Why companies need to create an ecosystem for home workers

A year into the great Work From Home experiment and companies are still learning about how employees are faring. Could a study of European home workers by Intel give us some directions for the future?

Just before the global pandemic struck, I led a year-long ethnographic study into working from home in Europe. The research was conducted by the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art with WORKTECH Academy, and supported by Intel. Its focus was on how technology could aid home working and improve the practice.

The study centred on five countries – Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, the UK and France – and looked at a mix of 21 home workers living in cities and in rural areas. The research also explored the differences between those who were working from home permanently, either by choice or by requirement, and those who lived a more hybrid version working from multiple locations. Given what has happened since Covid-19 struck, the timing of the study could not have been better.

Systems take the strain

The conclusion of the research, described in a report for Intel entitled Domestic Digital, was that technology needs to fundamentally work as an ecoystem of work-related products. There needs to be an emphasis on systems working together to take the strain off the worker by reducing notifications, eliminating distractions and improving connectivity.

Essentially, there should not only be a hardware and software infrastructure in place for the worker, but also a company policy or framework for how to care for that home worker. Policy goals for companies to address were broken into three core areas: the employee’s attention to tasks; the communication of those tasks; and, importantly, the mental health of that employee.

Fast forward to 2021 and this research has even more relevance than it did when we started the study in 2018. Before the pandemic we thought of ‘permanent homeworking’ as a rigid concept for a select few, and ‘semi-homeworking’ as mainly a Thursday or Friday ritual for those perhaps balancing other priorities in life. Today, we can see that a strict and extended lockdown has left many employees in a permanent state of homeworking for which they were given little notice.

Exposed to weaknesses

This event has shaken how we think about work and home to the core – and it has instantly exposed companies to the outdated technological systems, deficient HR protocols and fragile individual mentalities around homeworking.

In many instances, companies have scrambled to buy quick solutions for an entire workforce who are suddenly at home – instigating temporary fixes under the pretext that, at some point, everything will return back to normal. This is a constantly changing topic, depending on who you ask. However, after a year of working from home, there is no going back for many.

There have certainly been many growing pains, such as people in small, shared flats working full time from the sofa or kitchen table; yet there have also been some huge positives, such as doing away with time lost during commutes, which in most cases could be an extra two hours a day won.

Working times have also shifted as a fix for childcare, with some working early in the morning and late at night. Such shifts have also allowed people to work within their preferred energy flows. In our Intel research project, we found that the inefficiencies in working from home could be defined as ‘permeable’, where the lines between work and life become blurred and things begin to fall through the cracks or cross over into personal aspects of life. When the original research was compiled, I found that home workers either worked in a contained way or a permeable way to negotiate life and work. Now, it feels like for many home workers it is just permeable.

Benefits for home workers

An important point which was raised in the original research was the company benefits individuals would receive, which were usually tailored to those in an office space, such as free gym membership, travel or even coffee. Yet these benefits never fitted the home worker particularly well. If an individual was lucky, they would get an allowance for wi-fi, electricity, or even a proper desk and chair.

However, there was never any thought about the mental wellbeing of the employee working at home. There might have been the original insurance check-up, but benefits were limited. During the pandemic, employee wellbeing has been brought to the forefront, especially the openness in which colleagues are talking to one another about struggling to meet the expectations of home and working life all together.

This open dialogue must continue after the pandemic as we tailor more policies to mental wellbeing as well as physical wellbeing. A perfect example would be if companies began to offer, instead of free gym membership, free one-on-one mental health therapy.

Dialogue around output

Another point is the way in which we think about work deliverables. In the original study, many of the permanent home workers were in sales or communications, meaning they had very tangible deliverables and outcomes that could be easily monitored by a superior. Yet with many jobs, it is not so simple as a numerical outcome, which has caused a lot of employers to panic about company efficiency during the pandemic.

In my opinion, this is the most complex and difficult part of home working, where both past and present perceptions and stereotypes still linger within management. Thus, companies need to rethink the way they approach dialogue between employees and managers. Instead of back-to-back video calls and constant monitoring, there should be more fluidity in how managers engage with output.

‘Companies capable of embracing homeworking with positive dialogue will fare best…’

Our research with Intel suggests that those companies capable of embracing homeworking with positive dialogue, and constructing an ecosystem of solutions and policies to support it, are those most likely to be set fair for the future. We should think about how we allow employees to work the best way that they can in a hybrid model, and not monitor them constantly. A company that monitors screen movements or activities will not succeed in hiring new talent.

The overhaul of mentality around working from home does not just come from the company managers, but also from individual home workers. Different companies will have different styles of interacting with employees. In this context, there are new opportunities to create truly bespoke working practices around the home.

Robert Thorpe is a multi-disciplinary designer and researcher based in Stuttgart, Germany, who went from speaking about working from home at the WORKTECH Wellness conference in 2019 to actually working from home, like so many, in 2020. He led the Intel ethnographic study of home workers in Europe, Domestic Digital (2019)
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