In times of the current Covid-19 pandemic, “Working from Home”, otherwise abbreviated to “WFH”, has become a term so synonymous with our new working lifestyle that it has recently been included in the expanded list for Oxford Word of the Year, as 2020 comes to an end.
This switch in the working arrangement, from being physically present at the workplace to carry out tasks from one’s home has been brought forth by the pandemic, as precautionary measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
However, prior to the pandemic, remote working as a working arrangement has already existed. It has only been because of the recent pandemic that this has become normalised and more popular and that the majority of people are now aware that carrying out work from the comfort of one’s home is actually possible. However, the situation has also shed light on the detrimental effects remote working has on one’s wellbeing.
What Really is Remote Working?
Remote working may be described as a working arrangement where employees are not physically present at the workplace, or as one where employees work flexibly such that they do so both from the home and the workplace. This flexible work arrangement is considered desirable and is even encouraged by the Ministry of Manpower to be adopted by companies. Although it might seem that having a flexible working arrangement is a recent practice evolving from the current pandemic, it has existed since 1967, where German employees were the first in some companies to choose their starting and knock-off timings to work. Not long after, the Swiss adopted this practice to appeal to women with family responsibilities. Flexible working arrangements were therefore introduced for the purpose of accommodating to the needs of the employees while still maintaining productivity, which today has become more of a necessity in these times of a pandemic.
Working from home is an approach to organising work that aims to drive greater efficiency and effectiveness in achieving job outcomes through a combination of flexibility, autonomy and collaboration, in parallel with optimizing tools and working environments for employees (CIPD, 2017). For many of us, this may seem to be the perfect way to work – we allow ourselves maximum flexibility, convenience, autonomy, trust, and empowerment. However, to others, especially the many who cannot get used to it and were forced into this arrangement, they experience feelings of isolation, loneliness and abandonment.
Humans, by nature, are social creatures, and even if working from home can provide enhanced levels of performance and productivity, it also may create feelings of demoralisation. Working from home is not so straightforwardly beneficial at all.
Working from Home has its Challenges
There are apparent challenges for managers to lead a virtual workforce, but there are less obvious challenges too. What is for certain is that there has not been any meaningful synthesis of the role of managing a flexible workforce, and it appears that managers need to become better skilled at this relatively new role that they may find themselves thrust into. The role of the manager changes from person to the task. This means that the manager often concentrates their efforts and attention to the outcomes and results, rather than the employees themselves. This is difficult to do in an office environment, where personality plays its part significantly. This is why we often see people with huge personalities getting away with doing less work, and the resultant productivity or outcome may be questionable. Other managerial challenges involve assessing workload, performance, and ensuring some socialisation with the business, giving them a sense of a working identity. Managers who have a remote or virtual workforce need to adopt different approaches in terms of communicating, assessing the varying needs of their direct subordinates, and looking into how productivity or performance will be measured or assessed.
How Managers May Help
As we work through this conundrum, it is easy to see why wellbeing plays such an important part, especially when it comes to finding meaning and purpose. What managers could do, which should form part of the wellbeing strategy for remote workers, is to foster a sense of belonging, even though they are not present physically. This includes holding constant meaningful communication with the remote workforce, whether that be in-person, phone texts, or over web meetings.
The use of technology is ever so important, and Zoom calls carried out regularly provide a good example. Having Zoom “social time” allows for a virtual social community, so that web meetings are not always associated with work, and this mirrors an office environment to some degree. Managers may ensure employees are kept updated with organisational events, policies, and direction, so feelings of isolation that gradually arise may be reduced.
Hot-desking facilities are common among organisations these days, which accommodate short-stay visits, meetings, and gatherings unrelated to work. The use of these facilities for these non-work-related events is important for employee wellbeing because these increase loyalty and feelings of belonging. Therefore, managers may look at innovative ways of bringing the office to the home, recreating a virtual office environment as much as possible, such as birthday and anniversary celebrations, coffee breaks and water cooler talks. By doing so, the traditional office environment is replicated to empower employees in feeling part of a bigger team. This allows them to mitigate feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
Nevertheless, remote working provides opportunities for flexibility. The working day could be distributed – it may begin early in the morning, start later in the afternoon and last into the evening. The appeal is in the flexibility and in giving permission for this flexibility to work. Research suggests that remote workers are far more productive and in fact, end up working longer hours than doing the same in the office. Managers should pay careful attention to this, ensuring employees have workplace wellness i.e. adequate rest and that breaks are taken; more importantly, that they enjoy downtime. Employees ultimately need to feel a sense of empowerment, and only then the detrimental effects of remote working on an employee’s wellbeing may be minimised.