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  • Jennifer Duckworth

Remote Working – the potential and the pitfalls

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in March 2020, the numbers of people working from home across the globe have increased rapidly.

Increase in home-working

Data from the Office for National Statistics showed that in the UK

· 46.6% of working adults did some work from home in April 2020, and

· 86% of these people said that they worked from home due to coronavirus restrictions.

And though restrictions are easing in many areas, and the government is encouraging the return to the office, many believe that home-working, in some capacity, is here to stay.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development predicts that the number of people working from home regularly in the long term will double (from 18% of employees pre-pandemic to at least 37% following the crisis).

Home-working is not new

Working from home is not a new concept, and many people have enjoyed various benefits of flexible working arrangements, for a number of years, particularly with technological advancement and the advent of the Right to Request Flexible Working legislation.

In fact, a recent CIPD Survey showed that the number of UK jobs which could be worked mainly from home rose by 80% between 1999 and 2019. And in 2019, nearly 30% of workers said that they had worked from home in the previous 12 months.

Watch out for possible pitfalls

However, home working should not be viewed as some kind of utopian solution to all our woes, pandemic related or otherwise. This shift to remote working has been incredibly fast and imposed on the vast majority as a compulsory requirement, rather than something that has been chosen with care and consideration.

The evidence tells us that there are a number of risks and challenges to working remotely that organisations and individuals should be aware of.

In this article, I outline the top 4 factors that should be considered, and highlight both the Potential and the Pitfalls for each…

1. Work / Life Balance

Potential: Working from home can increase our flexibility and autonomy when managing our time. Many workers report benefits in terms of avoiding lengthy commutes; ease of juggling work with caring responsibilities, and a better sense of control over how, where and when one carries out work - which is key to our wellbeing.

Pitfalls: Studies have shown that those who work virtually can suffer through a lack of boundary setting. Too much flexibility, without discipline over routine, can merge our work and personal life together. And without a commute to allow a natural transition between work and home, people do not benefit from switching off at the end of a busy day.

Some people also have children, other family members or housemates at home too, so there’s also potential for conflict over space and demands on our time.

2. Technology

Potential: Technology made remote working possible during lockdown. Many more businesses would have struggled or failed without it. The ascent of Zoom and MS Teams demonstrate well-designed technology can help greatly with communication, aiding many teams to thrive remotely.

Pitfalls: Overuse of technology can lead people into the “always on” trap, working 24/7 if we choose to / feel we have to. Some studies have shown that working hours have increased with remote working, impacting wellbeing, relationships and potentially leading to burn-out.

In addition, conducting multiple online meetings every day can lead to ‘Zoom fatigue’. Experts believe this is caused in part by the increased ‘emotional load’ of video conferencing - not only are we working hard to interpret the behaviours of others, we are also monitoring and adapting our own online presence.

​Lack of correct equipment and broadband at home can also lead to frustration and reduced productivity. There’s also evidence to suggest a marked increase in complaints of back, neck and shoulder pain, suggesting people don’t have the right ergonomic equipment for home working and/or aren’t moving often enough.

3. Teamwork

Potential: Some people have reported an increase in structured communications within their teams. This is because working apart has forced them to plan more regular catch-ups and discuss and agree their goals and priorities in a really transparent and inclusive way.

Experts also believe that seeing into the ‘window’ of another person’s home during lockdown (with all the challenges that children/pets/clunky broadband have presented!) may have increased understanding of individual circumstances and levels of empathy between team-mates.

Also, as a particular residential location and/or the ability to travel becomes less important, teams and organisations will benefit from becoming more diverse in the future.

Pitfalls: Whilst some teams have rallied and bonded over adversity, research shows that links between different teams in organisations may have suffered. This is because we have lost the spontaneous, informal interactions we experience in an office - in the lifts/kitchens/between meetings etc. These little moments add up to the powerful ‘glue’ that bonds a community together, cements organisational culture and prevents silo working.

In addition, there’s the negative impact of social isolation, especially if people live alone. Social support is crucial for mental health and wellbeing. The dispersal of teams may also have negative impact on work relationships and sense of team spirit, especially if these were not well-established pre-lockdown. For new recruits, establishing solid, trusting relationships may take longer and require a different approach.

4. Management

Potential: Studies show that management can play a huge role in whether remote working succeeds: establishing ground rules, consulting and communicating well, working to understand individual needs, and building a solid culture.

One good thing about the pandemic is the fact that managers who were previously reluctant to allow home working, are now able to see that it can work! This is great for building a true culture of trust in teams, because people are having to judge and manage their teams’ performance based on their outputs, not just on whether they can see them at their desks.

Pitfalls: Managing team members that are constantly dispersed presents a real challenge for managers. It is more difficult to check in with people regularly and spontaneously. It is also more difficult to see if people are struggling and need help. And non-verbal cues like gestures, eye contact and body language are much harder to pick up over video conferencing and phone.

In addition, sharing knowledge and coaching team members to ensure competence, especially juniors or new recruits, may be a challenge. It’s also harder to convey emotion, so misunderstandings are more likely.

Getting the balance right

In conclusion, it’s clear that there is no ‘quick fix’ in choosing either home-working or office-working in isolation. There are benefits and downsides for both. And many people believe that the answer lies in a hybrid solution, with time spent partly at home and partly with others. Indeed, even before COVID-19 hit, research from Nuffield Health suggested that, broadly speaking, the optimal ratio for home:office working was 2 days at home:3 days in the office.

But everyone’s individual circumstances will be different, so the challenge for organisations will be to:

· consult to understand the varying needs of the workforce

· develop policies for working arrangements and strategies

· train and help their managers to engage and support staff

· build a culture based on wellbeing, trust and connection

At Babel Projects, we have expertise in both the ‘people’ and the ‘place’ aspects of change and can help you navigate these challenging times. If you are considering how best to embrace remote working in conjunction with a gradual return to the office, let us help you maximise the potential and avoid the pitfalls!

Visit our website to find out more or contact us for a no-obligation chat to explore how we might be able to work together

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