Working from home is usually seen as a perk – but, then again, it doesn't usually involve full-time childcare, worrying about every hint of a cough or wondering whether you'll be arrested for one-too-many trips to the corner shop. Many employees appreciate the peace and quiet of working from home sometimes, but the prospect of doing it for months on end, under stressful circumstances, is more than a little daunting for staff used to the interaction of an office environment. What should employers be doing to ease the pressures on staff?
Get the basics right
Employers' health and safety responsibilities don't end at the office security gates – they apply equally to staff working from home. Employers should ensure that staff have the appropriate equipment and an ergonomic workstation set-up for computer-based work. They should also advise employees to take regular screen breaks and should encourage staff to take exercise and get fresh air – and should monitor and manage workloads as far as possible to facilitate this. Employers should also disseminate public health advice about minimising the risks of coronavirus infection to staff and encourage them to be vigilant about symptoms and comply with self-isolation and shielding requirements where applicable.
Staff mental health should be as much of a priority for employers as physical health. The combination of isolation and a host of justified anxieties about health, family and finances is a perfect storm from a mental health perspective. Employers cannot solve all these pressures but they can and should do what they can to help staff working from home feel less isolated, from regular catch-ups to giving staff forums for purely social interaction – technology makes this much easier. Employers should also encourage staff to 'switch off' as far as possible after working hours, as working from home can make it much more difficult to maintain boundaries between work and home life – which is ultimately bad for employees' mental health and productivity.
Clear, consistent communication from the senior management team is also essential – as is anticipating operational issues as far as possible, so that staff don't need to spend huge amounts of time chasing equipment or dealing with logistical challenges.
Perhaps the most important thing that employers can do is recognise that what most employees are now doing isn't working from home in the true sense. It's being (mostly) confined to home during a global pandemic, juggling caring and household responsibilities and trying to get some work done at the same time. Although businesses are undoubtedly under enormous pressure, a burnt-out miserable workforce is unlikely to maintain productivity or motivation over the next few months. Businesses will need to have realistic expectations of how quickly work can be turned around by someone trying to look after a small child at the same time, or care for a partner who is self-isolating with coronavirus. Taking a reasonable, measured approach to staff performance in difficult circumstances is a more sustainable approach than expecting staff to maintain the same level of performance as they would without the additional pressures caused by the coronavirus crisis.