There’s no question that as a result of Covid 19, we are experiencing one of the most significant periods of accelerated workplace change in recent times. As leaders across all sectors continue to battle their way through keeping their organisations working effectively and protecting jobs, greatly assisted by employees cooperating with emergency contingency plans such as homeworking, reduced pay and furlough – the latter a concept that didn’t even exist in the UK employment dictionary until March of this year – the question now being faced by employers is whether the explosion in homeworking is just a temporary contingency measure before we return to onsite working pre Covid-19 or whether large numbers of employees now having experienced homeworking as a result of Covid-19 will want it to stay, indefinitely.
Home working is by no means a new concept, but more employees than ever before have experienced it, seen the benefits from an employee perspective and as a consequence, employers are likely to face an increase in expectations for it to continue from some of their employees, once they start approaching staff about returning to the workplace.
There are of course many employees for whom working from home has not been a positive experience and when determining policy, we should keep this firmly in mind too. The social isolation that it can bring, being unable to “switch off” and the need for strong self-discipline means it is certainly not for everyone.
Some larger organisations, well before COVID-19 have already been through the thought processes of introducing home working policies as part of “agile” working, but many employers have not and whilst they have addressed adhoc employee requests to work from home under the “Flexible Working Request” statutory procedure, it’s the potential acceleration of requests facing employers at a time when they are trying to get business back on track that makes this a car crash waiting to happen if employers haven’t considered their strategic stance on it with carefully considered reasoning, rather than emotional, gut feel reaction.
If home working is not right for your business and it won’t be right for every organisation, one of the key issues employers will face is being able to communicate to employees, well-reasoned counter-arguments that it’s not viable on a long term basis without staff voicing “I’ve been doing it for the last four months…I’ve proved it can work”. Several months under the Covid-19 crisis is however one thing, indefinite home working under normal working conditions is quite another.
It’s a toxic topic in the boardroom too. There are those who will instantly see it as a challenge to their authority or a threat to the way they run their businesses through to those who are big fans of it. There are those too, who have no view and need to be convinced either way and those who have always worked this way because their roles have necessitated them to.
Influenced by individual personality types, leadership styles, experiences and personal agendas, you can see why it’s so toxic and it’s the very reason why its critical executive teams must discuss and agree a consistent approach now, to be ready to address employee requests when they start returning to the workplace.
So what are the discussion points that executive teams need to consider when forming their strategic approach to homeworking? We discuss them below.
When determining organisational policy its unlikely to be a “one size fits all” approach.
That’s because there are different categories of potential homeworker, which in turn impacts different areas of the business in different ways. We’ve categorised the types below:
Type One: Job tasks demand it must be an on-site working role
These roles are indisputably workplace based and not capable of being performed at home and that’s because the job just can’t be performed remotely.
Type Two: Job tasks demand it must be a home working role
These employees will already be working from home pre Covid-19. They will have been hired on a home-based contract. Often deployed in field-based roles such as sales, these staff are already well-established permanent home workers.
Type Three: The flexible working request homeworker
For a number of years now, employees have been able to request homeworking, either partially or fully. Initially the legislation was brought in to benefit parent and carers but was widened in scope to enable all employees to request working from home. Where such requests have been agreed to by the employer, these have formed permanent changes to the employee’s place of work.
Type Four: Positions forced into homeworking during Covid-19, previously performed on business premises
This is the group that is likely to see increased requests – the group which fall between the “Type One” and “Type Two” categories. These staff have traditionally been based in the office because that’s the way it has always been. They may have from time to time requested to work from home on the odd occasion in the past for domestic reasons or to get work done free from interruptions, but more recently, they have been working from home during the Covid-19 crisis consistently; felt the personal benefits that home working can provide and may be contemplating submitting a flexible working request to change their place of work permanently, but its important to keep in mind it’s a right to ”request” not a right to “demand”. . This category also includes staff for whom homeworking has not been a positive experience of course. For some, homeworking has been a very difficult and stressful experience. Isolation, lack of working facilities, no sense of belonging are just some of the reasons why these staff just can’t wait to get back in the office.
The risks of a data breach in less well controlled environments need to be considered with care. From information being left on kitchen tables, to commercially sensitive business documents being put in refuse/recycle bins. Decentralisation of the control of data can only increase the risk of a data breach and misuse of customer card payment details. It’s vitally important organisations consider the increase risk of data breaches under homeworking.
For employers, the responsibility for health and safety in the home working environment is just as important as in the office environment. Homeworking brings additional challenges of being able to control the workplace environment at home and costs of managing these risks for employers will be a factor to consider too.
Employers potentially find themselves having to provide two of everything, doubling up on workstation and hardware costs as its likely employees will be required to spend some of their time in the office too. IT requirements can bring additional costs including the costs of high speed internet lines which provide the same level of data security, capacity, upload and download speeds that expensive lease lines adopted by many organisations at their premises currently provide.
Research has shown that the biggest challenge for managing teams remotely, is the ability to measure workloads, capacity and productivity. Sure, in some environments it is easier where the work levels are quantifiable, such as calls per hour in a call centre. But most office work is difficult to measure remotely without adding additional controls which in turn present difficulties for managers assessing work levels and managing “over” as well as “under” expectation productivity levels.
Perhaps one of the most important questions of all is “Will homeworking have a detrimental impact on our customer and our brand image?” We have all experienced it. Dogs barking. People walking in on confidential video calls, overly casual dress standards and poor internet connections. These can be sources of frustration for the person on the other end of the video conference or phone and that “person” can be our customers as well as colleagues. There is no doubt that colleagues and customers have been forgiving under Covid-19 as we have all been in the same situation. But for those who return to office working, interacting with people still operating under home working conditions in makeshift office environment can be hugely frustrating. It can present a poor brand image. Organisations therefore need to consider the importance of insisting on a dedicated room space for home working and all that goes with it.
Many employees will have benefited from reduced travel to work costs and the time savings of not having to travel back and forth. But homeworking brings disadvantages too. Social interaction and workplace inclusion are important to our wellbeing and mental health. Being able to separate our work life from our home lives is important too. Good weather helps, but homeworking in the winter for some employees will be a very different experience mentally.
Managing a team working remotely requires a different approach to managing a team in an office environment and how work is directed to the team can be impacted too with reduced visibility of employee workloads. It potentially brings additional pressures for managers trying to ensure the effectiveness of their team’s performance without the skills to be able to do it effectively. Research has shown that there is a far greater amount of time spent on monitoring and evaluating performance under remote working conditions than office-based staff. For performance management of remote employees to be effective, often it results in more “Key Performance Indicator” driven measurement techniques with less face to face daily ad hoc interactions possible. Not all work types lend themselves to this form of measurement and so a gap in our ability to manage our teams becomes apparent.
There are few organisations that don’t place a high value on teamwork and the value of effective “in-team” communication to make them work. The “by the way”, “whilst I think of it”, “Oh I need to tell you” or “before I forget” conversations don’t happen when we have to resort to email, Slack or Teams chat. This is because they are spontaneous. Passive listening in a team environment is powerful too (its where employees pick up on key words that are relevant to them) and won’t happen under the home working model. It can lead to cracks over time in organisational effectiveness and instances of “the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing”. Organisation’s need to form a view on the impact of the unquantifiable value of team working. Sure, we won’t see the cracks in communication immediately, but over time they become more apparent as friction between teams internally and customer dissatisfaction rises.
The work culture of any organisation is largely established through the behaviours of employees interacting with one another. Whilst values can be set by organisations, these are simply aspirational statements that need to turn into reality by the way employees see their leaders, managers and colleagues behaving. Increased homeworking brings with it less human contact and the risk that an organisations culture will fragment.
Home working needs its own set of protocols so that employees know what is expected of them to avoid friction in relationships and perceptions of trust not abused. For example, it may mean employees electronically “clock in” and “clock out”; that employees understand it means being at their desk working the same hours as they would in an office and taking breaks in line with office breaks too. It means employees should never be late for work of course, but if they are, they report it just as they would have done before. Technology solutions are emerging. Webcam real-time monitoring, email notification if laptops have been inactive for more than a specified time are already available to businesses and being deployed.
Organisations should prepare their policy on permanent working from home costs/expense recovery requests by employees. The reimbursement of costs of heat, light and power and home insurance are likely to be expected by employees. Costs which many employers maintaining an office presence will need to continue paying as well.
Whatever your strategic stance, carrying out a carefully considered review of where your organisation sits on the homeworking curve will be time well spent. There will always be the need to consider individual requests raised under the flexible working request legislation, but managers need support and guidance in handling such requests and need to be aware of all the pros and cons of homeworking. At the centre of decisions lies the impact on the organisation and its customers. Some organisations will embrace homeworking, will actively promote it because it works for them, their customers and their employees, but for others it will be a reactionary, cautious approach, but at least formed through well-reasoned debate and weighing up of all the considerations.