Suddenly – we can work at home…

Companies that have resisted letting staff to work from home have had their hand forced as a result of coronavirus, and a demand from Government that people working in non-essential jobs stay away from their normal place of work.

Where possible, these people are now working from home; likely sent off by their bosses with a computer to carry on as best they can while hunkering down.

Working from home has been an option for many office-based jobs, even before the internet became available in the 1990s. But plenty of staff have been forced into the daily commute by their managers so they can be seen at their desk – with managers often confusing staff being present with being productive. So why the common reluctance to let people work from home?

James Brown, general manager of financial technology firm FinTech says one of the main reasons employers have traditionally been reluctant to let staff work off-site is trust. He also says a lot of companies, not just in New Zealand, don’t measure the work their staff do.

“They measure the input,” he says. “That’s the reason New Zealand is behind in productivity when compared to other OECD countries. Longer hours does not mean more productivity.”

Tracey Johnson, general manager of Absolute Recruitment, works with dozens of employers who have embraced working from home.

Setting clear expectations of requirements, and being realistic in terms of the ability to meet these requirements.

“Communication is the key,” she says. “From the employee and the employer. Setting clear expectations of requirements, and being realistic in terms of the ability to meet these requirements.

“There are also some excellent tools available to help manage projects – they allow virtual collaboration and give great visibility of the work being done.”

These tools can include services such as Slack, Zoom or plain old Skype.

Working from home, particularly under the current enforced lockdown where we are supposed to live in bubbles, can mean dipping in and out of domestic life during working hours. Does that impact on productivity?

“I have worked with people that enjoy working from home and are extremely productive,” says Johnson. “However, some simply miss the companionship of their colleagues, and while they work hard, find the whole experience quite taxing. The home-working environment can often be very different to the office, so we have found that being adaptable is key.

“One of the great benefits of working from home can be better work-life balance, but the value of this varies from person to person.

“It could be flexibility in the hours worked throughout the day, the chance to dedicate time and focus to a piece of work, or fewer distractions. All are great benefits that support wellbeing and satisfaction at work.”

The enforced lockdown is the perfect test to see what working from home feels like, says Johnson.

“It is a good time for both employer and employee to assess if this works for them,” she says.

“As an employer, we have had people working from home on and off for quite a while. Some are more productive than others, and some like it better than others.

“I think that it is as much about how the employee prefers to work and where they are most productive, as it is about the employer.

This period of time should at least open up the idea that people can be productive working from home

“This period of time should at least open up the idea that people can be productive working from home, and certainly should start some great discussions.”

To get the best out of staff who are working from home Johnson says there are obvious things to do such as having the physical and technical tools.

“Perhaps the less tangible things such as consistent communication including team chats, as much as one on one interaction, clear objectives – outputs and inputs – but also the trust and room for the employee to be able to find their own rhythm,” she says.

“It is important however to include all of the many things that make people part of the team; from team meetings through to invitations to virtual drinks – and in our case – even the daily morning office quiz.”

David Greenslade, executive director of Strategi, a consulting services firm, says life has changed but business needs to go on.

For those new to home-working he says they need to quickly get structure and routines in place to maximise the time in family bubbles.

“There is no denying that things will be difficult from a personal and business perspective,” he says. “But the quicker we build routine and focus on positive things, then the easier it will be to get through the coming weeks and months.”

He has a few tips and tricks for people new to working from home.

  • Build a desk in as quiet a space as possible – requisition the garage or a bedroom so you have privacy
  • Have a comfy work type chair
  • Have around you the things familiar from the office environment
  • Work out with the kids/partner the rules around not being disturbed during certain times
  • Share the family workload with your partner or the kids
  • Publish a daily routine and stick it on the wall at your desk or have it on your phone with reminders. As much as you can, operate your normal daily route
  • Get one hour of exercise every day but stay solo or in your bubble. Exercise helps relieve stress and keeps you healthy

For those working at home alone then daily routine and frequent chats with friends, family and colleagues is even more important. Isolation can be difficult for some at any time, but the current situation can add additional levels of stress.

First published by the New Zealand Herald.