This is the second blog in a series of blogs exploring how the world has rapidly transitioned to a remote working environment, the technological opportunities which this has created, and the social and psychological issues which need to be addressed. Read the introductory article here. Read the first blog here.
Whilst the technological ability to work from home has existed for a while, in the years before the pandemic only 5% of workers in the UK had actually experienced working from home. In the 4 months following the start of lockdown, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) (hyperlink to reported that up to 47% of the UK workforce was now operating from home at least some of the week.
The requirement to work from home has created as many problems for some employees as it has liberated others. Whilst for some it was a case of converting a spare room or dining table into a make shift office, for others it was not so simple. Many young professionals working in the cities live within the close confines of flat shares with limited access to quiet space outside of their bedrooms. Some parents have the added responsibility of home schooling whilst the schools were closed. Other people have been forced to live and work in close proximity to a domestic abuser which has exacerbated their situation, with the United Nations believing that domestic abuse cases have risen by as much as 20% during the lockdown. he UN have termed this the Shadow Pandemic.
The decline of mental health across the workforce during the pandemic has been a concern for many. Recent research is indicating that schemes such as the UK Government support for furlough workers, and reduction to working hours as opposed to job loss, has mitigated some of this risk in the short term. However, other polls indicate that up to 50% of people working from home are unhappy with the arrangement, with one third struggling with isolation concerns, whilst others deal with issues regarding the work-life balance and irregular working hours. Research indicates that the worst hit group are young adults aged 18-44 who are now ten times more likely to be affected by mental health issues than they were pre lockdown.
Working from home may potentially have other profound long term effects on our young workers. Being unable to see leaders working first hand means that our managers of tomorrow are losing out on gaining the skills necessary to operate. For many, it is the casual coaching and indirect mentoring which happens when working in close proximity to co-workers that helps to develop them into the future leaders which our organisations require.
Instead, the ubiquitous Zoom and Teams calls which have replaced our face to face meetings are a cold, straight to business affair which, whilst being more productive for the short term objective, will leave the long term development of staff and the growth of the organisation stifled and stunted.
From the perspective of employers, the need to adapt working practices to accommodate a remote workforce has enabled some companies to seize a competitive advantage, whilst others continue to struggle to implement antiquated working practices.
Many organisations have been concerned that workers will be less productive if their actions are not supervised and monitored closely. In organisations where employee trust was already an issue before the pandemic, managers are finding it hard to accept that not being at a desk from 9 to 5 means that the worker can be equally, if not more productive than they used to be. Some research has indicated that trusted remote workers can work up to 1.4 more days per month than their office-based colleagues.
Lots of organisations are turning to performance monitoring software to ensure that employees are at their computers for the required amount of time each day and that they are working on the right activities. Some of these technologies actively monitor keystrokes and the pages on the screen, taking random screenshots for management to assess what the employee was looking at. Others make use of webcams to capture images of the worker themselves. Given the difficult circumstances some workers find themselves in, such ‘spying’ may lead to inappropriate intrusions into peoples personal lives.
The introduction of such monitoring mechanisms not only brings into question legal and ethical practices but also introduces additional mental strain on the workers. At the same time, when performance is considered to be sub-standard then management will be required to conduct remote disciplinary meetings where the only evidence will be that gathered remotely which can lead to all sorts of grievances.
Of course, the truth is that some individuals unaccustomed to working alone and unsupervised will find it difficult to concentrate for the required amount of time on the task which they are employed to complete. Facebook, Snapchat and all the other apps can be a constant distraction when no one is monitoring your actions. Also, due to the lack of personal conversation at the water cooler or coffee shop, more people are seeking human interaction through their devices resulting in even more interruption to their concentration. It is vital that employers maintain an ongoing dialogue with their staff to ensure that they are focused on specific tasks, have suitable deadlines aligned to their capabilities and circumstances, and that performance metrics appropriately measure output rather than input.
Employers should also remember that they have a duty of care to remote workers from a health and safety perspective. Risk assessments should be conducted which cover a range of potential hazards including lone working, stress and mental health and display screen equipment (DSE). Where the risk assessment deems it necessary, employers have a responsibility to supply suitable remediation. Controlling and coordinating a widespread home-based workforce is not an easy task to undertake, but all employees should have the opportunity to raise health and safety issues with their line management, and be confident that their welfare is being professionally considered.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a trend towards remote working which was already gathering momentum in a lot of areas. In the next blog we shall investigate what the consequences of a long term lockdown and a large scale move to sustained remote working could look like. Read the final blog here.