UK study showed that 18% were managers, 24% professionals and 25% associate professionals and technical positions. This demographic has now been expanded to potentially include any role and experience level that can work from home, without necessarily considering whether the individual is suitable and can work autonomously.
Employers can benefit from reduced costs from overheads, such as office space, travel, expenses and utilities. Companies may need to invest in management training to ensure appropriate supervision rather than micromanagement of office workers. These include remote technology and communication skills development, managerial behaviour and performance monitoring of policies and practices.
The group of workers who experience most difficulty in handling ‘boundary-less’ working are actually managers. This is mainly because they are connected longer in their ‘non-working time’.
For our managers with teams now working from home, Mintra Group has provided the following online courses:
Managing Remote Teams (10 courses and over 10+ hours of online learning)
- Negativity in the Workplace
- Decision Making
- Supporting Change: 03-Your Path to Supporting Change
- Management 101: 02-Leading and Communicating as a Manager
- Smart Management: Managing a Geographically Distributed Workforce
- Health and Safety for Home Workers (Managers)
- Lone Working (Managers)
- An Effective Leader’s Guide to Time Management
- Team Building IV: Conflict Management
- Essential Skills of Leadership: 05-Lead Effective Meetings
About Mintra Group
Mintra Group is a leading provider of on-demand digital learning and enterprise HCM software solutions for safety-critical industries worldwide. We develop and deploy solutions that enable our customers to develop and deploy their people, readily demonstrate compliance and maximise operational efficiency.
Our focus is to protect and improve businesses by protecting and improving their people.Our systems are accessed in over 110 countries from our headquarters in Oslo and offices in Bergen, Stavanger, Aberdeen, Dubai and Singapore. To date, we have helped more than a million workers to stay safe, develop skills and verify their competence.