COVID-19 has brought with it one of the world’s greatest workplace experiments. Could the majority of the world’s workforce begin to work from home and remain as productive and connected as before?
Working from home (or WFH for short), was once seen as slightly taboo and as not being fully committed to the cause. Now, thanks to the technology platforms available, working from home has become the norm. Many corporate bosses and managers said it couldn’t be done and it would only be a short term fix, yet the productivity benefits and better work-life balance have left many questioning their old ways. Fears over productivity levels and employee commitment seem to have been surprisingly remiss.
If you’re currently working from home even just temporarily, the good news is that the data shows you’ll actually be more productive than when in an office.
What is Working from Home?
There is no set definition for working from home, but in simple terms, it is the ability to perform your tasks and general job description from the location of your own home. It’s also referred to as remote working. This may include remotely logging into company networks and handling meetings via video conferencing versus travelling into the office to be there physically.
Working from home doesn’t mean that you are just floundering around picking and choosing when to work, it encompasses discipline and the appropriate amount of respect and thoughtfulness for those who also work on your team and at your organisation.
Interestingly, before the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home was becoming more frequent as employees found an increased and better work-life balance. In the United States for example, pre COVID-19, 70 percent of the workforce were operating out of the office at least one day a week (according to NBC news). This should not come as a surprise either. A recent study by Harvard Business Review of the US Patent and Trade Office workers, found that their output increased by 4.4 percent after a transition to remote work, with no significant increase in having to rewrite patents due to appeals. The initial fear to accept remote working seemed unfounded, especially in the study. It’s a pattern that many companies found, and it might be why the transition to home working for many was almost seamless earlier this year. With collaborative technology platforms available in the form of Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Slack, the adoption was generally pain free and chances are, if you’d never heard of them, you have by now.
Zoom is one such service to have benefited during the pandemic and has hugely enabled companies and families to keep moving forwards and stay connected. Zoom has seen a massive increase in profits and has doubled its annual sales forecast, driven by a surge in users as more people work from home and connect with friends online during the coronavirus crisis. Zoom’s revenue for the quarter of 2020 between February and April more than doubled year on year by $328million with profits of $27million. Unsurprisingly, it’s stock price also tripled.
Technology Has Made Working from Home a Reality
Thanks to the technology available to us, in 2020, the transition to working from home has been a lot less painful than it could have been. Imagine, for example, if this pandemic had happened in 2005, internet speeds were much lower and a lot of the apps we use today we’re merely science fiction theory.
Face to Face meetings were something of a pipe dream (although it was starting to emerge) and e-mail was already an overwhelming force of corporate communication. No one back then had any idea of what a smart phone was either. Netflix was still sending out DVDs and Amazon was still mostly focused on selling books. No one had even heard of Google, oh and AOL were huge! More “AOwho?” today. In that respect, this pandemic could have been far worse in terms of connectivity and entertainment access. Technology to a large extent has in some ways saved the day, and is being used extensively towards the development of a vaccine or virus suppressant.
Gaining Time Leads to a Better Work Life Balance
People will always (in most cases) do what they have to do to succeed in the workplace. This means they might have to put in the hours on a long commute to retain a better job, stay late for a last minute meeting and generally put in the hours to get ahead. But it wasn’t perhaps until this pandemic that people began to question why they did these things, or start to examine aspects of their daily actions and routines. Many have found that in fact they were more productive, and more awake without their morning grind and that teams can still collaborate and virtually meet, probably more frequently and as often, without delays.
Compared to on-site office employees, remote workers could already boast that they saved on average £3467.66 a year on fuel alone each year. For those travelling by train, this is often higher still.
According to the TUC, rail commuters face the longest commute taking an average of 2 hours and 11 minutes each day, an increase of 4 minutes over the last ten years.
Drivers on the other hand spend on average 52 minutes on the road to work and back (up by 3 minutes on the last ten years) and cyclists and walkers have the quickest commute to work with 44 minutes on the bike and 29 minutes if you were to walk. Of course the distances travelled are different, but what this shows is how long is actually spent getting to work in a day on top of your time at work.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Londoners take the longest to get to and from work, travelling for 1 hour and 21 minutes each day, which is 23 minutes longer than the average across the UK. Most of this time was spent sat in traffic too – all adding to the stress levels of workers across the country.
Lockdown and working from home, has opened people’s eyes to the fact that in saving this time, they are able to sleep better, get exercising more and spend more quality time with their families and friends as a result. This has had a positive impact on their wellbeing and made them more productive.
Working From Home Can Make You Better At Some Tasks
Many managers and CEO’s worried about what working from home would do to your performance, productivity and creativity. But what’s interesting is that as is often the case with fears, the pros have outdone the cons and worst case scenarios didn’t materialise as first thought. We’ve just seen that in reducing the daily grind (I mean commute) has a positive impact on the wellbeing of employees, but, like anything else in life, there are some drawbacks.
29% of remote workers have struggled with a work-life balance, but most are saying that working remotely has more benefits, namely fewer distractions, no more commutes, and you can save money and time which in some ways has amounted to a mini pay rise. It’s also given them more time to plan meals and therefore eat healthier, rather than grabbing something from a fast food joint. This in turn has made them better at their job because they are more refreshed and awake for the tasks at hand. Effectively, employees are getting more done in the time allocated to working than they would ordinarily form the better work-life balance on offer. Tech Republic has also revealed in new research that they found 42% of remote workers surveyed said they are “more productive” when working for an extended period of uninterrupted time.
Another interesting outcome from the lockdown, has been how meetings have been conducted. It was often difficult to set meeting dates with people because they were travelling all over the place, but now, with restricted travel, people are more readily available to take meetings so things get done faster, and decisions are made with ease. Group discussions can be held quickly in break-out rooms and to the surprise of many, meetings in most cases have become more efficient. Things are simply being done, but in a different way and with a lot less fewer distractions.
How Can You Become More Productive When Working from Home?
The sudden switch to working from home has many questioning how they can become more productive and get more done. Here we outline some tips to do just that! In summary:
- Remember to take breaks
- Remember to talk to and remain connected to your team
- Make sure you plan your day each day
- Keep and update your lists
- Make ‘Working from Home’ work for you
- Don’t over-work from home
- Avoid over-working by focusing on the important tasks first
Remember to Take Breaks
Make sure you take breaks. The basic advice is that after every hour you should take a minimum of 5 minutes and every two hours 10 minutes. The brain can only focus for so long and, it’s still early days, but many are reporting that video conferencing is actually more tiring than physical meetings. No one really knows why this is, but it is believed that it’s because we don’t receive as many non verbal cues so our brains are focusing at a higher intensity during a call. Anyone who’s been on a Zoom call for longer than 2 hours knows exactly what this feels like. So, taking regular short breaks is the number one, most effective way to stay productive. Make sure you schedule them in. If you don’t, you will likely also end up suffering from eye strain and feel and become even less productive over time.
The Pomodoro Technique is one such method for employees to decompress for a moment and come back refreshed and ready to focus. It takes discipline but it is a method used by many who work in the technology industry. Now that most of us are working from home, we are working in a similar manner so it will likely reap the same rewards for you too.
Remember to Talk to Your Team
Due to the extended periods of uninterrupted work, people might well find themselves excelling at creative tasks that require a lot of thought, or problem solving. However, the sharing of ideas is equally just as important. It’s really important if you are working from home full time, to make sure you get as much ‘face-to-face’ time as possible and his is via video conferencing. It ensures you avoid the out of site, out of mind scenario which can add background stress to many home workers.
The way to stay connected, is to break up your day with team meetings to ‘touch base’. Not only is it good to check in with your team, a quick morning check-in can make sure that the tasks you’re working on a still contributing and moving in the right direction. There’s nothing worse than working on something that has no value to the overall bigger picture. It will only leave you feeling deflated and you’ll loose your enthusiasm so make sure you schedule in some team remote meetings or clients calls just to break up your day. The more you do this, the more of a habit it will become.
The best idea is to put scheduled times into your calendar at the times that work as a whole. One of the dangers, especially if you are a manager, is that your team might interrupt you constantly during the day, and as a result you find yourself falling behind on your tasks, leaving you working longer into the night and encroaching on leisure and family time. Try not to make this happen, as you still need downtime and a disconnect time to refresh for the next day. The always on mentality is not good for your overall mental health or productivity. You will burn out faster than you think!
Plan Your Day
Without your manger or boss in your physical environment, some people struggle to stay focused and let procrastination seep in. Don’t let this happen, otherwise it will become a habit. The best way to counter it is to plan your day. Keep lists and plan what gets done each day from the list, prioritising urgent, important and essential tasks using a *, A and B method next to each item. If you’re not sure which are the most import tasks to be focusing on, just ask your boss and they’ll let you know.
This will do two things, it will enable you to connect and touch base, but it will also keep you on track and set deadlines to your working from home life. This will keep you focused and ensure you are using your time wisely. If you plan ahead and allocate enough time per task, it will prevent you working long into the night and on your weekends. It’s all to easy to fall into the trap of I’ll just do it tomorrow.
You should also keep a routine, just because you can now have the luxury of not putting on your work clothes and suiting up for the important board meeting, doesn’t mean that you should lounge around in your pyjamas. This will actually in the long term create less of a boundary between work and home life and mean your brain never really switches off which will negatively impact your sleep length and quality.
This is why it’s important to have one planning system for you life so you can plan in your work tasks but also time for yourself and unwind and relax and reduce your stress levels.
Make Lists While Working from Home
It’s easy to forget things. The brain isn’t wired to remember everything. How many times are you in the supermarket and you start suddenly thinking about a work task that you must not forget. Make sure you have a place where you can capture anything you need to do, or remember. It will remove the butterfly mind when you’re working on tasks and as a result increase your focus. There’s nothing more distracting than being distracted by your own mind. Don’t let it. Simply capture, and come back to it at the appropriate time. You can then also review your task lists with your boss and team, and they’ll thank you for being so organised and on point.
Make it Work For You
With limited commutes, it’s given people time to know themselves better and to spot when they work at their best. Try to plan your day around your most productive hours.
For example, if you find you’re less distracted by things around the house in the morning, do the work tasks that you find more boring or demanding then. This way you’ll be less tempted to get off-task. If you find you need quiet time and no distractions, perhaps think about getting up early, easing into your day and getting those tasks done first in the quiet before your family wake. You’ll also then feel better for the rest of the day, because the task that’s been bothering you is done. If you find yourself getting tired towards the end of the day, don’t use this time to make important decisions, instead use this time to reply to emails and respond to quick questions. You don’t want to fall into the trap of decision fatigue and make a bad decision. There’s a lot of truth in sleeping on something. Don’t make snap decisions or start difficult tasks when you’re tired.
Make sure you also have a dedicated work space. A place that’s your desk and an environment when you’re at it puts your into ‘work mode’. Often people have been working in the kitchen or on the dining room table. That’s fine, but make sure you’re in a comfortable, supporting char and aren’t slouching. It will only lead to pain in the wrists and back further down the line the more you do it. Form good habits.
Don’t Work Too Much
Initially, one of the reasons many managers don’t like the concept of remote working is that they feared employees would slack off work, something which is difficult to see when there is no physical presence. But, in fact, lockdown has shown the opposite tends to be the reality. Remote workers are more likely to overwork. With workers personal and professional lives under one roof, workers have actually found it harder to switch off then when it came to 5pm and was time to go home. The boundaries have become blurred. It’s all to easy to just keep going and worry that if you don’t get that task done today you’ll be seen as being lazy. Many find it hard to force themselves to take breaks, and find it difficult to see where the workday starts and finishes.
How to Avoid Overworking
You might need to trick yourself to take breaks and set clear start and end times. Otherwise, you risk burnout. You can set appointments in your calendar and also make sure you work on the most important tasks first. You’ll immediately feel like you achieved more and feel better about the rest of the day. You’ll feel that sense of accomplishment and it will make your more productive on your other tasks and you’ll also feel a lot less stressed overall. That’s why it’s so important to plan.
They key part: Set reminders in your calendar, phone or on your home smart speakers to take a break! That way, you can’t forget.
Who is Most Productive Working From Home?
According to Rescue Time, knowledge workers, software developers, and IT professionals are all more productive when they work from home. This was true both at small and medium businesses and large companies (over 500 employees).
This is interesting, because this industry lends itself to working from platforms and collaborating which very often happens across systems and technology which lends itself to working from home. They are also the most likely to benefit, as many often travel to sit behind a screen all day, which they can now do from home. By taking away the commute, workers get more time to refresh and recover and enjoy their downtime without the stress of hitting rush hour traffic.
The New Challenge for Companies and Remote Teams
With all the modern comforts of home beckoning for our attention, it would be understandable if employers saw a dip in productivity, yet as mentioned the opposite is true. According to a study by Airtasker, telecommuters “worked 1.4 more days every month, or 16.8 more days every year” than people who worked in an office.
But, researchers also found that working from home can be more stressful than working at the office. They found that approximately 29% of telecommuting respondents said they had a hard time maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Just 23% of office workers reported the same struggle.
This is why it’s so important to make sure you plan your day, take regular break and retain a sense of structure to your life.
They study went on to find that 54% of remote workers and 49% of office workers said they felt “overly stressed during the workday,” 45% of remote workers and 42% of office workers “experienced high levels of anxiety during the workday,” and 37% of remote workers and 35% of office workers said they “procrastinated on a task until its deadline.”
These findings paint an interesting new challenge for companies with remote teams and shines a spotlight more than ever on ways to combating stress and help employees maintain a work-life balance.
The Future of Working From Home
The number of employees working from home on a regular basis will increase to 37%, compared to 18% before the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, according to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
Its survey of 1,046 employers also found that respondents expect almost a quarter (22%) of employees to work from home permanently, compared to 9% before the pandemic.
This means that working from home is likely to stay or the foreseeable future. How this will impact housing choices, the way we work and the way we interact remains to be seen. Already people are coining the phrase Work From Anywhere, as our networks improve to allow an even wider of remote locations to become accessible.
Many like the idea of working where and when they like, if it fits their lifestyle. One thing’s for certain, we have never been more connected at a time when our Governments and health officials are informing us to remain further apart through social distancing. Maybe, that is the paradox and legacy that technology will leave behind as we navigate this moment in its history. Techies and technology companies have long been voicing remote working capabilities and benefits for years with most businesses preferring to keep workers in the office for the most part. The future might look very different with only one or two days in the office a week and the rest at home. Time will tell, but for now working from home is here to stay.
For all the negativity towards change and technology in general, for once technology got it right. We might all look back at COVID-19 as the catalyst to bring about much needed change in the workplace. Even if you haven’t directly benefited from working from home, planet earth has.