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Working From Home – A Guide for those working under different conditions due to Covid-19

The saying that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ originates in the bible (Ecclesiastes 1:9) but the practice of working from home predates even the bible, at least according to those who argue –  reasonably in my opinion – that raising a family and maintaining a household is very hard work (even if unpaid).  Not as dangerous, perhaps, as heading out to hunt wild boar armed only with a spear but still tiring, responsible and with its own set of challenges.

And as well as the child-raisers and home-makers, consider the artists, authors, sculptors, musicians and numerous other professions who invariably ply their trade under their own roofs.   So working from home is nothing new.

But fast forward 2,000 years or so from biblical times and working from home is now at the core of the fight against Covid-19 with large numbers of employees now officially instructed not to travel to their place of work.  Of course, in many cases those employees cannot continue to carry out their business if they do not have the necessary infrastructure;  mechanics can’t service cars: construction workers can’t erect buildings and so on.  But office workers who sit at desks in front of computers and screens in office blocks can sit at their kitchen table in front of their laptop and, assuming system connectivity, it can be pretty much business as usual.

At least, that’s the theory.  In the 1990s, when I worked for a major U.S. company which was then highly-regarded, I could have worked from home without undue difficulty.  I had systems access.  Email service was reliable and many of the colleagues with whom I had daily interaction were in any case based in different locations, mainly outside of the UK.  Even when I was in the office I spent most of my time on the ‘phone, sending emails or taking part in video conferencing.  Working from home would have saved me over two hours in time spent travelling to the office plus the cost of petrol spent to slog through inner-city traffic while benefitting the environment.  And as I was just one of many, my employer would have been able to downsize its premises with a consequential cost-saving.  Everyone, in theory, would have been a winner.

Yet working from home was not an option.  The official explanation was that not being in the office would mean missing out on the ‘essential’ interaction which takes place between colleagues – the so-called ‘water-cooler conversations’ where people who would not otherwise converse (because they would not bump into each other) shared information, news and ideas.  Perhaps.  Or perhaps more likely it was because the decision-makers were old-school and thought that those who wanted to work from home would spend their working days watching television, surfing the internet, going out for long lunches or taking afternoon naps.  An even more cynical train of thought had it that the decision-makers could not work from home themselves and did not want anyone else to have a privilege which was not available to them.

But the 1990s are a long time ago.  John Major was Prime Minister.  The Spice Girls promoted Girl Power.  Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League.  And in 2020 we have Covid-19.  Government policy is that anyone who can work from home must do, and so for the first time millions of office-based workers find themselves in what can be a strange and disconcerting situation.  Because studies have shown that even though remote-workers on average  work 1.4 days per month more than their office-based counterparts it is also believed that around 1 in 3 remote employees struggle with their work/life balance ( https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/15259-working-from-home-more-productive.html).

I can’t comment on the accuracy of the statistics but I do believe the underlying principles to be valid.  Certainly, when I worked from home I know I put many more hours into my working day than I did when I was office-based and I am sure I was not that unusual.  Most office jobs have defined hours of work and although there were of course those who, like me, would arrive early and leave late the majority would largely observe those hours, even if they weren’t strictly ‘9-to-5’.  At home, it was as if time wasn’t particularly relevant.  I would still wake, naturally, at the same time I had been used to waking when I had been commuting and my mindset was such that the first thing I would do would be to check my business email for any overnight developments.  Invariably, something would have happened which I needed to respond to and without thinking my day of work would commence – a good hour or more earlier than it would had I first have to travel to the office.  And the same was true towards the end of the day;  I would keep checking the laptop for emails and responding to any which had come in.  I never measured the extra time I gave my employer but it was considerably more than 1.4 days per month.  Not everyone, of course, is like me.

The flip side of putting in such long home-based hours is that the work/life balance obviously becomes unfavourably skewed towards work.  That is also something I can personally attest to!

So what lessons can be learned from the employee’s perspective?

  • Decide on a particular room at home to serve as your office – even if it is the kitchen and your desk is the kitchen table. Don’t work from your bedroom if at all possible – you need to recreate the sense of an office environment.  Try and avoid places where there are distractions – a TV, views onto a busy street etc.
  • Give yourself a routine and stick to it as far as possible. Decide how many hours you are willing to work per day – obviously respecting the contractual minimum which all salaried employees should have – and stay within the limit.
  • As you would in the office, have a mid-morning and mid—afternoon break for a cup of tea or coffee and take the opportunity to get your mind of the job for 15 minutes.
  • Taking an hour at lunchtime is very important. Studies show that workers who do not have a proper break in the middle of the day become increasingly unproductive during the afternoon (and this holds true both for office- and home-based workers).  If circumstances, and of course the weather, allow try and get some fresh air and a change of scene for 30 minutes.
  • At the start of the working day, set yourself some specific objectives to achieve during the day ahead. Perhaps even give yourself a “To Do” list and tick items off as you work through them.  This will help guard against over-working but it does require an element of self-discipline.
  • If your job description allows, schedule a daily video meeting (or conference call) with colleagues or your line manager. Obviously, this needs to be time spent productively but the contact with others is both healthy and constructive.
  • Above all, respect the trust which your employer is showing you – even if you are only working from home as a consequence of Covid-19. You have responsibilities to discharge and you should expect that by doing so successfully at a difficult time your employer will recognize this when considering your next career steps.

And from the perspective of the employer?

  • Make sure the ground rules – and in particular the hours when the employee needs to ensure that he/she is ‘at work’ – are clearly set.
  • Over-communicate with your staff rather than run the risk of letting them feel isolated or ignored. Perhaps send a daily email update or even an employee-focused newsletter so that the kind of personal news which is routinely exchange in the office still gets communicated.
  • Prioritise being available for your teams when they need guidance, instruction or support – they need to know that you are there for them.
  • Give regular feedback on the progress that is being made so that everyone knows that their contributions are being noted and valued.
  • Consider running a work-themed competition with a weekly winner and a modest prize.
  • Be constantly looking for areas to fine-tune, particularly if this is the first time your business has adopted working from home. You won’t get it right first time and there will inevitably be scope for process changes and fine-tuning.
  • Above all, remember that this may be the first time that some of your employees will be working outside the ‘managed’ office environment. Be a responsible ‘remote employer’, gain their respect and show tolerance as they go through the learning process.

With the relentless advance of technology, particularly around communications, it is quite conceivable that ‘going to the office’ for work may before long become unnecessary.  Employers would love nothing more than reducing their fixed cost base so that their businesses become more flexible and able to adapt to changes in demand.  Motivated employees should be keen to improve their quality of life.  It’s not impossible that social historians of the future will look back on the events of 2020 as being a pivotal point in the evolution of home-based working.

John Batty has been working as a Consultant in the financial services industry since 2005 prior to which he worked for a number of major international financial institutions.  He has lived in Greece, the U.S., Germany and China as well as travelling extensively on business in Europe and South America.

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