“Remote work is, in one form or another, here to stay. Having existed as a concept in our modern world for over two decades, it was brought to the forefront in 2020 when almost every facet of our lives faced upheaval in the wake of Covid-19 and its subsequent country-wide lockdowns.
In nearly no time at all, working from home was transformed from something derided by colleagues – who would accompany those three words with air quotes – to something necessitated by health and safety.
Thankfully, the pandemic seems – at the time of writing this – to be firmly in our rear-view mirror, but workers haven’t returned to their offices en masse. Instead, they’ve ditched the commute, boosted their work-life balance and are, according to one study, happier than non-remote workers.
It’s been a seismic shift, the HR equivalent of Bob Dylan going electric, but how has remote working changed the behaviour of employees?
Furthermore, how can you, as an employer, make remote working for your business, and what security considerations do you need to keep in mind in order to make the setup a success?
To find the answers to those questions and more, we invite you to read on.”
Remote working may have been accelerated by the pandemic, but it didn’t start there.
Around 5% of the workforce reported working mainly from home in 2019, and around 30% reported occasionally working from home. By April 2020, this had risen to 46.6% of people working from home in some capacity, and the numbers don’t look set to fall anytime soon.
After all, asking employees who have benefitted from less commuting, cheaper lunches and longer evenings to give those things up is no easy task. In fact, according to one study 61% of employees would take a pay cut – sometimes by as much as 50% – to retain them.
As a result, employers are often able to scale back some of the usual employee benefits, such as private health care and pension contributions, in exchange for an increased number of hours spent working from home.
In short, employers are able to save money which can be put towards innovation, and employees are happier, ensuring that original productivity levels are maintained – if not boosted.
But having enjoyed the cost savings and work-life balance benefits for the past three years, some workplace behavioural norms are being diluted and even forgotten.
Suits and ties, for example, are a thing of the past – no longer required in our front rooms and home offices – but there is a danger that important concepts like device security and confidentiality can also be lost when our professional work meets our personal lives, damaging business interests.
It is, therefore, important to understand the ways in which remote working has changed the behaviour of employees, for better or worse. Doing so equips employers with some ideas of how they can mitigate any negative effects relating to the latter.
Alt text: An employee working remotely, beside the swimming pool
How has remote working changed the behaviour of employees?
The main benefit of remote working is the enhancement of an employee’s work-life balance.
In fact, by reducing the commute – an undertaking that can prove physically demanding for employees with disabilities – remote working (and flexible working) increases productivity and improves many people’s job satisfaction.
Despite those positives, there are also a few examples of the ways in which remote working has negatively changed the behaviour of some employees. A number of media stories reflect instances of inappropriate or poor behaviour on Zoom, including employees being accidentally videoed in the bathroom, or pets behaving badly in the background.
There has also been an increase in reports from employers relating to employees breaching data and cyber security practices, either by downloading inappropriate material onto work laptops, or emailing confidential information to their personal account.
Those things are, clearly, unacceptable, but is it any wonder that they happen when our professional work meets our private lives? The boundaries become blurred and – if we’re not careful – we can quickly forget that we are using a work device.
Whilst there are many personal benefits for employees when working from home, the absence of oversight can make it more challenging to ensure that workplace norms are still being adhered to. When no one is physically present in the room with an employee, the risks – and penalties – of not doing their work are reduced.
With that particular and potential problem in mind, let’s explore the solutions.
Alt text: An employee works on a laptop. Is their manager monitoring their activity?
What can you, as an employer, do to minimise negative effects?
Managers continue to play an important job in role modelling.
They, therefore, need to be skilled at predicting and mitigating issues as and when they occur. It’s vital to replicate workplace norms at home for employees, as much as is reasonable and practical. Employees should be clear that they remain subject to the same rules as if they are working in the office.
In the first instance, it’s important to set out expectations. For example, when it comes to using video conferencing tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, train your staff in best practice when it comes to being on camera. Perhaps set out a “How To” guide which lays out what is, and isn’t, acceptable when it comes to backdrops, interruptions, behaviours expected, and having the camera on or off.
Following on from this, it’s also important to ensure that employees are well trained and versed in what isn’t acceptable behaviour. Your team of HR consultants could remind staff of the rules and restrictions associated with using business equipment, whether at home or in the workplace. This can be difficult, especially for staff who may be using work equipment for the majority of their day, but then share personal computers with their remote working partner, or children who may have online homework.
The temptation to view business information as personal because it’s in their home is heightened with remote working. As a result, there is a higher risk that data security could be compromised. To help resolve this issue, some data protection training – even just a brief refresher – can help to protect businesses.
A good way to ensure that your employees are fully aware of the proper way to handle data and use company equipment is to – with the help of experienced professionals – draft, review and regularly circulate employment contracts, policies and handbooks which outline expectations accordingly.
Above all, employers and managers should make a conscious effort to stay in touch. Set times throughout the day to check in with employees, but also ‘drop in’ on them unexpectedly, as you would just when walking past their desk at work. This isn’t to ‘check in’ on them, or keep tabs, but more to offer support, and chat about their workloads.
It takes more effort to get in touch remotely, but doing so helps to maintain the behavioural norms you want to see, and makes teams more productive. As a responsible employer, you should be invested in keeping staff from feeling isolated when working from home, both reiterating workplace norms and preventing them from feeling overwhelmed – potentially avoiding mental health issues later down the line.
Whilst there are many indisputable benefits of working from home, the change of environment and lack of physical presence have been shown to result in negative behaviour patterns in a minority of employees. Managers have a vital role to play in ensuring employees are productive, engaged and connected – making their home feel just like an office extension.
While in most cases home workers are proving to be just as productive – if not more so – at home as in the workplace, this isn’t true for everyone. Instead of penalising this minority, employers will benefit more from making them feel part of the team and the wider workforce, and supporting their mental health along the way.
Led by Pam Loch, Loch Associates Group are experts in developing solutions to help organisations manage and look after their people. With a team of employment solicitors and HR consultants in Kent, London and Sussex, they provide a unique combination of employment law, HR, wellbeing and mediation expertise.