Working from home comes with both benefits and challenges. With more people than ever working remotely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, effective at-home working requires effort on both sides of the employee-employer divide.
While it is a company’s job to ensure that the right digital communication and collaboration tools are in place, these tools alone are not enough. It’s equally important for companies to take specific steps to ensure that remote employee engagement remains at the same level as it did within the structure of a traditional office.
For employees, time saved by not commuting does not automatically translate to an increase in efficiency. Establishing optimal remote working habits and minimizing distractions are an essential trade-off for the advantages of taking your professional life home with you.
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Remote working has created a number of wellness benefits for employees.
Earlier this year Airtasker, an online platform for outsourcing tasks and finding local services, found that, compared to office workers, remote workers across the US gained an extra 408 hours, or 17 days, of free time each year from not commuting and saved an average of US$4,523 per year on petrol.
The research, based on a survey of 1,004 full-time employees, also found that remote employees performed an average of two hours and 44 minutes of physical exercise per week – 25 minutes more than office workers.
The health benefits of home working have also been found to extend to diet. A recent poll by business newsletter Morning Brew and research firm Harris reported that 67% of remote workers said their lifestyle had gotten healthier since working from home with 41% claiming to eat healthier snacks throughout the day and 38% taking time to cook their meals.
Is a fitter, happier workforce also a more productive workforce?
The lack of in-person interaction has been the most significant productivity hurdle for remote workers. Of course, communication tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex make virtual face-to-face meetings possible, while collaboration tools ranging like Trello to Microsoft 365 help to streamline tasks like managing projects and working on shared documents.
However, one element that is hard to recreate among remote workers is the casual interactions of a shared work environment. The small encounters that happen in the kitchen, by the water cooler or across desks are valuable for sparking ideas and fostering a sense of community among co-workers. These moments may be difficult to capture via scheduled meetings – but some believe they are still be possible via video technologies.
Earlier this year a study by the University of Cologne and the Leibniz University Hannover found that video conferencing among remote team members can indeed compensate for the potentially negative effects on innovation that come with working from home.
“Previous research has shown that creative performance is significantly lower when there is no face-to-face communication, however, the current lockdown has fostered the adoption of new technologies to conduct collaborative tasks when team members work from home,” says one of the study’s authors, Professor Bernd Irlenbusch. “Video conferencing can mitigate the gap in creative performance.”
Keeping employees engaged in the era of remote work
Even if employers provide their employees with tools for remote success, they’ll have unavoidable blind spots when it comes to enabling employee engagement. Therefore, it’s crucial for companies to explore technologies that enable them to gain visibility into remote worker experience.
One such tool is Nexthink Engage, which allow companies to tune into employee sentiment. While this type of service can often be overlooked, they are especially important for gauging the well-being of remote workers. Companies like Dutch bank ABN AMRO have leveraged Engage during the pandemic to survey staff about factors like morale, productivity and their health.
By measuring employee sentiment, companies can zero in on the factors that contribute to improved engagement in a remote work environment. While many IT teams safeguard for technical issues like app usage and device performance, it’s equally important to understand the more intangible contributors – things like morale, motivation, energy, interruptions and distractions. Tools like Nexthink Engage help to support the employee-employer relationship, particularly when workforces are displaced across hundreds or thousands of home offices.
What does a productive remote office look like?
Remote working requires both employers and employees to make significant changes to set themselves up for success. For workers, that means taking as many steps as possible to make their home office function as well as a traditional office. This includes the typical steps: setting a schedule, taking breaks, and getting fresh air can all contribute to improved remote work productivity.
While these steps are helpful in theory, in practice there can be considerable obstacles to overcome – particularly for those who live in small apartments, have children out of school, or are faced with other personal challenges at home.
Studies examining the effects of remote work actually predate the coronavirus pandemic. In 2013, Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom co-authored a paper looking at a trial by Chinese travel company Ctrip, which took a group of 1,000 employees and asked half to continue working full time in the office while the other half worked four out of five days at home over a period of nine months. On the surface, the findings appear to underline the benefits of remote work. The remote work group in the study showed a 13% performance increase, and were also half as likely to quit their jobs.
However, speaking in March this year, Bloom cautioned that the productivity gains from the trial would not translate to a pandemic-era workforce. He instead predicted a “productivity disaster” and a “slump in innovation”, as parents are forced to work at home alongside kids in unsuitable conditions with no office face-time.
Engagement tools can help to protect against the pitfalls of working at home – like feelings of depression, isolation and loneliness – empowering companies to mitigate these negative factors. For example, many companies have embraced flexible work hours, which enable employees to complete tasks outside of the typical 9-5 hours.
Longer workdays do not translate to more productive work.
While flexible workdays empower employees to be more productive with their time, longer workdays do not always yield the same benefits. In July, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper that looked at digital communication patterns in the midst of the pandemic across 16 large metropolitan areas in North America, Europe, and the Middle East.
After crunching meeting and email meta-data from more than three million users, it reported “significant and durable increases in length of the average workday”, which was up by 48.5 minutes.
While this is valuable data, it’s important for employers to remember that extra hours do not always equal more effective or creative work. Likewise, working remotely does not automatically make workers more productive. For home working success, companies must prioritize employee engagement – and consider investing in digital technologies aimed at supporting remote workers by gathering sentiment data and facilitating easier communication with employees. While some of factors we outlined above may seem subtle or even superfluous, they’re critical to creating a win-win remote office experience.