With the exponential growth of technological development and the concept of multigenerational workforces, working from home is becoming more commonplace and feasible. Flexible working is also becoming more in demand from younger generations entering the workforce now, and never has there been a more opportune time for HR and managers to keep up with the pace.
HR tend to lead the way in promoting the benefits of flexible working, assisting managers put the arrangements in place that suit both the employee and the company. However, HR plays a part in monitoring the impact of these arrangements by keeping the dialogue open between HR and the manager, who will need to review the arrangement on a regular basis.
At the time of the arrangement being agreed, the employee might have thought that working from home could be nothing but great. Kettle to hand without having to offer a round to the whole office, the fridge full of junk easily accessed without judging eyes from colleagues, and telephone meetings without having to go through the palaver of getting dressed.
While these are some great benefits of working from home – alongside the very core of flexible working, that is offering a better work/life balance – there are some risks that come with working from home that can sometimes be completely overlooked and not picked up on any lone working risk assessment.
Managers need to understand the psychological dangers to lone working and the impact it can have on employees’ wellbeing. The below points explain what these are and how to reduce the impact of each:
If someone is particularly sociable, the stark contrast of working from home alone compared to the daily camaraderie with their team mates causes them to feel disengaged from the team. The interaction with the team, be it a general catch up with what they did last night, or someone to bounce an idea off of, is considered by some as their pick-me-up throughout the day, something that adds to the joy of their job.
Take this away and the lone worker has no support when they hit a slump or a colleague to run an idea by.
By ensuring the technology is effective in keeping communication open greatly reduces the impact of this lack of interaction and should be readily available, without too many and avoidable technological hiccoughs.
Managers need to also be aware of how the lack of social interaction impacts on how their staff learn. It’s so simple to get a team mate to have a quick look at something they’re not sure of, or to get someone to show them how to do a particular task.
These requests are informal and conversational. However when working from home, home workers almost have to formally request help – they need to compose an email or phone call to explain they need help with something.
And although on the face of this it sounds similar to asking someone in the office, the home worker might feel awkward asking what they think is a menial request in such a formal way, as if it’s a written record of their lack of competence.
Managing a home worker uses a different set of skills than if an employee was sitting opposite them. Managers need to be excellent communicators and commit to regular catch ups. It’s easy for home workers to manage their own workload if the manager is content with them working from home, but even these employees need to rely on having a regular chat with their manager, even if it’s an hour, or half an hour a week or fortnight.
It’s a great way to check in on deadlines, work load, capacity etc. but it should also have an element of rapport-building – how was their weekend? How did they get on a particular conference they attended? That sort of thing. Managers need to check in on their welfare, not just their workload.
Managers must also be in the position of managing a home worker’s performance in a different way. As mentioned, home workers tend to be trusted to manage their own workload and although they can be kept in the loop with deadlines, managers have less ways of checking work than if they were in the office together.
They will also need to understand how to deal with underperformance – would they have performed better if they were in the office? Are there too many distractions at home? For example, are they using work time at home to look after their children?
Any home worker who claims they have never worked on their laptop while sitting on the couch either pays close attention to their health and safety requirements, or they could be telling a bit of a porky. It can be all too easy to work from the couch or kitchen table when they’re at home but HR and managers need to work together to be health and safety advocates by illustrating the risks of working like this.
One of the first requirements of setting up a new home worker is conducting a home workstation risk assessment.
This is essential to determining what additional measures must be taken, for example what equipment is needed (e.g. a monitor screen and mouse instead of a keyboard, or any workstation adaptions that already have in the office) as well as educating the employee themselves what they can and can’t do, and what they need to have.
Have they had lone working training? Have they got a working fire alarm? Do they know the risks of not taking regular breaks? Do they have a suitable chair that supports their back and meets HSE’s regulations (e.g. one with 5 castors) and not the lounge’s armchair? Do they know what to do if they experience pain or discomfort?
Despite the glamour of working from home, many home workers can experience loneliness and exclusion. Whether they work from home once a week or every day, HR have the duty to ensure their psychological wellbeing is not affected by the way they work.
If the other members of the team work from home, or based in another office, managers can consider a number of options to reduce the mental impact of lone working, for example having weekly or daily telephone meetings to discuss the projects they’re working on, keeping on top of manager one-to-ones by committing to them regularly, or setting up more meetings to inform the team about something rather than putting it in an email.
The last point may seem to contradict the recent popularity in reducing the amount of meetings, and although sometimes meetings shouldn’t be too heavily relied on for sharing information, creating meetings that involve home workers means you are getting the team talking to each other, there’s an excuse for them to hear their colleagues’ voices, opinions and thoughts.
Robust home working policies
HR can help promote effective home working by ensuring home working policies are fit for purpose and easy to read.
They need to go further than the process of applying for flexible working by putting pen to paper to commit to certain promises that the organisation can be accountable for.
This can include: mandatory home working training (that includes how to switch off at the end of the day, how to let your friends and family know being at home does not make you available for a quick brew, how to avoid distractions etc.); regular team meetings and manager catch ups; an understanding of how home workers develop, learn and interact differently; and how policies like alcohol and drug misuse, and data protection policies still remain in place while working from home.
With more organisations rolling out flexible (or at least more flexible) working, it’s important that HR get it right and walk managers and employees through the process.
With news that parents in particular are still finding it hard to strike an appropriate work/life balance while working on a flexible working arrangement, it’s just as important that HR continue to monitor the impact existing arrangements have in order to make it work for the employee, the team, and the organisation.
About Charles Goff-Deakins
Alongside my full-time role in HR strategy as senior HR officer, I write about career mangement for introverts and professional development enthusiasts on my blog The Avid Doer. When I'm not working or getting my HR on, I like to cook, eat and hike in the Peak District where I live with my husband.