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The new reality for many is working from home

Managing the wellbeing of a remote workforce

by Dr Mariann Hardey, October 2020 (updated February 2021)

In June 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 36.5% of the UK working population were working ‘mainly’ from home. For those doing ‘some’ work from home, this figure increased to 46.6%.

In 2019, the percentage of people ‘mainly’ working from home was just 5.1% and 4.3% in 2015. The sector with the highest proportion of home workers was information and communication, with 14% in 2019 who mainly worked at home, and more than half of workers having worked from home at some time.

Those who occupied the most senior roles such as managers, directors and senior officers were most likely to work from home (10%), followed by those in associate professional and technical occupations (8%) and administration (6%), reported the ONS.

Before Covid-19, we might have speculated that women would form the majority of the home workforce; however, according to the ONS, it was men (11%) who were more than twice as likely to work from home compared with women (5%).

With home working now the ‘norm’ for many professionals, does this mean a radical shake-up concerning industry initiatives to support a more accessible and inclusive workforce? Or are separate professional conditions continuing to prevail in the home?

Impact on companies

First reported in Forbes, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Slack, Microsoft and newly favoured Zoom implemented new work regimes to allow employees to continue to work from home for the remainder of 2020. For those in the tech sector, remote working methods are more familiar than in other industries less confident or invested in software to support digital interactions.

Prior to Covid-19, remote working practices within the tech sector could have been seen as innovations for other organisations and industries to adopt. However, today, we risk conflating ‘remote working’ with the present conditions of being forced to work from home, which is entirely different concerning support, accessibility and skills. My long-term research investigates the challenges of remote working within the tech sector and opportunities for companies to implement change for a more inclusive workforce.

Part of what this sector, and others, is dealing with are the opportunities for workplace support. During interviews with workers, there is anger about the support that is mostly self-directed online learning to identify stress areas or take workers through basic meditation exercises. Speaking to civil service workers, similar methods have been introduced throughout lockdown. There is significant tension here between top-down ‘support’ and what is really needed on the ground. Some clearly identifiable themes have emerged from the recent work-from-home conditions.

Proper investment in staff training that is accessible to all workers

One senior manager shared his experience of being the primary carer for his daughter. He was unable to attend online training when he lacked childcare support at home. Obstacles preventing event attendance is not new where caring roles are involved. A positive spin out of the pandemic is the opening up of previously locked down events, meetings and conferences. Through digital tech, I’ve been able to attend a virtual parliamentary civic briefing; participate in a conference previously out of my reach; benefit from cybersecurity online training; and vote in union elections. While it is frustrating, it has taken the restriction of workers to force this opening up, when it could have been championed and supported a long time ago. I hope that post-Covid-19, the same level of access will remain.

Agile professionals need support

We are spending a substantial proportion of our day in front of screens. Mental health ‘check-ins’ and wellbeing tools are predominantly conducted through the screen. While technology enables immediate contact, it does not allow periods of rest unless the user puts these in place. Speaking to a HR director, she shared her technology fatigue; where the company had invested in a staff wellbeing app, this meant more time in front of a screen sharing personal details about sleep patterns and sense of self-worth. Such investment attends to some of the needs of the workforce – if they are interested in sleep tracking, however it does very little for supporting new work patterns, roles and fatigue.

Households are the new workforce

Where organisations have a contract concerning duties and responsibilities of an individual, this does not translate easily into households. Inevitably, different burdens of care and ways of working entrench the home. What is clear from recent media reports and speaking to individuals across sectors in the UK, are the difficulties in finding routines, especially when there are caring responsibilities for loved ones within the home. A common experience is feeling overwhelmed by professional tasks and spiraling out of control from ways to sustain relationships in the home. My own experience echoes that of many: caring for my four-year-old daughter, working full time, contributing to and running a household without the time and space to perform properly in any of these areas, let alone download an app and record my sleep. The acknowledgment here is that while individuals are employed by an organisation, it is the household that configures how we can conduct our professional roles at home.

Different career enhancement

One of the main challenges now is dealing with the ‘unknown’. One area of growing unease and concern is the new barriers to career progression. This is particularly the case where workers are being asked to prioritise new areas of work, such as the generation of online content, over and above all other tasks. And while online training can provide a great deal of information about ‘how things work’, it is very difficult for those tools to positively enhance different ways of working, especially if those duties are not formally recognised within career pathways and promotion criteria. The push to ‘get online’ takes time, new skills and requires the proper recognition of what the end product should look and feel like.

[not] Taking time off

Simply put, stating that workers should use their annual leave won’t alone change the conditions of stress, fatigue and fear. In short, while the required ‘leave’ can be recorded on an Excel spreadsheet, this does not reflect a period of rest for the individual. For others, it will not be possible to use their leave allowance. This is not about giving people ‘special treatment’, but acknowledging that the current conditions are difficult and in acknowledging this, understanding each other in terms of these being hard times for all.

During the crisis, I continue to research the impact of remote working. Yet, this is with a growing unease, as I recognise and share the same challenges as those I interview. However, in deepening this narrative, we can underscore the sharp divide between work-from-home and remote working. To ease the burden on households and support new, innovative ways of working in the future, both require a plethora of change, investment and support.