In our third blog in the WorkFreeTM series, Kenneth Freeman takes a look at the downside of homeworking.
Homeworking also enables people to avoid some of the worst aspects of office life. These can be both organisational (e.g. poor management or unpleasant office politics) as well as physical (such as poor ventilation and air quality).
Poor air quality is a particular problem in many office buildings, and especially in confined spaces such as meeting rooms. Carbon dioxide levels can rise rapidly to over 1,000 ppm in rooms once more than a handful of people use them for a meeting, and that is a level at which concentration and performance starts to diminish. It is odd that a company’s most important decisions are often made in environments where the ability to concentrate and think is compromised by poor air quality.
Home working also comes with problems
So far, we have discussed the many benefits of home working. For many it is liberating and enables greater productivity and job satisfaction. However, there are also problems that must be addressed, and these fall into three interrelated categories: the physical environment, psychological comfort and corporate culture / management style.
The physical working environment
This is fundamental. Getting the physical environment right has a direct impact on health and safety as well as productivity and mental health. It is easy from the perspective of a privileged middle-aged, middle class professional to assume that all home workers have the same access and space to set up a home office. However, that is obviously not the case. Most people do not have the luxury of spare space to set up an office, especially if they have never planned on being home based for any length of time. Many younger office workers are in shared spaces with friends or other family members and may have limited private space to work – especially if more than one member of the household finds themselves working from home at the same time.
There is also the issue of having the right equipment and furniture, as well as managing the wider environment, such as light, temperature, noise and air quality. In an office, such issues are well managed and are often subject to regulation, or at least official guidance. This is not so easy at home, especially if the home workers are obliged to provide the space and source the equipment for themselves. Furthermore, there remains the issue of compliance with rules and guidance – so far in the UK, bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive have produced limited guidance on the assumption that home working is a temporary measure – this is discussed in more detail later. However, the likelihood of offices to returning to pre-Covid levels of occupation anytime soon are low, and many organisations may never re-open their office space completely.
Much research over the last ten years (e.g. by Knight, Haslam, Postmes, Nieuwenhuis and others, , ) has shown that the single most reliable predictor of workplace performance is being psychologically comfortable, especially in terms of autonomy and empowerment. The greater the extent of autonomy and empowerment, which effectively means trust by managers, then the greater degree of psychological comfort (or wellbeing), leading to greater job satisfaction, performance and positive corporate citizenship behaviours (e.g. willingness to help out, a sense of an esprit de corps, etc.). In traditional offices, poor management practices (which remain common) can at least be mediated by a sense of community among employees and the development of support networks and places to escape.
However, in home working environments, or other dispersed work situations, over monitoring, surveillance (examples include keystroke monitoring, camera on policies, remote software to monitor presence at the desk, etc.) and the temptation for managers to intrude virtually to check up on an employee (pop-up chat messages being an obvious example of thoughtless interruption) do not improve a sense of psychological wellbeing and are more likely to harm it.
Corporate culture and management styles
Both the physical working environment and psychological comfort are manifestations of corporate culture and management style, but they are not always congruent – it is entirely possible for a company to be the most trusting and empowering yet at the same time offer little in the way of physical support for their staff.
Likewise, an organisation might want to do as much as possible to recreate the physical office experience (with ergonomic chairs and top quality technology), but use that technology to over monitor and over manage their staff – recreating the office environment at home can go too far.
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1 Satish, U., Mendell, M.J., Shekhar, K., Hotchi, T., Sullivan, D., Streufert, S. and Fisk, W.J., 2012. Is CO2 an indoor pollutant? Direct effects of low-to-moderate CO2 concentrations on human decision-making performance. Environmental health perspectives, 120(12), pp.1671-1677.
2 Knight, C. and Haslam, S.A., 2010. The relative merits of lean, enriched, and empowered offices: An experimental examination of the impact of workspace management strategies on well-being and productivity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16(2), p.158.
3 Knight, C. and Haslam, S.A., 2010. Your place or mine? Organizational identification and comfort as mediators of relationships between the managerial control of workspace and employees’ satisfaction and well‐being. British Journal of Management, 21(3), pp.717-735.
4 Nieuwenhuis, M., Knight, C., Postmes, T. and Haslam, S.A., 2014. The relative benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(3), p.199.
5 Shirking from home? Staff feel the heat as bosses ramp up remote surveillance https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/27/shirking-from-home-staff-feel-the-heat-as-bosses-ramp-up-remote-surveillance?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Other