Working from home (again) – five lessons from the last time
9 Dec 2021
Head of Research Development
So, the great working from home ‘experiment’ is to continue after yesterday’s announcement that Plan B is to be invoked. The decision has been welcomed by some and derided by others, as if to emphasise the sometimes-polarised nature of the debate about whether ‘Working from Home’ (WfH) is a good thing or not. While some businesses are successfully implementing ‘blended’ models of hybrid working which accommodate the varied needs of their employees, others are being more directive about requiring staff to file back into the office. You may remember, for example, David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs calling WfH an ‘aberration’ or Sir James Dyson calling those working from home ‘cocooned’ and those back in the office ‘diligent’?
After 20 months of on and off lockdowns, I think we have enough evidence about how well WfH has worked for different groups of employees to help us move beyond simplistic labels and assertions. IES was quite early to the party – if that’s not an indelicate reference – having launched our first WfH survey at the end of March 2020 and a second as part of the ESRC-funded ‘Work After Lockdown’ project with our colleagues at Southampton Business School and Half the Sky. So, what have we learned that might be of help now that WfH is to be a part of our lives again? I offer five lessons.
First, WfH is a relatively privileged arrangement and is not universally beneficial. Many millions of key workers in health and social care, retail, distribution and other front-line roles do not routinely get the chance to work at home. WfH is most often open only to those in white collar, professional, technical or administrative jobs. It’s also worth remembering that, even in this group, both the pandemic and WfH has had the effect of amplifying existing inequalities with some workers living in cramped conditions, with poor IT, carrying out home-schooling or even at risk of domestic violence most often dreading the prospect of WfH.
Second, many people thrived while WfH. In our surveys we found that the opportunity to avoid long commutes, claw back some work-life balance and to exercise more control over their working time were some of the positives experienced by many. Most often, our surveys told us that workers who felt trusted, informed, supported and involved in key decisions were the ones who adjusted better to the transition to home working and who reported enhanced mental health, motivation, commitment and productivity.
Third, health can take a ‘hit’ while WfH. We found that a high proportion of people making the change to WfH experienced more musculoskeletal problems, poor sleep, eye strain, higher alcohol consumption and poorer diets combined with less exercise. We also know that mental health problems were more common for the young and those with caring responsibilities. Interestingly, those with better physical and mental health were those whose employers had conducted risk assessments using some of the tools available from, for example, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and those who had regular contact with their boss and close colleagues. Some, but not all, of this contact was work-related with ‘virtual’ coffee breaks, quizzes and other social activities online helping people to stay connected and reduce the risk of isolation.
Fourth, we need to re-think the ways we talk about performance. For many organisations WfH made them realise that the quality and timeliness of the work outputs are often much more important than their inputs – that is, where and when they do their work. Also, we now know that productivity need not be a casualty of working from home. More than one study has shown that productivity – in so far as it can be measured effectively among white collar workers – has not declined appreciably, although we do know that it can decline if the mental health of homeworkers is under pressure.
Fifth, managers matter enormously. At the start of the pandemic fewer than a third of bosses got any training on how to manage remote teams and most were using their best instincts to work out how to keep the show on the road. To their credit, most found inner resources of innovation and resilience that they didn’t know they had and our surveys show pretty clearly that empathetic and supportive line managers were pivotal to making WfH work as well as it did. We need those same managers to step up once again now that so many of us are spending the run-up to Christmas on Zoom or Teams.
Most organisations have been incredibly agile during the pandemic. Not all have had to make the ‘gin to hand gel’ transformations which have made the headlines, but most have demonstrated to themselves and their customers that they can pivot quickly and keep the lights on. In the long run, their ability to transition to working from home and then back to hybrid working will stand businesses in good stead especially if they are prepared to leave behind any residual dogmatism about where and when people work best.
Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.