Overcoming homeworking challenges

Katie Jacobs, Senior Stakeholder Lead, CIPD. 

The coronavirus pandemic has often been referred to as leading to the world’s largest working from home experiment. During the first lockdown in the UK, almost half (47%) of all UK workers spent some time working from home. Pre-COVID-19, ONS statistics show that only about 5% of the workforce classed themselves as home workers.

While organisations are still working out what the ‘new normal’ is for working patterns, most are taking a hybrid approach, meaning that, while the rise in home working will plateau, it’s unlikely to go away. According to recent research from the Chartered Management Institute, more than 80% of organisations have adopted some form of hybrid working since the pandemic struck - and plan to keep doing so.

Most people professionals will agree that more flexibility in how and where we work can only be a positive thing, but remote working does come with challenges. In fact, our most recent People Profession survey found that some of the biggest challenges facing people professionals in 2021 were directly linked to increased homeworking as a result of the various lockdowns. More than half (55%) of people professionals in the UK found that supporting employee mental health and wellbeing became more difficult with more staff working at home. And just under half (48%) said that building organisational culture and values and managing performance (46%) had become harder in a remote-first world.

Supporting employee wellbeing

It’s not hard to see why people professionals perceive more difficulty in supporting mental health and wellbeing when staff are working remotely. People who are struggling may go off the radar and disengage rather than ask for support, and it’s harder to get a sense of whether someone is not acting like ‘their usual self’ when you only see them on a screen (if, indeed, they choose to turn their video on – not doing so can be its own red flag). Presenteeism and burnout, something many people professionals will be all too familiar with themselves, present a further risk, as do the anxiety and social isolation directly linked to COVID-19.

However, from my conversations with HR leaders, there is a sense that the pandemic has brought with it more willingness to share vulnerabilities, with senior leaders, in particular, embracing a more open and visibly empathetic leadership style. We need to hold onto this more human and humane way of leading as we move out of the pandemic.

When it comes to supporting mental health remotely, much will come down to line managers. According to CIPD research on working lives through COVID-19, seven in ten people said their line manager had checked on their mental wellbeing since the pandemic began. But that means three in ten have not been so supported. Mental health-related absence remains the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in UK workplaces, so there is a clear business case for managers being more responsible for the wellbeing of their teams – as well as their own.

People professionals must help line managers to support their teams’ wellbeing, encouraging them to check in regularly with genuine intent and providing resources to help them spot the signs of mental ill-health. Given the very real link between wellbeing and productivity, it may be worth building in KPIs around wellbeing, in the way that some organisations already hold managers to account on engagement and diversity.

Managing performance

Properly equipping and supporting line managers to tackle concerns over managing performance when working remotely is also key. Managers need to be able to have in-depth career and performance conversations with their team, but also need to manage and judge performance on outputs. That means understanding how value is created through each role, rather than assuming that ‘hours in’ equals ‘value out’. Managers who don’t do this risk marginalising team members who don’t regularly work in the office, which can have a damaging impact on diversity.

Building organisational culture

Many CPOs I speak to are concerned about the impact of remote working on culture. Some organisations have experienced high levels of turnover in the past two years and have many employees in the workforce that have never met in person. There’s an inherently philosophical question as to whether it’s possible to be engaged with an organisation if you’ve never met any of your colleagues or stepped into its physical workplace.

Some HR leaders worry that the social and psychological bonds that tie people to an organisation – already weakened through the pandemic – will crumble without regular face-to-face interaction. They say they are seeing more attrition among those who joined during COVID-19. Others believe that, in the face of the so-called ‘Great Resignation’, autonomy and freedom over how and when we work need to be the order of the day and that not offering flexibility means losing talent.

As with so much, the answer is shades of grey and requires understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Much lies in rethinking the purpose of the office or workspace, providing clarity on what activities are best done face-to-face and reframing productivity. As one HR leader put it, reconnecting with people in person should be seen as being as productive as clearing your burgeoning inbox.

It is becoming clearer that the pandemic represents not just a crisis to be ridden out, but a permanent transition in how we work. Rather than dragging and dropping traditional HR processes onto new ways of working, people professionals should embrace the opportunity to reshape work for the better, however many challenges are thrown up along the way.

The CIPD has produced many resources and guides that can help you and your people teams face the ‘new normal’ with confidence.

Add your voice and help us build an annual snapshot for the people profession – complete the 2022 survey here.

Related guidance:

People Profession Survey 2021 UK and Ireland report: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/strategy/hr/people-profession-survey#gref

Evidence review on developing effective virtual teams: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/relations/flexible-working/developing-virtual-teams#gref  

Getting the most from remote working: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/relations/flexible-working/remote-working-top-tips

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