How should employers support people working from home?

From the technological to the physical and mental, remote working raises new challenges when it comes to employee wellbeing

At the risk of repeating what has become something of a cliché in the past several months, working from home is, for many of us, now the ‘new normal’. The situation is likely to continue for a considerable period, whatever happens with the Coronavirus pandemic, as both employers and employees realise the benefits. An arrangement that was forced onto many overnight is now becoming standard practice, and many column inches have been dedicated to advice for the newly-minted home worker – be that how to separate work and home life, minimise distractions or demonstrate their continued good work ethic to their boss.

Employers have new responsibilities too, however. This means providing their people with the support – both physical and psychological  – they need to do their job well, with a dual focus on technology and the individual being a good place to start.

Tech and workspace

It should go without saying that employers need to make sure their people have the right technology and working environment. While in the first flush of working from home it may have been necessary for employees to use their personal equipment and hunch at the kitchen table, that time is well and truly past. Organisations have had plenty of time to equip their employees with office-grade equipment, including technology and furniture such as appropriate desks and chairs to ensure that the working environment is ergonomic and not detrimental to physical health. 

Data security is also paramount on the technology side. As we’ve acclimatised to working from home there has been a massive increase in use of cloud; McAfee reported a 50% rise in enterprise cloud usage in its Cloud Adoption and Risk Report: Work from Home Edition – published in May – with collaboration services like Microsoft 365 up by 123%, and business services like Salesforce up by 61%. 

Cybercriminals are no slouches, though, and threats have risen in tandem, with McAfee finding a 630% increase in the targeting of cloud services. This puts the onus on the employer to ensure they have excellent protection in place, that they are sure their people are only using authorised and protected equipment for work purposes, and that they are fully versed in matters relating to secure working. 

When it comes to accessing cloud services, an internet connection is paramount, and there are HMRC guidelines on proportionate flat amounts that employers can pay to employees to cover this and other reasonable expenses, or employers can cover the actual costs if they prefer. Organisations should be able to get advice from their accountants or direct from HMRC.

Preventing worker isolation

There is much more to employer good practice supporting working from home than providing the right technology and a good quality chair. There is little doubt that the move to home working has created a significant disconnect between workers across organisations. They might meet their immediate workgroups, but can miss the watercooler moments that happen in the office and become disconnected with broader strategic goals. 

James Berry, who leads UCL’s new online MBA, tells IT Pro there’s a responsibility for managers to be more strategic in their approach and find ways to recreate these random interactions when people are working solo at home. 

Giving an example of this in action, he says: “One manager at Legal & General has identified several strategic goals and assigned mixed teams from different areas of the company to come together and work on these broader projects together as a way to break down silos and create connections across the organisation.”

Phil Perry, head of UK and Ireland at Zoom gives another example – Zoom Roulette. “Once a month the whole company is invited to join one large meeting,” he explains. “A moderator then randomly clusters small groups into virtual video breakout rooms. The smaller groups are able to get to know each other and share what they are working on.”

Facing up to the long term

Looking after workers health and wellbeing can be altogether more complex than handling the technology side of things. Berry says that at the beginning of lockdown, many companies identified that their employees were more productive than they had been in the office environment. However, recently several employers have noted this productivity has started to decline, with JP Morgan, citing Mondays and Fridays as being particularly affected

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Whatever the root causes of this shift, and they may be many and varied, there has also been a clearly identified need for employers to take some responsibility for the wellbeing of their people. Indeed, as early as May 2020 the CIPD was reporting that 88% of employers were concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on employees’ mental health. 

All in all, if we are indeed in a ‘new normal’ of mass working from home, employers need to focus on mid-to long term strategies. Keeping technology updated, security systems in place, and ensuring the right employee expenses are supported is in many respects, a matter of process and relatively easy to stay on top of. Promoting interaction and taking care of employees' mental health may be the tasks that need more attention.

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