Coronavirus challenge: can we work from home effectively?

As coronavirus tightens its grip, more and more companies are sending their people to work from home. But while greater organisational interest in flexible working is welcome, research suggests there are considerable barriers to enabling work in the home

As companies around the world scramble to keep their businesses running while sending their workforces home to self-isolate amid the accelerating coronavirus crisis, one unanticipated consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented organisational interest in the benefits of flexible and remote working.

That is the silver lining in a dark cloud. But what many companies are discovering is that organising work from home is not as simple as it seems. For employees in traditional firms long wedded to the idea of a daily commute to a fixed place of work at an office building or campus, the sudden shift to home working can be hugely difficult. For managers losing line of sight of their workforce, things can be harder still if new protocols of trust and remote communication have been alien to the company culture in the recent past.

Borders make a difference

According to research in the field, barriers to effective work at home are both cultural and technological. A study by work psychologist Alma Erlich and designer Daniel Charny (Work at Home, Royal College of Art/Leonard Cheshire 1999), for example, suggests that the borders (physical, social, role and temporal) we construct between work and life in the domestic environment make all the difference to how effectively we work from home.

The study presents four models, of which two are successful models for working at home and two are not. The Contained Work model is where the borders constructed around work are solid, allowing little that doesn’t belong to pass in or out. A homeworker might have a private room or a garden shed to escape to for set hours. Spatial borders are marked; temporal borders are defined; time plans and schedules are adhered to. Psychologically, the distinction between home and work is clear in the worker’s mind.

Sitting at the opposite end of an axis in terms of the degree of separation of work from home is the Permeable Work model. Here the borders are constructed to allow a planned integration of work and home activities and easy two-directional access. Working mothers can keep an eye on children in the garden, for instance, while working from the living room couch. Work is often not confined to the workspace; domestic and work activities are successfully intertwined or run in parallel.

Models that don’t work

The other two models in the study demonstrate conditions where borders are not successfully constructed or maintained. In the Overflowing Work model, work bursts its banks and floods the home. The work is not contained by spatial or temporal borders, it cannot be shut down or folded away, the worker is constantly investing more and more time in the work and neglecting other basic functions of home life. Work takes over completely.

Its counterpart is the Imploding Work model where resources are drained or channelled away from work, and less and less work is achieved. Workspace shrinks – psychologically and practically; plans disintegrate; motivation and discipline weaken in the face of competing demands and constant interruptions and diversions (social visitors, babies, builders, depression).

The worry for employers navigating the coronavirus crisis is that their sent-home workforce won’t construct and manage their borders properly – work will dominate the home or implode completely, both with detrimental effects on employees and company viability. The message is that people need to guidance in constructing borders between work and home.

Technologies can frustrate

But while the psychology of working at home is one barrier, there is also a huge technological hurdle to cross. Despite a growing army of freelances, self-employed entrepreneurs and corporate employees who now work wholly or partially from home, the continuing lack of availability of new technologies to support smarter work practices is a source of frustration.

An ethnographic study called Domestic Digital (Intel, WORKTECH Academy and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art 2019) looked at the work-at-home lives of 21 individuals across five countries in three diverse European conurbations: Grenoble-Geneva; Malmo-Copenhagen; and London and the south-east of the UK. The research focused on their working spaces, the technology they use and their daily routines and behaviours.

The research discovered that homeworkers require technology that enables their work rather than impedes it – user attention is constantly distracted, for example, by information overload and notifications to devices. Technical infrastructure also needs an upgrade as basic services such as file transfer, internet connectivity and video communication regularly cause headaches, although levels of signal and service depend on exactly where you live. Homes with thick walls are often a problem, and many frugal European homeworkers wanting to keep their data bills down find that download speeds are compromised.

‘Technology has some catching up to do and there are concerns over poor ergonomic conditions…’

Homeworkers also want to use their mobile phone as the primary device but most still have a desktop set-up in their homes, plugging a laptop into a screen. The technology has some catching up to do and there are concerns over poor ergonomic conditions and inflexible software.

Tightening company policies

Generally, as coronavirus tightens its grip, company policies on home working will need to be tightened to address the mental wellbeing of the individual (social isolation can be an issue) as well as safety and environmental standards in the home.

Just sending the workforce home to keep calm and carry on sounds a simple thing to implement, but it’s more complicated than that. In a global emergency, companies are likely to learn fast about home working, but over a prolonged period the learning curve may be steeper than most people are willing to admit.

Jeremy Myerson is Director of WORKTECH Academy and the Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, London.
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