Guest post: Homeworking, the new normal?

Ellie Hibberd, partner in Stephens Scown’s employment team, asks if homeworking is the future for your business?

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We know that crises often accelerate change and one area where that has become recently apparent is how we work, with a huge rise in homeworking.

When the country went into lockdown on March 23, many employers were forced to implement homeworking. Most of us can probably more readily imagine professional services and computer based businesses working from home but what about manufacturing businesses? They, too, have had to find ways to enable homeworking but the big question now is whether these new ways of working will last or whether, as the visible risk of coronavirus drops, workplaces will return to ‘business as usual’.

The Government is no longer directing that employees should work from home where possible, and has left it to employers to decide whether to call people back to their traditional workplaces.

Steps being taken by some large UK employers already show how varied approaches are going to be, even within the same sector. For example, NatWest have said that their staff can work from home for the rest of the year and are open to considering new working practices. Conversely, Barclays’ Chief Executive has announced he would like to see employees back in the office as soon as possible.

So as we all start to look ahead to the future and what our working lives might look like, what might you as a business want to have in mind?

Pause – and reflect

Businesses are in a unique position right now to be able to look back on how their operations have run over the last five months and to ask themselves what has worked well – and what hasn’t been so successful.

Before you make any decisions for the future, we’d suggest pausing and reflecting on the lockdown period. Undoubtedly there will have been some very challenging times but as the weeks and months have progressed, many businesses have adapted extremely successfully to the enforced new way of working.

There are businesses who historically might have been reluctant to adopt homeworking, fearful that it would result in a loss of visibility or control over employees’ work, but who might now feel differently, having been forced to take this route and seen it in action.

Think of it as an operational review and ask yourself these questions:

  • What would you like to keep from the last five months?
  • What hasn’t worked and you’d like to lose?
  • What could be improved?
  • What could you add?

This might be an exercise you do within your management team but if you haven’t asked your employees how they have found it, you might want to. Their engagement is going to be critical to seeing your business through these times and being able to make the most of the opportunities that will come on the other side. Giving them a voice and a chance to have input with how they work is likely to be critical in ensuring success for the future.

Is homeworking the future for your business?

It sounds obvious and maybe even slightly contrary to the sentiment of engaging your employees, but this is going to be a really important question to ask.

The UK economy has just plunged into recession and unless your business is one of the lucky ones that has been able to capitalise on the particular circumstances of lockdown, you are probably also reflecting on how you can ensure the future survival and financial viability of your business. The input of your employees is an important piece of the jigsaw but ultimately, any new working practices have to be right for your business and support its survival and growth.

When considering homeworking for your business, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have work which can be completed at home, either as effectively or more effectively than if it were done in the office?
  • Do some duties require your employees to come to your premises either to pick up materials/papers etc. or to access certain systems?
  • Are some duties better suited to homeworking?
  • Do you have an infrastructure which will enable effective homeworking or can you afford one?
  • If more employees are working from home or completing tasks remotely, could that be an opportunity to cut overheads elsewhere?
  • Can you maintain the culture of your business if people are working from home?
  • Will productivity improve or suffer if people work from home?

Remember that there are different ways of approaching this. It doesn’t have to be the ‘all or nothing’ that many of us have experienced over recent months.

You might be able to adopt a very agile, flexible way of working, perhaps with a system of booking out desks in a centralised office space as and when needed. You might want the greater certainty of knowing when employees will be in so could look to agree a part homeworking arrangement. You might have employees who are permanently based at home but with requirements to come into the office for appraisals, team meetings or events, so that you can make sure they still have some face-to-face contact.

Ask questions and listen to your employees

There have been some mixed reports from lockdown around the pros and cons of working from home. Do bear in mind that recent months have been a time of huge uncertainty and anxiety for many. We have been isolated from family, friends and colleagues in a way never before seen in the UK and that separation from society has had its own negative impact on individuals’ mental health and wellbeing. We all hope that, if the pandemic can be brought under control, the requirements of lockdown will continue to ease and that these specific downsides of homeworking won’t be replicated on a long-term basis.

Is homeworking working?

There is a lot of evidence out there that employees are more productive when they have a good work life balance and anecdotally that working from home helps us achieve that balance. But is that actually true? Yes, your employees save time on their commutes and can get those little chores done during their lunch break but equally their workstation is always there, hard to switch off from and tempting them to complete that next piece of work.

Viewed in the round, working from home probably is a great opportunity for many employees to gain a better work life balance but as an employer you will need to be able monitor the hours your employees are working to ensure they are not working excessive hours.

Some workplaces already operate a time sheet system of some nature and asking employees to submit a daily record of the hours worked is great start. You may, though, also want to consider implementing a way for employees to share their capacity (this could simply be an email) and have regular video meetings where you can discuss capacity.

Remember when having video meetings to look out for visual cues that might indicate someone is under too much pressure and which you might otherwise miss by not being physically in the same place.

What next?

If you do decide that homeworking, or a version of it, could be right for your business, you’ll still need to make sure that you have the right structures in place to support it.

Our previous article on homeworking covers the key practical and legal considerations you should have in mind.

If this has got you thinking about how you could become a more flexible employer, we’d love to hear from you and be part of your journey – you can find our contact details below.

If you would like to discuss homeworking further, please do get in touch.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, please call 01392 210700 or email employment@stephens-scown.co.uk.

This article is part of our Adapt & Thrive initiative.

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