What COVID-19 has taught us about flexibility and resilience.
Teleworking, or telecommuting, refers to the practice of working outside of the office and using telecommunication services to keep in touch. It’s one of the many ways employees can work flexibly. This doesn’t have to mean working from home – it can mean working in a coffee shop, a co-working space, or your bedroom. It just means you likely work outside of your place of work, and use technologies like Zoom, Teams, Skype, WhatsApp or Slack to keep in touch with your office.
Teleworking during COVID
Thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic of 2020 and 2021, people became very quickly acquainted with working from home. Having said that, only 87% of workers worked some or all of the time from their homes, with 13% still going to their place of work. Whilst many of these workers come from industries where teleworking is impossible, such as construction or manufacturing, and many currently operating businesses are now familiar with how teleworking functions, we at HR and You want to take a quick look at how it works and what COVID-19 has taught us about teleworking – for future businesses, small ones who are just beginning to look into options for hiring employees, or for established businesses who have received flexible working requests and are looking at the issue for the first time.
Even if you aren’t thinking about offering teleworking as an option, the pandemic has also taught us that preparing for disasters like COVID-19 in the future can help waterproof and protect your business from the shock of having to send employees home to protect them, and therefore protect your bottom line. So we’re going to discuss how to start thinking about teleworking, even if you don’t plan to start.
The Four Components of a Successful Transition
In a paper for the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), Health and Safety researcher Pierre Bérastégui identified four key components to a successful move to teleworking. These are; the Individual, the Job, the Home, and the Business. We’ll go over each one of these areas briefly and discuss why you should consider them.
1. The Individual
Bérastégui points out that it is important for teleworking to be framed as a discretionary option. He points to several studies that show that a move to teleworking, when forced upon an employee, can cause them a great deal of psychological distress. Specifically, he cites an infographic from the Empreinte Humaine that claimed that 27% of workers see teleworking as a constraint, and of that 27%, almost ¾ were distressed by that fact when forced to move to working from home due to COVID-19. It then goes on to claim that 35% of employees already feeling their fatigue turning into burn out, and that in France alone, a million workers were experiencing some level of burnout.
We happened to agree with those findings; whilst COVID-19 brought teleworking sharply into people’s lives, and some enjoyed it, it can’t be denied that many, many people found working from home difficult, if not impossible. Especially if that was coupled with childcare or other stressors at home; employees can fail to benefit or even suffer if they’re forced to work from home against their will.
In keeping with the principle of ‘duty of care’, employers should seriously consider their employee’s well-being and ensure that occupational health and safety is prioritised in the conversation. Teleworkers should be able to enjoy the same level of concern for their health and safety as office workers; in fact, the Health and Safety at Work (HAW) Act of 1974 still applies for home workers, which requires an employer to carry out risk assessments, and gives them a legal duty to take appropriate measures to reduce or eliminate health and safety risks.
2. The Job
When it comes to jobs, not all are teleworkable. It is difficult to imagine a builder renovating a kitchen from his kitchen, or a waitress without a restaurant. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was these employees who were most at risk of losing their jobs or facing long stretches of furlough. Bérastégui asks us to consider, moreover, how this divide could aggravate current trends of social and economic inequality. How future disasters like the pandemic could lead to another crisis of employment for those already working low-paying, difficult jobs. He asks us to consider a world where to go to your workplace is to be poorer, lower-class, less educated, whilst teleworkers separate away into their spheres. And he also points out that our current culture of deforestation and encroachment on diverse habitats may make us more vulnerable to zoonotic jumps, which is the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic in the first place.
Dramatic? Yes. None-the-less pertinent? Absolutely.
Jobs that are not teleworkable, says Bérastégui, must be protected from future disasters. They should be provided and assured about social safety nets like robust furlough schemes that financially support workers unable to work. Equal access to ICT and ICT support will also be absolutely vital to supporting teleworkers in the future, as will supporting life-long learning as a main source of job security, so those who have to move into teleworking roles can. This is especially true for older workers, who are more likely to be tech illiterate or have less tech literacy skills then younger workers. Ensuring they are therefore trained and supported for teleworking can guard against workplace age discrimination.
3. The Home
As mentioned previously, a major consideration for teleworkers should be their work-life balance. As home-life can bleed into work – with considerations for things like child-care – so too can work bleed into their home life.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for all businesses, because not all businesses are alike. For example, here at HR and You, we offer a 24hr/365 days a year service, because not all businesses work 9-5 and HR emergencies can crop up at any time. Whilst some employees (like our marketing team!) could disconnect without disrupting that policy, our HR Consultants must be available all the time, and a blanket ban on workplace communication would prevent us from offering that service. For other businesses, a solid ‘right-to-disconnect’ policy might suit them – or even a strict ban on out-of-office workplace communication entirely. It depends on the business and the needs of their clients or customers.
Involving teleworkers in discussions about how the employer can support them in managing their work-life balance will be critical to success. An open dialogue with employees can help them reconcile their work and home life demands and reduce the amount of stress being a home-worker could incur otherwise. Being flexible and open is the key – and as Bérastégui points out, such an approach is only possible by fostering a culture of trust and compassion.
4. The Business
If COVID-19 could teach us anything, it is that some organisations were woefully unprepared for disaster to strike. Businesses were not prepared for their workforce to turn into teleworkers overnight, and workers were not prepared for their homes to turn into offices. This resulted in two major issues; workers being met with unrealistic demands, which resulted in people working on their off-hours to meet those demands, and exhaustion from that high demand and working to keep up with it. Now the panic period of COVID-19 is over, we can look at the strategies that worked, and take them with us into the future of teleworking.
One of Bérastégui’s recommendations is an ‘early warning system’ to detect the risk of burnout. He also recommends that management and employees need to work together to set realistic expectations and deadlines. Furthermore, he recommends regular virtual coffee breaks, wellbeing check-ins and general non-work-related face-to-face time with employees. This will encourage a culture where employees don’t feel isolated or like they lack support from their colleagues or management. This is even more important should you have a hybrid approach where some employees work in the office and some at home – the teleworkers can feel isolated from the organisation if conscious effort is not made to include them. However, do be mindful – again – of blurring work and home life.
Once again; include your employees in discussions regarding teleworking and allow them to influence policies.
So you’ve decided moving your office to telework is the right goal for you, or you’d like to be prepared to support some form of homeworking. What do you need to keep in mind?
Employees may need specific equipment and infrastructure to get their jobs done. As an employer, you should consider how an employee might access that infrastructure when working from home. Do you have a company intranet like Microsoft Sharepoint, Igloo, or HCL Connections, or do you use other programs like Notion, Basecamp, or Asana? Maybe you use industry-specific software, like a video editor using Premiere Pro, or a call center worker using software to take calls. Your employees should be able to access those programs from home.
Maybe you also need to provide headsets, dominos or other calling hardware. Maybe webcams are required to participate in digital meetings on Teams, Zoom, or Skype. Perhaps you need other tools, like graphics tablets for graphic designers and illustrators, audio interfaces for people who work with audio. Or maybe, to increase security, you want to give your employees specific machines for doing that work on.
You should consider all of the things your employee might need and ensure the resources are in place before disaster strikes. Maybe you could invest in laptops or small client computers that can be taken home when an employee moves to teleworking. Maybe you could invest in more online services so they can connect from any machine. Whichever solution works for your company, the best thing you can do is be prepared. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that disaster really can strike at any moment. Maybe it’s not a global pandemic next time – maybe it’s just a flood in the office. but it never hurts to be prepared.
Are your employees online? Maybe they’re not. It can be a huge expense to upgrade or even get online in the first place. For example, BT’s standard connection charge is £140 to connect a new phone-line to someone’s premises (as of writing). Not to mention the cost of paying for the line and an acceptable broadband rate. Typically, if someone is signing up to work for a job, it’s acceptable to mandate they have internet at a specific speed – that’s part of what it takes to get the job done. But if you’re preparing for disaster and the possibility your office-workers might have to work from home again, you may want to consider policies for helping cover their connection charges.
Businesses already offer relocation grants to help someone move to a new workplace – consider it akin to that.
The last thing to consider is scheduling. Allowing people to work from home also opens up the possibility employees can exercise more ‘time sovereignty’ – that is, the ability to dictate how they spend their time. Consider if employees really need to work a 9-5 shift, or whether it just seems that way because those were the hours the office was open. Could people shape their work around their home lives? Is there any reason they can’t log off at three to pick their children up from school, then make up the two hours after those children have gone to bed?
Teleworking can offer employees much more freedom about how they structure their own time, and it could be beneficial to discuss expectations about when and how work gets done at home.
Here to Stay?
Businesses and employees alike have been debating and wondering whether an increase in home working is here to stay in the long-term. But what do people actually think the future of teleworking is? Well, we ran a small, informal poll on LinkedIn, and it seems like our audience is split. 2/3rds think that – as of July 2021 – teleworking will return to pre-pandemic levels within a year. The other 1/3 think that an increase in working from home is here to stay.
Global Workplace Analytics beg to differ with those who think that things will return to pre-pandemic levels – they think that the increase is here to stay. They cite multiple reasons, including the fact that managers who have teleworked are more likely to endorse it as an option – it alleviates fears about a loss in productivity and the tools used because they begin to develop a first-hand understanding of the problem. They also cite the lowered costs associated with working from home, increase in sustainability, and reduced business travel.
Whichever is true – that teleworking is going to be the new norm, or office culture will return – with the memory of COVID-19 fresh in their minds – there is nothing wrong with sitting down with a HR consultant and your employees and waterproofing your business against similar disasters in the future.