Remote working will remain a permanent fixture of work life, writes Nicole Vazquez. Employers should be prepared to tackle the challenges of isolation, stress and anxiety lone workers can face.
For many years, digital connectivity has meant that businesses and workers could embrace the freedom of remote working, but lack of preparation for the dramatic change brought about by lockdowns left many workers in the UK feeling ill-equipped for lone working. Many businesses failed to recognise the challenges for staff and lacked the knowledge or skills to manage their teams at a distance. In a survey of 700,000 employees worldwide by Leesman, UK businesses proved to be some of the least well prepared for mass home working last year (see Resources, below).
Many businesses faced challenges including inexperienced staff, inadequate infrastructure and a lack of procedures in place to manage the risks to their staff and organisation. And yet, as UK businesses open their doors once again, remote working is likely to continue for many.
Nearly all of the UK’s 50 biggest employers have said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time, according to a BBC survey (see below). Remote working has undoubtedly shown significant benefits, not least of which are financial savings for businesses, flexibility for workers and environmental gains for the planet.
The past year has shown us that once systems are in place it is possible for remote teams to stay connected and productive at a distance. Lockdown experience backs up research from Bloom et al (2015) that showed that working from home is more productive by 13%. However, businesses need to consider far more than productivity and it should be remembered that Bloom’s research and the government mandate to work from home were both intended to be temporary.
Not working out: Troubles at home
Why a remote location may not always be conducive to work:
- Some remote workers may not have ideal home lives and find allowing access to their private space (via virtual meetings) to co-workers and bosses uncomfortable.
- Young workers who still live with parents may find themselves cocooned in their childhood bedroom for most of the time.
- Parents with children at home may find it difficult to switch focus between parent and worker (even when there is another carer around).
- Where both partners work from home there may be friction over competing demands of time and space.
- People who live alone may have no human interactions for many days at a time.
- Without clear boundaries (of time and location), it may be difficult to know when to switch off when workloads are heavy or where workers feel the pressure to be ‘on’ all the time.
- Issues with broadband or phone signal can impact on remote workers’ ability to communicate and increases stress levels.
Lone or remote workers
The GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines a lone worker as ‘someone who works by themselves without close or direct supervision’. Call it blended, flexible, hybrid, location-independent, distributed or agile, it equates to the same thing – people working in isolation without the psychological and physical support of their colleagues. This needs to be recognised and then proactively addressed if businesses are to continue with the remote working model in the longer term.
Typically, lone workers are split into three main categories: those who work at base alone (office, retail, warehouse and so on), those who work alone remotely in the community (including other people’s homes) and those who work from home.
For the first time, in its 2020 revised guidance on protecting lone workers, the HSE specifically recognises home workers, and calls upon employers to consider the negative impact that lone working can have on work-related stress levels, mental health and wellbeing as well as the risks of work-related violence.
Working well: Steps to support remote workers
If organisations want to reap the benefits of remote working long term, they need to consider the actions that can be taken to protect staff.
- Engage with workers to explore remote working practices that will work for both the business and its employees. Putting in place structures that design in flexibility and offer choice for workers are more likely to work long term.
- Consider having workspaces available for those where working from home simply doesn’t work. Bloom et al’s research demonstrated the value of allowing a choice of workplace.
- Consider systems that ask people to report how they are feeling and coping. If handled in an accessible, inclusive and non-judgemental way, this may offer opportunities for those struggling with domestic abuse or mental health issues to seek support.
- Provide managers with appropriate training on how to spot potential signs of team members struggling and equip them with the skills to have appropriate conversations about mental health, stress and wellbeing.
- Put in systems to record the feedback and levels of concern, so that you can monitor and make changes before a crisis occurs (both for individuals and the business).
What are the risks?
As social workers, housing officers, utilities workers and the like reinstate community work, there is the backlash from the pandemic to be considered. Service users may have higher levels of stress, frustration or anger over cuts to services during the pandemic. It is likely that service users may still be cautious (or even fearful) about letting professionals into their homes. These emotions can lead to triggers for aggression, verbal abuse or even physical violence.
It’s not just the service users that are feeling reticent about visits. Recently, workers from a public service provider have reported to Worthwhile Training that they have their own fears about re-engaging with the public. They are concerned about continuing COVID controls, apprehensive about workloads and worried about their own skills fading. ‘I feel like I have forgotten how to manage difficult situations when face to face with frustrated and angry people,’ one worker said. ‘I’m really out of practice – what before felt relatively easy, now feels scary.’ Workers may be out of practice when it comes to interactions, and this can have an impact on both confidence and ability.
Working in the community when based at home may mean that risk information prior to engaging with service users is not communicated. And if an incident occurs, it is less likely that there will be immediate support available, leading to increased psychological impact.
Missing the office
Many home workers miss social interaction, which can lead to feelings of isolation, a lack of connection with their peers and detrimental impacts on mental wellbeing.
For some workers, home can be a place of mental, physical, or emotional abuse. Work provides an escape, and can be one of the few places survivors of domestic abuse feel safe to speak out. If organisations are to make working from home permanent, this is an area that must be addressed.
Workers with mental health conditions may not fare well if working from home full-time. For some, the structure of getting up and getting out into the world is positive for their mental wellbeing. The clear divide and ‘changing state’ between work and home can be positive for those with anxiety or depression. A lack of choice and social interactions may exacerbate conditions, and employers need to take responsibility for how the changes to working practices have an impact.
As well as considering the stresses of working from home (see Steps to support remote workers), ensure that community-based teams can offload and share experiences in person regularly.
If people are new to remote working or colleagues have not been in client-facing situations for some time, they may not have or may be out of practice using the behavioural skills required to manage difficult or aggressive situations. Businesses need to ensure these risks are controlled. Workshop training on conflict avoidance and conflict management skills can offer opportunities for sharing concerns and practising skills in a safe environment.
If remote working is to be successful long term, now is the time to review risk assessments, consider and implement any modifications to your existing controls, set out new systems and procedures and rebuild the knowledge and confidence of your employees and managers.
Nicole Vazquez is director at professional training and coaching company Worthwhile Training.
Image credit | iStock | Getty
- Leesman survey on measuring remote working: bit.ly/Leesman-index
- BBC article on no full-time return to the office for many: bit.ly/BBC-big-50-survey
- Bloom et al. (2015) Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment: bit.ly/Bloom-home-working
- HSE guidance, Protecting lone workers – how to manage the risks of working alone: bit.ly/HSE-lone-workers