A story hit the headlines last week calling on Oxford dons to avoid sending emails to their colleagues outside normal working hours. This sensible advice raised a few eyebrows for those of us who use workplace collaboration tools such as Slack, but it did highlight a growing issue.
According to a report by the TUC, remote working has boomed by 27% over the last 10 years in the UK to around 1.6m people, and it’s estimated that as many as 53% of employees worldwide already work remotely for half of the week.
The benefits to companies are clear; some suggest that homeworking increases productivity and possibly increases retention. But there are downsides that even the government now recognises. In fact, small-business Minister, Kelly Tolhurst MP, recently said:
“Some forms of flexible working – especially those that involve extensive working from home, or remote working – can lead to a sense of isolation or an ‘always on’ culture.”
If the world of work is heading out of the office, HR professionals need to ensure we stay alert when it comes to supporting remote workers.
Keep in touch with homeworkers to spot the early signs of stress
Most advice and procedures designed to help support workers to avoid stress and burnout are focused on the workplace. When an employee starts to exhibit symptoms such as increased absence, unusual behaviours or their productivity drops, it’s much more obvious when they’re sitting down the corridor from you.
With remote workers it’s much harder and there are significant reasons why this is not just about location. Some remote workers have fought hard to be allowed to work at home; others feel guilty about being able to work remotely. Yet more are scared that what they see as a ‘privilege’ might be suddenly removed if they don’t outperform their teammates.
This means that they are usually the very last people to ask for help if they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Make sure you pay close attention to remote workers, have regular catch-up chats, and ask the right questions; don’t shy away from digging about the downsides for them.
Make sure they’re working normal office hours
Obviously, one of the key benefits of homeworking is that you don’t need to do a daily commute. But as anyone who has ever worked from home knows, this means the temptation to start work as soon as you get out of bed, or work really late into the evening to get ahead on your to-do list, can be overwhelming.
Combine this with tools such as Slack and you end up with a toxic situation, which can quickly become habit-forming. If you dig deep you’ll find that some homeworkers are working at least 50-60 hours per week, and many are not leaving the house or taking any sensible timeout during the day. They don’t take water-cooler breaks or attend meetings outside the office. Yes, they’re very productive, but that’s at the expense of their long-term mental and physical well-being, and if it goes on too long they will resign.
Ensure a sensible approach to collaboration tools
The advice given to Oxford dons about emails should be a wake-up call for all of us. I know that many employees, especially in very entrepreneurial businesses, will view that advice as out-dated, possibly even a little quaint. The very fact that email is still the main mode of communications in itself will raise eyebrows. But it does highlight the importance of responsible communications, and vitally, remembering the impact of collaboration tools on others.
When homeworkers receive messages late at night, early in the mornings or at weekends, they feel extra pressure to respond. Because they’re not in the office they are hyper-reliant on these apps. They can quickly become overly attentive and start to read between the lines of the messages they receive, or the ones that are ignored. This leads to a feeling of ‘us and them’, and starts to erode trust and team cohesion.
Ironically, this situation can arise because they are spending too much time on these apps; being side-tracked by messages that they do not need to see. They don’t have the benefit of asking the person sitting next to them whether a message (or project) is something they should be concerned with.
This is the reason why team catch-up calls and office-based meetings are so important. Every employee who works from home should have a set schedule of calls and meetings. In addition, there should be team-wide rules in place as to the hours during which communications tools can and cannot be used, and for what purposes, with guidelines surrounding how to contact people in a work emergency. These need to be enforced.
At the very least, make sure that remote workers know how to use the notification settings in these tools and make sure general notifications are set to ‘do not disturb’ outside working hours, and, importantly, at weekends.
Remote working is set to increase and to ensure we retain the best talent we need to ensure we have the skills and guidelines in place to ensure homeworking doesn’t end up a failed experiment.