The Human Cost-Benefit of the Home Worker
In my last post about Working from Home and the Office (WFOH), I mentioned that often people are more productive when working from home. So why is that and what can we do to help more people be more productive at home? And could those same principles help people be more productive in the office too?
There are many studies that show how some people are more productive when working at home. This can be counterintuitive for some managers who have concerns about staff who are out of sight not putting in the hours. In fact, many home workers not only tend to put in more hours, they tend to be better quality hours. The challenge for our manager is actually to ensure that the home worker strikes a good balance between work and home.
Successful home working is generally brought about by effective collaboration and communication between the manager and the employee; however, on the flip side, in the enforced home-working world of COVID, many are no longer enjoying the experience and the untended homeworker can experience high levels of stress and loneliness.
Here are 6 things for managers to be aware of when enabling their home-working staff to be highly productive:
Trust and Control. In addition to giving home workers the tools they need, we must give them the trust to get the job done and the control to decide how and when they get the job done. Control over our own lives is critical and central to this question of productivity. In one of my recent posts about motivation, I explored the importance of having the sense of psychological safety before we can do our best work. If our emotional mind is preoccupied with day-to-day survival issues (family, food, health, getting to where we need to be etc) then we are less likely to be able to attend to the more cognitive aspects of our jobs such as problem solving or planning. The reality of life is that it is the same person with the same mind that has to operate the home and operate the job. Entrusting our workers to manage both of these obligations can significantly reduce the psychological overhead of being an employee. It also reduces management overhead of being a manager as home working staff are mostly not late or asking to leave early, they take fewer sick days and need less time off.
Not all time is created equal. We put a lot of emphasis on the value of time; it has almost become a symbol of success to proclaim how busy we are and how little time we have; we like, or even feel the need to look busy. But we know that the brain cannot work flat out for long periods of time, and if we give it too much to do, it slows right down. Our ability to be productive and creative is not linear and work is done best in a series bursts, each followed by a period of lighter thinking or socialising. We also know that the brain doesn't like to be bored, and given the opportunity, it will preoccupy itself with things that give the sense of being busy, while using as few calories as possible (thinking hard burns lots more calories), while preferably feeling good about what it’s doing. How many hours can you spend looking at your social media while you also know that you have an increasingly urgent task to do? This is sometimes known as procrastination. Feeling guilty about not doing a task can actually increase the probability of further procrastination as we search out some ‘feel good’ social contact. This is not a time-management issue, it’s an emotional issue that affects our use of time. As managers we need to create or enable a working environment that recognizes, and supports, this natural cycle of thinking and working.
Always available to be interrupted. There’s an old work-place joke that goes: “When you are at work, where do you go to get stuff done?” and the answer is: “home”. If going home is not an option, the alternative is to come in early for the golden hour before others start to arrive. The traditional workplace is a source of constant interruption – e-mails, phone-calls, questions from co-workers, someone walking past, strange noises, an intrusive conversation in the next cubicle – this list goes on. On top of that, the average person spends about an hour a day in social chit-chat with a peer, and that same person can spend a similar amount of time having non-work-related discussion with a manager. But the main issue is that those conversations are spread through-out the day – and each micro conversation distracts from the job in hand. While working from home, the opportunity for and frequency of these types of interruption are reduced. Another major form of workplace distraction is the meeting – you can read about the impact of meetings here; not specifically mentioned in that article is the post-meeting ‘unproductive’ time as attendees recover – especially if they come out of an unproductive and frustrating meeting. The home workspace has the potential to have considerably fewer interruptions, but this relies on both the discipline of the home worker and organization and working culture set up by the manager.
Get into the flow. We have seen that the brain works best when it can have short bursts of focused effort – without interruptions. We want to give ourselves the opportunity to get into a mental state known as ‘flow’. You will have experienced this – perhaps when reading a novel and you become so absorbed you almost become the character – you probably lose sense of time. It is very useful to us in the work environment too as this is when we become highly creative or productive. It is often said that the hardest part of doing something is getting started. It takes mental effort to get there (you have to burn a few calories), but then it is an efficient place to be. How often have you put off doing something, only to reluctantly make a start, and then suddenly find that you make huge progress over a short period of time. And, you are enthusiastic to get back at it, once you have taken a break. The creative and productive burst is the state of flow. A worker who can control their physical working environment, is more likely to have opportunities for flow throughout a working day.
Stay connected. While removing the commute is a major driver for people wanting to work from home (actual and opportunity time and cost of commuting), a sense of disconnection and loneliness is often cited as a major concern or reason why people want to return to working from an office. Back to our original point, we are impacting our emotional and psychological health and so building in a robust system to emphasize belonging and allow people to feel connected is crucial. The Working from Home and the Office could provide the benefits of both – greater productivity, better work-life balance and the opportunity to stay connected and generate the feeling of belonging.
Thinking about the future. Although home working, remote working, or telecommuting has been around for a long time, it has mostly been a type of work that has been sought out by employees and in many cases has been optional. As companies start to consider making it part of their longer-term plans encouraged by the promise to save on rent and from the seeming success from the last few months, there must be a realisation that a home workforce as a permanent arrangement needs a very different organisational design than the temporary. As time goes by, we will learn more about the true costs and benefits of working from home as we also learn about how to make it work - we are still at the early stages of a grand experiment.
What are your experiences of being a home worker or managing home workers? What are you discovering about how to make it work – or things to avoid?