It almost goes without saying that this year has seen a rapid shift towards remote working, with many companies now moving to a flexible working model. From a business perspective, many employees are proving that they can still get their work done working from home. But what is the psychological impact of this? And are companies doing enough to research and prevent any negative psychological effects of remote working?
The big question is what happens to our psyche when we work under these conditions, and there is no simple answer. However, all flexible work models, including the home office, require a high degree of digitalisation.
Many companies introduced flexible working completely unprepared, due to the pandemic, with a focus on technical implementation, data security, and IT. Yet this accelerated digitalisation is likely to put greater psychological strain on employees.
Digitalisation increases emotional exhaustion by around 15 percent according to a study by Prof. Stephen Böhm and his colleagues at the University of St. Gallen. Therefore, quality employee/manager relationships are important as they can actually reduce emotional exhaustion by up to 11 percent.
Large companies such as Siemens and Google are setting an example with open communication for flexible working, which they plan to make permanent in the future.
The bigger challenge
Technology is not the biggest challenge for companies, but rather in the change of employee management (trust vs control) and the ergonomic design of third spaces, such as coworking offices.
While everybody is in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat
Companies have traditionally rejected flexible working in principle, but this changed when they found that, on average, employees achieve higher productivity working from home. Many assume that working from home makes it easier to concentrate, saves time on commuting, and offers quiet spaces to work. At home we organise our daily routines and are therefore self-driven.
But while everybody is in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat. When you compare home office environments to company environments, it’s clear that everyone’s circumstances differ. Each person’s home working experience is unique, determined by factors that play little part in business office environments.
For example, factors could include whether homes offer space for a fixed workplace or computer workstation, or whether someone lives with children or older relatives.
Home working theoretically provides opportunities for healthy eating and more exercise. However, so far, more people have tended to eat unhealthy food, exercise less and gain weight, causing less satisfaction and wellbeing.
We need to distinguish between the current ‘forced’ home working and professional future long-term planning. During the pandemic, many struggled with the sudden need to adapt to home working and changes to daily habits and routines. The personal resources available for this vary. One person finds it easy; another develops adaptation disorders. These include sleep disorders and concentration loss and they can occur with a time delay, leading to burnout or even personality change.
Roles also matter. Job complexity, independence, and management responsibility all influence wellbeing and job satisfaction for home office workers. Not all employees are self-motivated, own the latest IT tech and love working alone. Those who go into their (hopefully ergonomically designed!) home office may have new technical problems to deal with.
Additionally, that person is now responsible for the entire structure of their day, which was previously determined by colleagues and processes. For some, this leads to stress and loneliness.
Getting on board
Transitioning to flexible working models can be beneficial for employees and employers if long-term plans are introduced.
Core considerations should include:
- Acknowledging that changes to habits and behavior is hard. We know this from many change projects
- The structure of a daily rhythm is important for people and should be designed accordingly
- Leadership must inspire trust. There should be no fear among employees
- Create clear rules for dealing with both work and each other
- Support employees in organising and planning (tasks, objectives, time)
- Support the ergonomic design of workspaces, whether at home or co-working spaces
I am not a psychologist, but from coaching and wider reading we know that there are several basic problems with switching to a remote working model:
- Humans are social creatures. Many have great problems with isolation.
- One person can cope better with solitary work than another.
- People who avoid social interaction often have fewer problems with permanent home working.
- The best results are achieved by direct interaction between people (this is why “new work” models developed in recent years).
- We need feedback on our actions. If this feedback is missing, it can cause exhaustion and dissatisfaction.
- There is evidence that some companies reduced remote working in the past because they noticed a drop off in employee loyalty.
- Many people find self-organisation more challenging from home, which is why up to two hours more per day are worked in the home office (VPN provider according to the Forbes report 2020).
- According to German health insurance companies, burnout has risen in the last 5 months due to a mixture of private life and unconsciously extended home working hours (for example, a recent LinkedIn study found 20% of respondents felt under pressure to answer e-mails faster).
This shows how important it is to prepare people for the flexible working long-term. People need the ability to organise and regulate themselves, and their employer must support them as flexible work is introduced. The same applies to organisational conditions such as the workplace and technical equipment in the home office.
In reality, pure distance work without regular meetings and social interaction may only be suitable for a small proportion of the workforce. For a company to perform at the optimum level, harnessing the power of our social instincts matters too much.
Jörg Bakschas is an independent workspace specialist, change coach and design thinker, working for Adapt Global Group. He is a member of several European committees working on standards for the office.