A couple of months ago, most UK workers would probably have said they’d love to be given the option to work from home at least some of the time. Now, though, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, homeworking is being encouraged and, for a lot of workers, it’s no longer wishful thinking, but an imposed reality. And there’s a big difference between spending the odd day working from the kitchen table while you wait for the gas man or a new appliance delivery and the prospect of fulfilling your nine-till-five schedule confined between the same four domestic walls – along with the rest of your family – for the foreseeable future.
Working from home (WFH) has always been seen as a bit of a doss: colleagues tend to think you’re pulling a fast one and shirking not working. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that homeworking can lead to increased productivity. Some years ago, an experiment by a team led by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom looked at productivity among call centre workers in China. They found that those who worked from home tended to work harder and more effectively; this was partly attributed to the workers taking fewer breaks and sick days, and partly to the quieter and more convenient working environment.
The home workers in the Chinese study also reported improved work satisfaction, and there are certainly advantages to WFH. These include:
Not only is money saved on petrol or fares, but for many workers there can be a substantial time saving if they don’t need to travel to work, as well as a potential reduction in stress.
You can choose whether you have music on, what type it is and how loud it is, as well as controlling other elements such as furnishings and décor, or even allowing pets into the home working space.
There’s no need to find a meeting room for private conversations and no one is listening to your phone calls.
Many of us self-identify as larks or owls and, even when core hours must be fulfilled, WFH can facilitate working at the time that best suits our own body clocks. The flexible schedule also lets us fit in personal tasks and domestic chores.
With full access to a kitchen that you have stocked yourself and without any possibility of a colleague snaffling your lunch, WFH offers the possibility of maintaining far better eating habits.
But WFH also brings with it some definite challenges and disadvantages, both for the worker and the employing organisation. Things to consider here include:
Infrastructure and technology
Not only does the home worker need a dedicated space and equipment, but security issues need to be considered, particularly in this age of cybercrime.
The home environment offers a host of potential distractions, not just housework and errands. And if family members or guests are also at home, they can be hard to ignore.
For those living alone, the social contact provided by going out to work can be vital to good mental health. Without contact with others, they may suffer from cabin fever: impatience, lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating, food cravings…
The ideal situation is that we eat better when we’re at home but, in reality, it’s simple to keep making coffee, to eat the whole packet of biscuits yourself and just keep snacking as no one is watching or judging.
Combined with the monotony and easy access to a kitchen, lack of exercise and lack of social contact can easily lead to weight gain.
The big advantage of going out to work is that most workers still recognise a cut-off point to the working day: even when you have to work late, you do eventually close the office door and go home. Working from your own home, this is far more difficult to achieve.
In 2014, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 87% of employees would prefer a clear boundary between work and home to taking work home: we do want to be able to draw that line. This may be one reason why hot desking and shared working spaces are so popular with small businesses, as they create the illusion of an office that can be left behind at the end of the day.
This issue of boundaries and the need to maintain a good work-life balance is the big challenge that is going to be facing a huge number of workers for the next few months at least. It’s a problem for those who work from home at any time, but now most of us will be forced to work in a space that we will have to share with the rest of our family. We may not be the only person in the household who is trying to work, and we won’t have the option of just popping out to the nearest coffee shop when we get stir crazy.
With that in mind, here are a few ideas to help create the right mindset, set clear boundaries and keep things professional.
Establish your workstation
This isn’t always possible – especially if more than one person in the household is competing for the space – but a dedicated work area has many advantages. It will make it easier to get straight into the flow each day and you’ll spend less time setting up and “finding your place” if you have space to leave things as you would on your desk at work. Working in a specific location that indicates that you are “at work” can also help you establish boundaries with non-working family members, including children, and should help discourage domestic interruptions.
Dress for work
Pyjamas and slippers may be comfy, but dressing for work helps put you in a business mindset and also gives you another way to indicate – to your own subconscious and to family members – that you are at work. Then, if you change into more casual clothes when the workday is over, you’ll be less inclined to go back to your desk and deal with work issues. In addition, your contact with the outside world is going to be via your computer screen and you never know when you might need to jump on a video call with your boss or a client.
Keep to a routine
There’s no doubt that, while we’re working from home, we will be tempted to deal with domestic chores and responsibilities during the working day. If you can schedule specific breaks to deal with these rather than just dealing with them when they occur to you, it can help keep things separate and reduce the blurring of work and home life.
Remain cyber vigilant
Cybercrime isn’t going to stop just because your work conditions have changed. In fact, there’s a good chance that your home computer set up is more vulnerable than the well-established system at your place of business. Be sure to follow any protocols for home working provided by your employer and don’t let your guard down.
Keep in touch
Working from home doesn’t mean isolation from colleagues and clients: share projects via cloud-based software, make phone and video calls, send emails, participate in social media, groups and forums… But don’t get obsessed with constantly checking for updates, and be very wary of fake news. Unless that’s your actual job, don’t spend the whole day on social media. Scheduling slots for non-essential contact – virtual coffee breaks and social media chit chat – can help keep things under control.
As you’re likely to be moving around less than usual, try and establish an exercise routine. If government advice permits, go for a walk before settling down to work or try and go out during one of your scheduled breaks. If you can’t get outside, there are lots of indoor exercise options, whether it’s weights, yoga, stretching, walking… or just turn up the music and dance!