Homeworking patterns: Out of office

29th January 2021

David Burrows reports on how working patterns changed in 2020, the impact on worker wellbeing, and how employers can support those who are working from home

Sales of flour have surged this year, according to statistics published by Nielsen. In the UK, US and Italy they were up more than 40% year-on-year, as tweets encouraged people to make the most of lockdown by baking bread and cakes. Freed from their average 65-minute commute, some probably have. Others may have taken up running, dusted off their ‘learn Spanish’ CDs or spent more time with family. Slowly but surely, however, the novelty has worn off. Indeed, while this period of enforced home working may have begun with talk of ‘banana bread benefits’ in early April, the narrative nine months on is one of burnout.

“What really stands out is the number of people saying: ‘I am exhausted’,” says Gemma Dale, wellbeing manager at the University of Manchester, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University and a human resources consultant. “We are predicting a mental health crisis.”

Perhaps this newfound freedom to work wherever, whenever, is not all it was cracked up to be. How are organisations helping to keep staff stress-free?

At home, trying to work

First, an important point: this has not been a normal home working experience. As Zero Waste Scotland chief executive Iain Gulland noted in an interview with Transform last year: “This period is not ‘working from home’; this is ‘at home in a pandemic, trying to work’.” Personal restrictions, combined with school closures, have heightened levels of anxiety, isolation and stress.

“We used to work from home, now we live at work”

For many, working from home is not the panacea some claimed it would be. During the pandemic, working days have increased across Europe, North America and the Middle East by almost 49 minutes, according to a recent study by the US nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research. This was “partly due to increases in emails sent after business hours”, the experts wrote. (Less time is being spent in meetings, though).

It is unclear whether this increase is a benefit or drawback to employee wellbeing. The flexibility to choose working hours may be affording staff some freedom and allowing them to balance household and personal demands. On the flip side, the change may be a consequence of a “blurred distinction between work and personal life”.

‘Digital presenteeism’ is a problem. Suddenly, it’s fine to request a meeting outside the nine-to-five. Some people might want to work early or late so they can, for example, take a longer lunch or do the school run; others won’t. “People are at home, but that doesn’t mean they are always at work – and yet there’s a temptation to feel that way,” says Roberta Cucchiaro, global product marketing manager at ManpowerGroup Talent Solutions.

In a December Harvard Business Review article, ‘Where did the commute time go?’, academics detailed new research showing what Americans are doing with the time they have gained from not commuting. Those with no managerial responsibilities allocated much of it to personal activities – and good for them. However, managers just worked longer hours and spent more time in meetings – in fact, their working day has increased by 56 minutes. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, psychologist and chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup put it recently: “We used to work from home, now we live at work.”

Building a new work culture

Manpower’s recent report The future for workers, by workers (go.manpowergroup.com/futureforworkers), based on data from 8,000 workers in eight countries, showed that more than 30% of workers are now combining teacher, employee and caregiver roles – all while working longer days. Women have been disproportionately affected, and companies need to think carefully about this.

Charmorro-Premuzic notes that remote or hybrid working approaches can mean things that “men have been better at” – presenteeism and politicking, “sucking up to the boss” – fall away. However, some data has shown that men are the first to return to the workplace because “they see an opportunity to exploit politics by being in the office”. Hopefully, he continues, organisations will use the opportunity created by the pandemic to “decontaminate” these politics from their culture, move past presenteeism and learn to “evaluate what people contribute to their teams and the organisation”.

“It’s perfectly okay to say ‘I’m struggling’, because we all are”

None of this will be easy, but those that shy away from it will be found out. “Employees will remember how their employers have behaved during this crisis,” says Cucchiaro. Asking staff what they want will be key. The consultancy Arcadis has completed internal surveys every four months so that it can track how staff are feeling and adapt accordingly. The longer people stayed at home, the more strain there was on family relationships.

Changes to working patterns have also fuelled anxiety among workers around how things might have changed, explains Karen Meager, an organisational psychologist and co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy. “What has happened to their role, did they perform well enough, how did they get on with their line manager? These are the types of concerns that, if left to fester, will impact on wellbeing levels,” she says.

Another apparent trend picked up in the Manpower research is that members of the younger generation (‘Gen Z’) are more eager to return to the office. They have, for example missed out on some of what Brad Blundell, managing director at consultancy Anthesis, calls the “over-the-workstation support – the mentoring and coaching support that informally happens in an office”. Changes are being made and programmes adapted so that, from top to bottom, staff have the skills to work remotely. The World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs report, published in October, reported that 34% of all employers were taking steps to create a sense of community among employees online and were looking to tackle wellbeing challenges posed by remote work.

Silver linings

There is, needless to say, no silver bullet. “We are all feeling our way in terms of what ‘good’ looks like,” says IEMA CEO Sarah Mukherjee. Mukherjee took up her post in June, during the first lockdown. She tells me that she doesn’t feel any less part of the organisation than she would if she were in the Lincoln office two or three days a week; in fact, she feels she’s had more time to meet staff and get to know them better. Video calls “take the formality out of conversations” she says (as her new dog barks in the background).

This a point others make: in some ways, video calls have brought us closer together. CEOs have become dog owners taking calls in their kitchens. Journalists have become fathers. Inhibition – and attire – has loosened.

The pandemic has also emboldened businesses to try working patterns they’d previously been afraid to. “We are connecting and being innovative,” says Lucy England, people director at Arcadis UK & Ireland. She is now able to “push boundaries” and be “more agile”, and has seen that line managers who were reluctant to allow home working now want to lead in a different way. “Clients who were used to seeing someone five days a week also realised their service wasn’t impacted.”

Do people still want to work from home in the long term? Yes. UK research in June by Sodexo, which provides catering and other services to corporates, showed that 79% wanted to continue working from home for at least part of the week. By October, this had increased to 88%. As Cucchiaro suggests, the pandemic has seen us “go from a world in which we had to beg to work from home to one where we were forced to”, and for many, this has been “empowering”.

There are hopes that this will lead to staff talking more about their feelings. According to Accenture, 59% of employees in small companies and 24% in large organisations in the UK don’t talk openly about mental health in their workplace. Mental health charity Mind recently warned of a “second pandemic” as it released data showing that the number of people experiencing a mental health crisis had reached record levels – unsurprising during a pandemic that is taking lives and livelihoods. “It’s perfectly okay to say ‘I’m struggling’,” says Mukherjee, “because we all are.”

David Burrows is a researcher and freelance writer.

Image credit: iStock

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