22 April 2020

Covid-19: top tips for happy homeworking

Whether your staff are used to working from home or not, the current Covid-19 crisis is placing pressure on individuals to juggle more than a ‘normal’ day’s work from home. Whether it’s balancing childcare with client calls, caring for a loved one with symptoms whilst responding to emails, or adjusting to a new (temporary) way of life, things are tricky for many.

Here we explore the challenges and benefits afforded by homeworking, providing employers with top tips for happy homeworking.

Benefits of homeworking

  • Lowered business overheads – electricity, heating, cleaning; there are various expenses which are reduced or removed entirely. Where employees work fully from home, some employers choose to offer allowances for these increased costs at home.
  • Increased workforce productivity – homeworking staff have zero travel time and related stresses. There is evidence that this saved time results in increased productivity. It can also improve work/life balance.
  • Improved motivation – plenty of workers respond positively to homeworking.
  • Flexibility between the team/department – geographical distance and travelling time are not an obstacle to how teams are formulated, creating an environment more open to cross departmental virtual project teams.
  • Disaster planning – employers (and indeed staff) who become accustomed to homeworking may be better able to withstand external disruptions such as transport issues, adverse weather conditions etc.

Potential challenges in homeworking

  • Control – less control for employers over their workforce and influencing team culture.
  • Potential data security breaches – an increased risk due to the domestic working environment.
  • Technology dependence – employees need the appropriate equipment to do their job. The need for some office based equipment may result in the duplication of equipment and, accordingly, unnecessary additional expense.
  • Trust dependenceemployers will be have to trust their teams and may be concerned that some staff will not pull their weight.
  • Management stylesalternative/different management styles may be needed to oversee homeworkers; managers may not be able to support work or workers to the same degree as if they were sitting in an office together.
  • Boundaries some employees may struggle to maintain boundaries between work and home life, resulting in burn out or overload.

How can employers address these challenges?

Control

Top tips for maintaining control over a workforce and keeping team spirits up include:

  • Regular managerial contact with teams and regular contact between colleagues. Use work email for work related matters, whilst considering setting up WhatsApp/Slack/other platform groups for employees to keep in touch regularly from a personal / team perspective. Setting up a general ‘discussion’ platform away from email can also help avoid inboxes becoming cluttered and hard to use effectively.
  • Video conference calling facilities (such as Teams or Zoom) are an excellent way to stay in touch visually and assists managers in maintaining staff morale. Teams could schedule a weekly video call to catch up on work projects, capacity and updates. This aids staff in feeling less isolated and assures them that they are not ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
  • Managers could monitor performance by reviewing time sheets, if such facilities are available to the company, or checking in on a daily or weekly basis, in order to gauge staff output. This is doubly important at the moment as it will afford the business oversight as to how it is doing from a workload/anticipated income perspective.

Potential data security breaches

These are a possibility in the workplace, not just whilst staff are homeworking. However, homeworking can present an increased risk. Top tips for safeguarding against these include:

  • Reminding the workforce of your standard data policy by re-circulating it by email (or drafting one and circulating it, if you do not already have one) alongside an email setting out any additional and reasonable measures to take into account the domestic working environment.
  • Assessing the security of the home working location. Few employees will have a lockable workspace in the way an office can be locked at night, but there are steps that can be taken. These include not leaving confidential papers or information on a home desk or computer, locking a home computer, being mindful of confidential information that may be in sight if delivery drivers/couriers visit a home, being careful of confidential conversations whilst windows are open and neighbours are likely to be home, being aware of confidential conversation whilst active listening devices or virtual assistants are in use and being conscious of referring to confidential matters (including client names) via communication channels such as WhatsApp.
  • Provision of a mechanism for staff to dispose of work papers. This might involve providing or reimbursing purchase of a shredder, or providing waste bags to be returned for the company’s disposal process.
  • Ensuring that employees working from home have full access to document management systems and other facilities. A significant number of data breaches arise from incorrectly addressed emails, and employers should ensure all normal safeguards to this are available remotely.
  • Ensuring the employees know how to safely transfer any large quantities of data. Normal post should not be used for unencrypted data.
  • Reminding staff that, in accordance with any data policy the business should have, any data breach should be reported immediately to the company’s DPO (data protection officer) with confirmation of who the company’s DPO is and their contact details.

Technology

In the current climate, many employers have had to set up homeworking quickly and without the normal preparation. In some situations, compromises have had to be made. However, as things settle down, these arrangements can be reviewed and developed. Employers should:

  • Assess what equipment staff need in order to carry out their roles.
  • Liaise with workers to gain a true oversight as to what equipment they already have at home in order to identify areas that they need assistance with.
  • Consider whether staff genuinely need additional equipment (e.g. a scanner/printer) at home in order to fulfil their role in the usual way. Many employers will be keeping a closer eye on expenditure and, accordingly, it may be that the employer determines who has a greater need for certain equipment.
  • Order the relevant equipment to be delivered direct to staff homes (to avoid unnecessary travel into the workplace to collect it), making it clear that this equipment is company property and keeping an accurate record of which employee has which piece of kit so that it can be returned to the company once this period of homeworking comes to an end.

Trust

It is important to keep the following in mind:

  • The employer/employee relationship is built on an understanding of mutual trust and confidence. Employers have recruited and chosen to employ these individuals and, depending on their length of service, will have an understanding of how these employees operate. Although many managers will find the transition to remote monitoring hard, it could prove an opportunity for employees to show what they can achieve.
  • Many employees will be balancing many responsibilities, including potentially as a carer or home educator. Where the nature of work allows, employees are likely to be grateful for the trust to work in ways that suit their personal circumstances, for example breaking their day into tag team ‘blocks’ with a partner, working early in the morning or late at night, or spreading work over a six day week of shorter hours. Managers should be encouraged to think flexibly and trust employees to develop constructive solutions. Employees who have ownership of their arrangements are far more likely to deliver.
  • If there is doubt as to whether the employee is pulling their weight, this may have already been addressed in the workplace, pre-Covid-19, as a capability or disciplinary matter. Such processes can continue during this period
  • If an employee does not work as effectively as can be reasonably expected, then the employer should discuss this with the employee openly. In normal circumstances, it may simply be that the employee’s personality is not suited to home working. Currently, it may well be related to other obligations, and solutions like adjusted working hours may help.

Management styles

The following are ways to maintain quality supervision and adapt management styles:

  • Supervisors could use video call facilities when discussing anything particularly complex or sensitive with those they are supervising. It is also a great way to check in from a personal perspective.
  • Managers should ensure that their team know their boundaries. For example, it may be even more imperative that staff copy their supervisor into outgoing emails. If so, this should be clearly communicated to staff.
  • Managers should regularly check in with their team to see how they are doing – from a professional and personal perspective. An open door policy remotely (i.e. via phone, WhatsApp, video call) is important and should be readily communicated to staff.

Boundaries and general homeworking top tips

  • Have a daily routine and maintain structure. Wash and prepare yourself for the day, eat breakfast. Employees should avoid heading straight from a bed to a desk.
  • Take regular breaks in order to hydrate, stretch, go for a walk, talk to the children (or the dog!) and generally avoid staring at a screen all day.
  • Prepare the working area so that you want to sit there, focus, get a solid session of work carried out and then switch off. Ensure the desk area is tidy, works for you and that you do not leave confidential information readily available.
  • Have regular designated breaks so that family/children know not to disturb you unless it is (genuinely) important.
  • Differentiate between using the computer and internet for working and pleasure. Stick to ‘proper’ work whilst at your desk and, ideally, move your laptop or use your mobile for online shopping or personal internet browsing. This creates a distinction between work time and personal time.
  • Employees who struggle to set boundaries at the end of the day and face potential burn out may find it helpful to ‘punch out’ by sending an email to their manager, or by setting an activity (such a walk or run) which marks the end of the working day.

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About the Author
Ellis Jessica Walby, Solicitor

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