Whilst about 1.5 million people already work regularly from home, thousands of people are likely to be faced with working from home for the first time this week due to the coronavirus outbreak.
As COVID-19 sweeps the UK, we will continue to see increasing numbers of people choosing, or being forced, to leave their usual office environment and work at home. Some might be pleased at this turn of events, relishing the flexibility and independence that working from home offers.
Avoiding the daily commute and being able to spend more time with their family can help some people achieve a better work-life balance. For others, however, working from home does not turn out to be so attractive and can, instead, lead to feelings of isolation, inadequacy and disconnection, which can put their mental health at risk.
So, what can employers and employees do to help ensure that morale, wellbeing and efficiency is maintained whilst staff are working remotely? Here are our 5 top tips:
1. Get dressed!
Some people, the prospect of staying in their pyjamas all day seems one of the most tantalising aspect of working from home. But getting up, showering and changing out of clothes that are associated with sleep and rest helps to psychologically prepare us to start work. Some people find that dressing in their normal workwear is also helpful and that changing out of their work clothes when they clock off for the day helps their brain to understand that the working day is over.
2. Create structure and boundaries
Structure helps to create boundaries around work, home and play, which boosts productivity. Though it’s great to enjoy more flexibility with your work when you’re not confined to work hours or a long commute, many remote workers suddenly feel even more pressure to always be available, which can quickly lead to burnout.
It’s, therefore, important that those working from home stick to their normal working hours. They should be ready to start their day at the same time as they would normally arrive in their workplace, and finish their day at the same time. Home-based employees need to feel they can still switch off at the end of the day, which can be more difficult when the lines between home and work become blurred. This might be complicated further if other family are also at home, which is likely to be the case in the upcoming few weeks.
Employers need to set realistic expectations for employees who are working at home, including being clear about working hours and what employees are expected to deliver. It’s also important that businesses realise some homeworkers might not only be under considerable stress because of this change in environment, but might also be unable to work as productively during this period depending on their home circumstances.
3. Create a defined, safe work area
One thing that tends to happen with homeworkers is that their entire home becomes their office space, making it more difficult to separate work from home-life and to switch off once the working day is over. Space allowing, employees should be encouraged to set aside a specific area in their homes, where they can work without unnecessary distractions and which they can then walk away from and leave once the working day is done.
Ideally employees working from home should have a properly adjusted desk and chair, similar to their workplace. The move to home working under usual circumstances should include a series of checks that a suitable working environment is available and that all required equipment, including technology, is available. This is more difficult when the move is sudden.
Employers should be taking steps now to make sure their workforce has the necessary tools to work at home effectively and can access technical support if needed. In addition, while businesses typically spend a lot of effort on ergonomic assessment in the workplace, it would be impractical to undertake such an endeavour at short notice for the whole workforce. However, clear advice about working at home safely and healthily should be made available.
4. Communicate & Interact
If you’re working from home and you’re alone, you won’t get distracted by colleagues’ conversations and other office noise, which can be a good thing. However, it can mean that you go a whole day without speaking to anyone, which can be isolating.
The sudden removal of individuals from their work-based (and indeed other) social circles could have a significantly negative effect on the welfare of some, as they miss out on opportunities for regular social interaction and connection with co-workers that are important to them. The opportunity to gain regular feedback on aspects of their work, or to discuss work-related issues with others can also be missed, leading to anxiety and/or insecurity.
It’s important that homeworkers make some time to pick up the phone and have a real conversation with colleagues, rather than relying on email and instant messaging. Calling people and having a conversation can often be much more stimulating and, indeed, productive than a chain of emails. Employers also need to think about how they can maintain levels of social support while their workforce is home-based – through using collaboration technologies perhaps, enterprise social media, regular online meetings or even just the occasional phone call. Line managers should be encouraged to ensure employees continue to receive the same level of support and recognition they would in the workplace.
5. Ensure regular breaks and time for self-care
It’s good to have a routine when working from home, but work shouldn’t become monotonous and it’s not good for people to stay glued to their screens all day. It’s important that homeworkers are encouraged to take regular screen breaks and to move around just as they would in an office. Research has also found that short breaks throughout the day are more beneficial than less frequent, longer breaks. Many home workers recommend the Pomodoro Technique, a method of time management which breaks your working day into 25 minute chunks. Each chunk is followed by a five-minute break.
Those working from home should also find ways to incorporate other forms of self-care into their routine, particularly If they find themselves struggling with depression or mood changes. They should find tools that they can work into their day to help their wellbeing, whether that’s physical exercise like yoga, writing in a journal, meditation, or something else they enjoy.
Working from home also shouldn’t mean having to stay cooped up indoors all day. So, as long as employees are not self-isolating, they should be encouraged to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. Being outdoors can also bring a fresh perspective, helping undo mental blocks and enabling us to come back to a task we’re struggling with refreshed and re-focused.