Coping with the Challenges of Remote Working
Flextime (hereafter flextime) was first used in West German industry in the 1960s, however had to wait until the 1970s before other nations such as the United States and Britain adopted it.
The general idea was to allow employees to start and finish work at a time that was convenient for them, as long as they were on site during certain “core hours.” Start and finish times had windows. For example, start times might have been between 7am and 9am, and finish times between 4pm and 6 pm. This enabled employees to work the required number of hours, but to do them when they chose to.
Although employees were still responsible for getting their work done within these times, the control that flextime gave them increased their sense of self-worth - a known motivator. Its use raised morale, lowered absenteeism and lateness, increased employee loyalty and productivity.
Larks appreciated the earlier start options, while owls were grateful for the extra time to sleep in; and those who hated the crush of the morning commute were able to avoid it altogether.
For the most part, flextime was limited to white collar workers - those whose responsibilities kept them in an office, and whose hours were largely during the day.
Flextime hasn’t been all roses. One problem has been that not all employees were on duty simultaneously, and so meetings couldn’t be called on the spur of the moment.
It was difficult, too, for managers to communicate with employees outside of the core hours and for functions to interact, and that was because the times that were the best for employees weren’t always when the organisation needed them the most. More than likely, however, these things were challenges simply because they hadn’t been faced before.
Flextime on steroids
Enter the pandemic.
The pandemic raised flextime to a new level. To use a cliché, it put it on steroids. No longer was it reserved for white collar workers. Now anyone who could work from home was ordered to do so, and it didn’t matter if organisations wanted them there or not.
With nearly everyone at home, it was impossible for them not to be on flextime. That’s because managers had no way to see who was at work at any given time. The only contact they could make was either by telephone or teleconferencing, and teleconferencing was limited not only to bandwidth, but also to technology. Something as fundamental as the camera angle, for example, meant that no one had to “dress for work”.
Employees took on new responsibilities, while the number of hours required to do their work became largely irrelevant.
It’s well known that much of what occurs in the United States eventually finds its way to Britain, everything from books, movies and TV shows to fashion and food. The so-called “special” relationship permeates much of British life.
Remote working, as it turns out, is no exception.
According to one study, 99% of employees in the US would like to work remotely some or all of the time for the rest of their careers, and almost all of them have recommended this to others. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed said that they would change jobs if it meant that they could work remotely, and 20% would accept at least a 10% pay cut if they could. In addition, almost 1 in 3 employees left their jobs because flexible working wasn’t an option.
No matter how you look at it, those are staggering statistics, and ones that are likely to be true of the United Kingdom in the not too distant future.
For all the complaints that are voiced about the downsides of remote working, however, the overwhelming majority of American workers seem to overlook them because it gives them greater control over their time.
There may be virtual meetings that they have to attend. Indeed, the incidence of these events has increased by more than 200%. But those who work from home don’t feel that they are ‘‘on” all day. Not only that, but they’re not in traffic, or packed into a train or bus. They don’t have a fixed lunch hour or coffee break, and they aren’t limited to eating at the pubs or other eateries within a certain distance of the office. Instead, they’re in the comfort of their own space in their own furniture, and with their own stuff around them; and except for when they do have to attend something virtually, they’re free to work as they wish.
Another word for this freedom is flexibility.
The biggest benefit that remote workers experience no matter where they work in the world is the flexible schedule it gives them. A flexible schedule is a kind of halfway house between the independence of self-employment and the responsibilities that come with running a business - the best of both worlds.
Remote working isn’t simply to a change in the way we work, however. It’s also a different way to live. Instead of leaving for work each day, before or at the same time as the children go to school, you take them to school. You have breakfast with them. Then, when they’re at school, you work in your home office.
You and your partner can have lunch together, too - at home - and then continue to work in the afternoon, take the dog for a walk, have coffee somewhere. And the family can have dinner together every evening. This has meant an improvement in work/life balance and well-being.
When you’re in the office, you can’t take a nap, make coffee, go to the loo, never mind for a walk willy-nilly. You’re stuck at your desk. You have to get permission, or tell someone that you’ll be “unavailable” for a few minutes. Some managers have been known to make a note of the time that people spend away from their desks.
On top of all that, when you’re in the office, tardiness is unacceptable, no matter how late you stay to make up for it.
When you’re home, all of that is irrelevant. And that’s why it’s so attractive to most people.
There’s no intoxicating combination of various perfumes.
You can adjust the room temperature to suit you or even open a window.
You can cover your desk with stuffed animals and squishy toys, and no one will be there to complain about it.
There are no managers to look over your shoulder, no micromanagement, and no summons to their office. In fact, their “office” is as likely to be a spare room as the employee’s, which puts them both on a level playing field.
That kind of flexibility is compelling.
There are other employee benefits, too.
The next most cited benefit after flexibility is location independence. People can work from anywhere. This has meant that employees generally take less time off.
Granted, in a lockdown or travel restricted situation, this is true of everyone, but in the United States, studies have shown that because people could work from any location, they tended to do so while traveling. And so organisations didn’t lose them for days or weeks of holiday because they were “at work” every day. Not only that, but increasingly US companies are giving remote workers unlimited time off, which is an even more generous break than the mandated five weeks common to the UK.
The benefits aren’t limited to employees, however. Companies have experienced an increase in employee productivity by as much as 13% coupled with a decrease in the cost of doing business. That’s because when your home becomes your office, less space is needed for those who do go to work. Smaller offices mean lower business rates and cheaper utilities. It also means that they don’t have to locate in the most expensive areas.
Despite the many benefits that working-from-home has brought, there are a number of drawbacks.
Oddly enough, even though flexible schedules have helped employees to balance their work as well as their lives, it has also blurred the boundaries between the two. Research showed that 22% struggled to unplug from work because it was hard for them to separate work and personal time. Part of that has been because people don’t have extra room to designate for work, and so their home life invariably overlaps their work.
Managers have also made it harder for employees to separate the two by communicating with them during times when they normally wouldn’t be at work. The thing is that just because people are at home doesn’t mean that they don’t need time to rest. Managers can help employees to separate their work from their personal time by respecting their working hours and not asking work-related questions during hours that employees have designated as personal.
For instance, if their working hours are from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, then it would be irresponsible of supervisors to send them work-related emails, texts, phone them or schedule teleconferences outside of those times.
For many, working from home, has strengthened family ties. But for those who live alone, it has been a lonely experience, and that’s because relationships - one of the most important things in everyone’s life - have been lost or weakened as a result of the quarantines and the lockdowns.
Research has shown that in the US, 19% of people felt this emotion when they worked from home. For them, the office was their primary source of interaction with others.
Self-motivation can also be challenging for those who live on their own, whether it’s to work or to take time off. When you’re all you’ve got, it can be difficult to find ways to occupy your time. Work may be the only thing to keep your mind off of your loneliness. The opposite can be true. Mindlessly surfing the Internet can keep you from working.
Some 38% of employees who could work from home prefer not to because they feel that they’re less productive. Loneliness was a factor in this, too, through miscommunication over assignments, missed job opportunities, and inadequate technology.
Businesses often have better Internet connections than homes, especially if they’re in a city. This could be improved in many cases if companies would pay for faster speeds while people are at home. Although the Internet is used for non-work activities, organisations are saving a lot by not having people in the office at all.
One way to mitigate the problem of loneliness is to help those who live alone to form “bubbles.” The best time to do that is when they’re not needed. That’s because the need for them can arise in a matter of hours.
Although time with colleagues may not be your preferred way to spend your leisure time, having the option to do so is better than being stranded on your own day-in and day-out. HR departments could help out a great deal in this respect, introducing people who live within a reasonable distance of one another.
No system is perfect, but there is much that managers can and should do to help employees, whether restrictions are in force or not.
Loss of collaboration and communication
Even before the pandemic, 17% of those surveyed said that they found it difficult to collaborate or communicate with their colleagues. Once it was in full swing, nearly everyone was affected in some way.
This is where the fundamental principle of flextime is appropriate. Instead of expecting everyone to be on duty all the time, core hours enable employees involved with interconnecting projects and functions to interact.
In some ways, however, collaboration and communication has become more difficult because there are occasions when people are trying to do too much of it. Because they can’t just pop into someone’s office, they’re forced to phone, email, text, or hop on a teleconference. Teleconferencing, in most cases, isn’t done on the spur of the moment unless someone is in an online office nonstop, which is impractical to do.
Teleconferencing makes the majority of people feel more connected, however some of the challenges people feel existed before remote working became widespread. For instance, adapting to new situations/work, tech issues and software shortcomings, misunderstandings, unclear goals, and a lack of unity. It seems that remote working has just provided people with something else to blame.
Distractions at home
Although many found that working-from-home was less distracting, 10% of those surveyed found it to be worse. It’s possible that have exchanged one set of distractions for another, or it could be that they had more privacy at work than they now do at home. However, it’s worth remembering that people often create their homes to be little oases from the hustle and bustle of life, and so to suddenly have to do serious work in it can feel like a contradiction in terms.
Whatever the challenges that come with remote working, there have been many surprises for all. Employers have discovered that people really can be trusted to do their work without the level of supervision that they exercised in the workplace, and that their productivity is as good or better. Employees have discovered that they’d rather work from home than go to the office. This is one of those genies that can’t be put back in the bottle.
And so instead of fighting against this revolution in the workplace, organisations need to embrace it. They need to recognise the benefits that everyone gains from it and look for ways to make it work better, rather than conspiring to return things back to the way they once were. Because, you see, it’s that flexibility that has created the benefits that organisations, managers, and employees seek. There’s no good reason to turn the clock back to the way things used to be.
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