The interchangeable office of 2020: Working from home and returning to work arrangements

Dr Penny Williams, 21 July, 2020

Previously, the perception of employees slacking off if they are working from home has been proven to be inaccurate during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the rise of employees and employers looking to embed regular work from home arrangements once they’re able to return to the office, what are the positives and negatives?

The realities of working from home

As a researcher of flexible work, I have been intrigued by the current debates about working from home in response to COVID-19.  Social media and popular press have been rampant with “tips for working from home” and more recently, “how to prepare to return to the office?”. Yet working from home is nothing new. Craftspeople and freelancers have been operating micro-businesses from their home since before the first industrial revolution, and telecommuting was adopted in organisations as early as the 1980's. Even during these early trials research found that working from home improved employee productivity and saved organisational costs.  Subsequent research has confirmed that our well-being and sense of work-life balance can increase when we have flexibility to choose where we work.  There is however a dark side to working at home that is worth exploring as we consider the option to return to our traditional workplaces.

Isolation and disconnectedness – The downsides of working from home

Sometimes, those who work from home experience feelings of isolation and disconnectedness from the workplace. The lack of physical interactions with colleagues or supervisors can raise doubts about the extent to which your workload and performance is visible, and you may become concerned about perceptions regarding your productivity and value to the organisation.

These worries are not unfounded. We’ve all heard colleagues sarcastically talk about the person “working from home”, suggesting they are slacking off. Even now, when we are all required to work from home, we have been inundated with tips on how to avoid distractions and use our time more effectively.  These suggestions seem to imply that we are less productive because we are washing, looking after kids, sleeping, or managing our social life instead of doing a full day’s work. Yet, considerable research suggests the opposite.

The productivity paradox – greater productivity vs poor work-life balance

Studies show that we are more productive, exert greater effort and are more motivated to perform when we have flexibility. For example, in my research (undertook before the COVID-19 pandemic) which studied flexible work arrangements in a large Australian organisation, employees who were working from home were doing so to focus, avoid workplace distractions and use commuting time to get more work done. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have higher proactive job performance working from home – that is, we initiate actions to achieve better performance in our main tasks. This is because we have a higher sense of autonomy over our work, but it may also be because of that fear of being perceived as non-performing, and associated feelings of guilt. Our response is to work longer hours.

Boundary control

This is great for employers who reap the benefit of us working at midnight or on Saturdays, but as our job creeps into other parts of our life, we risk over-working and burnout.  This is exacerbated by technology that enables us to be constantly ‘on’. Job creep blurs the boundaries between our work and non-work roles and creates work-life conflict – the spill over of work into our non-work or family life.  Conversely, we can feel stress and perceive a negative impact on our work productivity when family life spills into our work life.

In the pre-COVID-19 world, many of us managed this conflict with simple strategies such as using the time we spent travelling to and from work to transition between our various roles – to wind down from work, or to prepare for our day.  We were also able to choose when to work from home, and we could therefore control our work-at-home environment. During the COVID-19 pandemic we have been sharing our spaces with others or home-schooling children and our ability to control the boundaries between our work and home life have been diminished. Limited boundary control has emotional, psychological, and physical consequences. Stress and depression increase, and we find it difficult to switch off from work. We might feel we can’t take time for ourselves or loved ones, while simultaneously feeling that we aren’t doing enough in our work.

Why going back to work might work and why staying at home might also work?

As our workplaces re-open, what matters, is not where we work, but how we manage the psychological boundaries between our work and home life. For some, this will occur by returning to the office, even if only occasionally, while others will regain control over the work-at-home environment as those they live with spend less time at home. Regardless, certain strategies remain key;

Create transitions between your work and home life

This can be done by establishing a routine that signals to yourself and others you are “going to work” whether that be in your office, or at your kitchen table. Similarly, create a simple routine to finish work at the end of the day.

Become aware of job creep so that you can manage it

Keep a record of the hours you actually work, then take steps to reinstate boundaries. When you finish your work day turn off email.

Ask for support if you need it

Organisational, supervisor and peer support are key to successful flexible working, so check in with your supervisor and make sure you have all the resources you need to do your job well regardless of your physical location.

Author

Dr Penny Williams

Dr Penny Williams is a lecturer in the School of Management with whose research explores the changing nature of work, and emerging modes of working.

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