Remote working doesn’t suit everyone, and it exposes woolly leadership
Enforced remote working can mean that those who are less comfortable with technology are thrown in at the deep end. Photograph: Getty Images
Working from home sounds great in theory, but if you’ve never done it before it can take getting used to. For starters the home environment is full of distractions. It’s very easy to be tempted away from work, and it sometimes demands huge self-discipline to just sit there, focus, and get something finished.
People who prefer a set routine may struggle to manage their time outside an office environment, while being productive away from the office also demands the ability to self-start day after day.
Home working veterans say the key to success is establishing a daily activity pattern and trying to stick to it.
If possible start work at a designated time, take your breaks at roughly the same point in the day, and stop when you’ve completed the task in hand.
It’s way too easy to forget about the natural end to the working day and to keep going for longer. That’s fine for a bit if you’re under pressure, but if you keep working long hours and letting work encroach into your personal time you’re putting yourself on the road to mental fatigue and physical burn out.
If you can, do something specific to mark the break between work and home life – anything from a brisk walk around the block or a meditation to a reviving cuppa or watching a funny video on YouTube will suffice.
What you’re after is a shift in mental perspective not least because working from home can bring its own pressures, including loneliness, a shift in relationship dynamics and the sheer frustration of trying to work with young children or other people around you.
People may also feel a bit under siege because it’s much harder to manage the work/life balance when both are happening in the same place. In addition, there may be increased pressure from employers because managers who can no longer physically “see” people’s productivity get antsy and start checking in with them more frequently.
At one level this current spike in working from home may well represent a turning point in how working life is structured as more companies realise the world won’t end if they allow their people to work remotely.
What the current crisis also points up, however, is issues around management control and employee trust. Does management feel confident enough to let go of presenteeism? When the chips are down, does it have faith in its people to deliver?
If the answer to either of these questions is No then it’s time to start asking some serious questions about hiring policy, organisational culture and the leadership calibre of people running the show.
Allowing people to work from home exposes woolly management thinking dressed up as concerns about productivity. The buzz of people milling about in an office environment papers over a lot of cracks. And if you replace activity with silence, ambiguities and anomalies become apparent, as do poorly articulated and communicated objectives.
If, however, the management team (senior, middle and line) has a clear direction and an agreed set of specific measurable goals, it doesn’t matter where those meeting them are physically sitting.
Finian Buckley is professor of work and organisational psychology at DCU Business School. He scotches the idea that people working from home are swinging the lead.
“Workers who choose to work remotely have been found to be significantly more productive than their office-based colleagues. They also score higher on job satisfaction and commitment to their employer than those who work from the office. This evidence is not anecdotal. It is fully backed up by the research.”
While working from home has numerous advantages, Buckley points out that it is not without its challenges and can also have a darker side.
In particular people may experience an intensification of their workload because they are having problems juggling work and family duties.
Those who usually work from home tend to be relaxed about using technology and get good at solving their own problems. However, enforced remote working can mean that those who are less comfortable with technology are thrown in at the deep end. If there’s a glitch and they can’t get their work done as a result, this can escalate into anxiety and worry.
“Difficulties with technology can seriously impact on remote work satisfaction and contribute to raising stress levels,” Buckley says. “Employers need to ensure that technical support and training are in place to support novice remote workers.
“It’s no use sending people home without back-up. Having technology that works is a basic hygiene factor when people work remotely, and employers need be pro-active in getting this right. Employees have to feel secure and this means having technology that works first time every time.
“It’s also important for employers and managers to assist and support people at the moment, rather than trying to control them from afar. Managers have to realise that people working from home, maybe for the first time, will be out of their natural rhythm, and in the current crisis they may also be doing other things such as looking after children.”
This multi-tasking requires a more facilitative, project-driven approach to the workload, says Buckley, and managers need to accept people may need to work outside normal log-on times. This doesn’t mean the delivery date of a project is compromised, it just means it’s reached in a different way.