With engagement rooted in psychology, ESG takes an active interest in research projects in and around the workplace and how workers are impacted by technology, events, trends etc. Remote working has obviously been very much to the fore over the past couple of months - and we’re delighted to welcome to the Engage blog a team from Manchester Metropolitan University who are conducting a research study on the personal and organisational challenges of remote working. Here they share some initial thoughts and also invite you to participate in the study’s confidential survey.
Marc Jones, Andy McCann and Elizabeth Braithwaite, Department of Psychology, Manchester Metropolitan University write:
Work, and working practices, changed for many people in the UK on the 23rd March 2020, when the government announced a nationwide lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. For many of those still working, the big change is that work is now conducted entirely from home. This large-scale, and immediate, move to home working has come at a time when there has been a general increase observed in home-working practices. Even prior to the lockdown in the UK, 2.6 million people engaged in agile working from different locations, using home as a base, and over 1.5 million people worked exclusively from home (a 74% increase since 2008)1.
It will be interesting to observe if organisations take this opportunity afforded by the large-scale adjustment employees have made to remote working to maintain similar levels as the lockdown is eased. For many organisations, certainly at first glance, there are clear economic benefits of doing so (e.g., reduced costs for office space and car parking). There may also be benefits of increased home working for employees. Indeed, the flexibility to enable employees to more cohesively balance their home and work lives has been highlighted as a positive in the Marmot Review. Overall, the evidence points to positive benefits of remote working in terms of well-being2.
However, it is also important to balance the desire for flexible working arrangements with maintaining a cohesive, productive and healthy workforce. We explored these issues in a literature review for Nuffield Health. What emerged from the data is that the beneficial effects of remote working are not always consistent and can differ across individuals. For example, for some individuals this can lead to greater levels of professional isolation3. An increase in remote working will likely occur with a concomitant increase in the use of technology to support communication. This has the potential to blur boundaries between work and home domains, resulting in negative impacts on well-being and productivity from work-home interference4.
For organisations moving forward a challenge will be to balance the need for flexible working with maintaining the sense of organisational identity, cohesiveness and well-being needed to maintain levels of performance and productivity. Finding the balance of home-working with being physically present in an organisation will be unique to each industry, company, type of job and individual. But given the important role that social connections play in well-being and performance it is likely that the work of the future will involve both. That is, organisations will need to balance the desire to offer flexible working practices with a physical presence.
To illustrate the challenge in achieving this some research suggests that working from home around 2 days a week seems to provide the 'best of both worlds'5 but that working from home more than 2.5 days a week could harm relationships with co-workers. However, more research work is needed in this area and we would expect to see the amount of ‘ideal’ home-working differ across industries, companies, individuals and roles. What is more important is to understand why remote working is seen as a positive (flexibility, work-life balance etc) and when it can be harmful (e.g., professional isolation, lack of social support, poor relationships with co-workers etc) and how a bespoke and flexible approach to remote working can address these issues. Interventions can help address some of these issues, particularly at the individual level. For example, having clear ‘shutdown routines’ at the end of the day, even when working from home, to transition effectively from work to home – even when the physical location (your house or flat) is the same.
It is also important for us to learn more, and to more fully understand the personal and organisational challenges of remote working. We are currently running a large project with colleagues at the University of Manchester to explore the experiences of employees during the lockdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. This lockdown presented multiple novel challenges for organisations and employees, including the challenge of maintaining business continuity when a majority (or all) of the workforce are working from home. We are interested in exploring how people coped (or not) with working from home during the pandemic, and we are particularly interested in how this may impact the employee-organisation relationship, as well as physical and psychological health.
If you have time, we would greatly appreciate your contribution to this research, by completing the survey, which will take approximately 20 minutes. You can find a link to the survey here.
All responses will be strictly anonymous. If you run a company and would like to distribute the survey using a bespoke link to your employees please do get in touch. We can provide feedback to you on group-level data (i.e. average scores across all employees in an organisation), again all strictly anonymous, as we are doing for other organisations.
1Homeworkers by UK region, 2008 to 2018. 2019, Office for National Statistics: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/adhocs/009913homeworkersbyukregion2008comparedto2018.
2Charalampous, M., Grant, C. A., Tramontano, C., & Michailidis, E. (2019). Systematically 2 reviewing remote e-workers’ well-being at work: a multidimensional approach. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology,28(1), 51-73.
3Golden, T. D., Veiga, J. F., & Dino, R. N. (2008). The impact of professional isolation on teleworker job performance and turnover intentions: does time spent teleworking, interacting face-to-face, or having access to communication-enhancing technology matter?
Journal of Applied Psychology, 93,1412-21. doi: 10.1037/a0012722.
4Van Hooff, M. L, M., Geurts, S. A. E., Kompier, M. A. J., & Taris, T. W. (2006). Work-home interference: How does it manifest itself from day to day? Work & Stress, 20,145-162.
5Gajendran, R. S., & Harrison, D. A. (2007). The good, the bad, and the unknown about telecommuting: Meta-analysis of psychological mediators and individual consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(6), 1524–1541. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.92.6.1524