What does enforced home working mean for employee wellbeing?

With the lines between staff’s personal and professional lives becoming blurred, working remotely won’t necessarily improve work-life balance, warns Emma Parry

As coronavirus 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. We have already seen some major companies, such as Google, tell their staff to work from home. While some employees might be pleased at such a turn of events, what does this really mean for wellbeing and morale? 

Much of the evidence about home working points to positive benefits, including improved work-life balance and increases in job satisfaction and productivity. However, it is important to note that such evidence is based primarily on studies of individuals who have chosen to work at home. And in many cases they will have collaborated with their employer to ensure this arrangement is effective for both parties. Imagine now the situation where many thousands of individuals are forced to work from home, with little time to consider any adjustments that might be necessary to make this work. There are a number of potential pitfalls of this situation in relation to an employee’s morale. 

The most obvious aspect is that of social support or interaction. While some employees might welcome the increased solitude, we know that some home workers suffer from feelings of isolation or loneliness that can negatively affect their mental health. 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. 

So maintaining communication networks while working remotely is important for the management of work tasks, but let’s also not forget that interpersonal interaction and sense of community is also important. Employers 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. 

Second, let us not presume working at home will necessarily improve work-life balance. In fact, a failure to properly segment work and family or home life can increase feelings of work-life conflict and actually lead to reduced work satisfaction. Home-based employees need to feel they can still switch off at the end of the day and take breaks – this 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 in the upcoming few weeks. Those who have tried to work at home with young children – or indeed with any caring responsibility – will appreciate how stressful this can be. It is the job of HR to advise and support individuals in developing an approach that works for them, such as allocating particular physical spaces (an office) as work and switching off once the door of that room is closed, or by sticking to strict working hours. 

Employers need to set expectations of what is expected for employees working at home including working hours and what employees are expected to deliver. However, it is 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. 

Third, the move to home working under usual circumstances should include a series of checks that a suitable working environment is available and 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, is trained in how to use this and can access technical support if needed. In addition, while businesses typically spend a lot of effort on ergonomic assessment in the workplace, this is rarely carried out for home workers. It is impractical to undertake such an endeavour at short notice for the whole workforce, but clear advice about working at home safely and healthily should be available. 

Employers need to create a balance between maintaining business as usual in relation to those factors that typically drive wellbeing, while also recognising that the fact things are actually far from normal might have a negative impact on employees’ productivity and mental health. HR has a key role to play in developing advice and guidance and also working with line managers to ensure they are providing sufficient support to their team members. 

Emma Parry is professor of HR management and head of the Changing World of Work Group at Cranfield School of Management