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The potential pitfalls of flexible working

by jcp
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6 expert tips on how to embed a positive culture for employees working at home

With just a reported six-in-10 workers wanting to continue to work from home1 for at least some of their contracted hours, and many major companies downsizing their offices to accommodate flexible working, it looks  like millions of UK employees are set to be working from their homes in the long term.

For employees, the benefits of home working are endless. No commute,  flexibility around family, healthy home-prepared lunches and extra personal time. What’s more, businesses are set to save hundreds of thousands of pounds on commercial square footage. However, workers and employees must also be aware of the potential pitfalls, from progression and rights, to health and wellbeing, and put measures in place to ensure the short term benefits don’t have a long-term negative impact.

Nikki Thorpe, Director of People & Culture at the workplace management platform, Planday, explains: “The shift to entire workforces working from home throughout the pandemic has been phenomenal. Whilst it’s been impressive to see companies finding their way to survive in the short term, many businesses and workers haven’t planned for the long-term implications of forever flexible working. 

“Unpredictable by its very nature, flexible working can create a whole manner of problems, which must be considered as a priority to avoid a world of pain further down the line.” 

The potential pitfalls and how to retain a positive working culture 

  • Visibility & progression 

In a 2015 study2, researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that, although people working from home were 13% more productive, they weren’t rewarded with promotions at nearly the same rate as their in-office counterparts. Much of this was put down to the fact that, although bosses could see work completed to a high standard, the effort going into it wasn’t visible. It really can be a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind, when it comes to promotions.

Nikki comments: “If a business is unable to measure their teams purely on outcomes or deliverables, the need for visibility of activity, challenges faced and how teams are working together (or not) may only be met by presence in the office and so management will require a level of balance with working from home and in the office,” Nikki says. 

“From an employee perspective, there is a higher expectation of keeping their managers regularly updated in detail with the work that’s going on behind the scenes, to ensure everyone’s on the same page. It is also vital that good work and effort is brought to the manager’s attention.”

  • Mental health 

The work-life balance of flexible working can bring a whole host of mental health benefits. On the flip side, longer working hours, less breaks and the pressure to be visible and productive, can  have the opposite effect on an employee’s mental wellbeing. What’s more, workers can feel disconnected from their team, which can add to mental health issues.

Liz Burton, specialist in business skills at the online training provider, High Speed Training comments: Being “always on” and accessible by technology while working remotely leads to the blurring of work and non-work boundaries, particularly if you work from home. During the first lockdown, a survey we carried out3 amongst employees working from home, revealed that a fifth felt their mental health had ‘declined a little’ and one in six believed they were less capable. 

“It’s therefore critical that employees put processes in place to support the mental health of their at-home workers and  encourage regular online and face-to-face check-ins to appraise wellbeing.  

“It’s important businesses actively monitor working hours, breaks and workloads to ensure people aren’t slipping into unhealthy habits that wouldn’t necessarily happen in the workplace.” 

  • Breaks and ‘microbreaks’ 

We all know that breaks and microbreaks, those quick, informal conversations with colleagues, are vital for wellbeing and stress management, not to mention productivity.  A study by the United Nations 4 shows that 30% of people who work from home report feeling “highly stressed” compared to 25% of those who work on-site.

In the workplace, line-managers can monitor breaks. However, with a lack of companionship and distractions, people who work at home have a tendency to work through – which is not ideal for health or productivity.

Nikki adds: “Employees must familiarise themselves with their agreed terms of work and make sure they’re taking the breaks they’re entitled to. Many employees are not paid for this time, so they may also be losing out financially. Likewise, bosses must reiterate to teams the importance of taking time out , and even consider using an app to make sure breaks are happening, as well as leading by example and taking breaks themselves .” 

  • Working hours 

According to a recent LinkedIn study5, UK employees working from home are putting in an additional 28 hours a month – equivalent to four working days. One in eight people say they’re signing on for work before 7am, and a quarter say they feel pressure to respond more quickly to messages and be available online for longer each day.

It’s imperative businesses address working hours, and put processes into place as a matter of priority to ensure their employees’ work is not bleeding into their home life. Punch clock technology exists for employers to effectively monitor their teams’ hours to protect mental health and maintain job satisfaction. Nobody needs to be working additional, unpaid hours, and companies must have a handle on this.

  • Physical health 

An alarming report  carried out by the Royal Society of Public Health in February 20216 found that more than a quarter of people working from home in the UK do so from a sofa or a bedroom, and more than a third have developed musculoskeletal problems.  Furthermore, the lack of movement during the commute and in-and-around the office is having further implications on people’s physical health.

Liz adds: “Businesses have a responsibility to ensure their workers’ set-up is  healthy and safe, be it in the workplace environment or at home. Personnel managers should be carrying out assessments of the home /work set-up to ensure employees have the right equipment and suitable furniture. It could end up costing a company more, but they have a duty of care to their employees – that’s the bottom line.” 

  • Expenses 

Employees may be saving a small fortune of the cost of commuting. Yet, the wifi, phone, gas and electricity bills – not to mention the costs of tea bags and milk – are bound to increase with flexible working.

If an employee chooses to work from home – unlike during the pandemic,  when remote working was compulsory – they cannot claim tax relief for additional household costs. It’s up to the employee to weigh-up the benefits of the additional costs for things like heating, metered water bills, insurance, business calls and broadband connection, against  the cost of the commute and decide if it’s worthwhile. An employer may offer to help with these costs, but it’s not obligatory.

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