Learning from the great WFH experiment

What are the biggest lessons we can take away from the widespread introduction of working from home? And how can we best put them to use?

The pandemic has led to the mass implementation of working from home, forcing businesses to adapt to remote teams. Since it has become clear that this will be the situation for a while yet, here’s how businesses have been redeveloping their structures to ensure we work better together when we’re apart.

Wellbeing and burnout

The pandemic has serious mental health repercussions, especially when it comes to employees in makeshift offices. Being cooped up for long periods can be a challenge; a recent survey from Nuffield, a UK healthcare charity, points out that more than 80% of people in the UK feel that working from home has impacted their mental health, with around 25% saying they are struggling with feelings of isolation.

But the deeper problem has been a blurring of the line between work and play: 30% reported difficulty in making this distinction. Add to this an extension of the working day – by three hours in the US and by two in France, Spain and the UK, according to network service provider NordVPN – and many employees feel like they have little time for themselves, even without the commute. Because of this, exhaustion, exacerbated by homeschooling and covering for furloughed colleagues, has risen, contributing to burnout.

Encouraging employees to take time away will help, as will mental health classes, but what’s more important in preventing the issue is that employers be flexible, according to Melissa Whitson, a psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the University of New Haven, Connecticut. Employers should do their best to alleviate the pressures of lockdown life, which means showing understanding towards things like deadline extensions and meeting absenteeism. The focus should be on quality and volume of output, rather than arbitrary surveillance and admin. Transparency is also important; employers should maintain open dialogue to learn what they can do to help.

Asynchronous work

A major chunk of internal workplace communication has always been synchronous, where employees work together at the same time, in the same room. But with remote working, the number of daily online communications between team members has been rapidly increasing – from back-to-back video calls and near-constant messaging on platforms like Slack – with the expectation that people respond to messages as quickly as possible. In such uncertain times, it’s understandable: managers want to make sure the amount of work getting done doesn’t drop, while employees feel like they have to constantly prove how hard they are working.

But when it comes down to increasing productivity in a remote setting, there might be a better solution. More team members are starting to lean more heavily on asynchronous communication – put simply, when you send messages and information without expecting an immediate response. Without requiring schedules to line up and by giving employees more control over when they decide to communicate with their teams, asynchronous working prioritises deep work and being productive over being connected. It also guards against constant interruptions and, as Aytekin Tank of online productivity tool JotForm puts it, ‘It means teammates are really thinking their answers through, rather than sending a quick, half-baked response.’

While workplace discussion platforms such as Threads and Twist are useful tools, implementing an asynchronous style of working is mostly about good habits and expectations that come from the top.

Company culture

Organisational culture is experienced more than articulated and, in the absence of a central workplace to enforce it, there are fears that the beliefs that underpin company operations might dissipate. But an office is just one way to unite human beings, and company culture can thrive provided that leaders direct company resources into creating a positive remote working environment for employees.

One solution is to replicate company perks. JC Social Media works with UK snack brand Graze to deliver individual snack boxes to employees at home. In terms of communication and team-bonding, the team holds weekly meetings as well as shorter team huddles. Elsewhere, Nicebreak offers colourful virtual social events, and wellbeing platform Kaido offers regular challenges to connect teams while they’re apart.

What’s clear is that companies must adapt their practices to embed company culture and adapt to new technologies that will make it more manageable. ‘Company culture is hard to grasp and it’s not tangible. What we’re seeing is a change in the ways companies can shape it,’ says Khalil Rener, director at Rener Wellbeing. ‘There’s still a chance to keep it alive, but it’s just going to look different when employees are working from home extensively.’

Hybrid working

Almost overnight, lockdowns showed that lots of workers could do their jobs to a good standard at home. In turn, this made companies rethink working patterns, yet few have been prepared to fully commit to going remote. What’s happening more, in fact, is an attempt to reduce expensive office space and accommodate employees’ desire for flexibility by mixing remote and office work – or hybrid working.

But a hybrid model brings challenges – among them reinforcing divisions between those who prefer going in and those who stay at home, and seeing staff members move away or even move country (good luck getting them back to the office). Meanwhile, a study of workers in a Chinese travel agency demonstrated that those at home were more productive and happier, but were less likely to receive bonuses or be promoted.

Either way, introducing hybrid working scenarios long term is a serious undertaking. And yet at the vast majority of workplaces, the job of overseeing everything a remote workforce needs, from comfortable office furniture to smarter ways of staying in touch, is being done by the same people who were in charge pre-pandemic – often with no new training or thought given to the new skill sets required.

Seeing that Covid-19 has transformed how we work but not the basic structures of the working world, a handful of companies in the US, mostly tech groups, have created positions with the title of ‘head of remote’.

People often talk about different models that might suit hybrid work – the hub-and- spoke system, for example, when a company has a main office as well as satellite ones, allowing workers to meet up closer to home – and there’s little doubt that the continuing split between home and office is proving hard to pull off. Hiring a head of remote would be as good a place as any to start.

Work-home-assumptions

While it’s historically been assumed otherwise, effective and healthy remote working requires much more than just reliable internet access and a functional laptop. Beyond any mental health implications, more than half of the 500 people who responded to a home-working wellbeing survey from the UK’s Institute for Employment Studies reported experiencing new aches and pains. This was after two weeks of lockdown in April. Employers must accommodate worker needs just as they would do in an office, says Khalil.

There are the basic steps that employers can take. Some have offered a stipend to allow employees to buy equipment, from ergonomic chairs to variable-height desks; but where this is not possible, or even as an interim solution, companies can roll out administrative controls, such as reminding employees to move every 20 minutes to have a simple stretch. The Space app – although originally conceptualised to control the effect of mobile usage on our real-world lives – also offers company programmes around healthy relationships to tech.

Then there’s the software. Remote desktop software like TeamViewer is a necessity, as are project management, storage and security tools to prevent the leaking of sensitive data. We’re also intrigued by applications like Workrave, which encourage you to exercise. There is no universal solution, says Khalil, and what’s important is that employers listen to each employee and that they also be on hand to figure out what they need. He suggests weekly check-ins on the phone.

This article was first published in Courier Issue 38, December/January 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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