A quarter of remote workers are working from the sofa or a bedroom
A quarter of remote workers are working from the sofa or a bedroom

What is the true cost of working from home?

posted by Charlie Hart
26 February 2021

Many procurement professionals have experienced a major change to their work life the last year, as coronavirus lockdowns forced many offices to shut with minimal notice. 

As a result, employees in a range of sectors have been working from home for almost a year, with technology such as conferencing apps bridging the gap between office and home life. 

Working from home has its benefits, with many employees reporting it has given them a better work/life balance and improved financial health by removing expenses such as commuting. 

But working from home for a long period of time with little to no preparation has also had its challenges. 

1. Occupational health

Many firms were forced to shut offices down quickly as the virus spread, and as a result, a lot of employees are now working from home on a permanent basis, sometimes in unsuitable conditions such as flatshares or with families where children are being homeschooled. 

A survey by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), found that a quarter (26%) of remote workers said they were working from a sofa or a bedroom, while just 15% said they were working from a desk. 

Half (48%) of those working from a bedroom or sofa said they had developed musculoskeletal problems since working from home.

Gary Cookson, director at Epic HR, told SM working at your kitchen table for a few hours is unlikely to cause any lasting problems, but “working there every day all day, in a poor ergonomic setup… is going to lead to significant occupational health issues”. 

He added: “Likewise the ability of people to have a relatively distraction-free environment in which to work is likely to be difficult with homeschooling in lockdown, or even if others are home working in the same location – all trying to use the same wifi and sometimes the same devices. 

In the long term, Cookson said firms may need to “invest in helping employees obtain a better physical setup in terms of ergonomics and equipment”.

2. Isolation

Some workers are also feeling increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, with two-thirds (67%) surveyed by RSPH reporting they feel “less connected to their colleagues” as a result of home working. 

Sarah Dowzell, COO and co-founder of Natural HR, told SM: “Communication during these times of separation is key, both for reassuring employees and to enable employees to stay engaged and connected with their colleagues while we are apart.

“Without continued, open communication with your employees you run the risk of employees filling in the gaps themselves… Not answering the questions on your employees’ minds will only stand to heighten their anxiety in an already worrisome time.”

Dowzell added it is just as important to recognise the need for frequent social interaction between employees that isn’t purely work related. 

“This is especially important if you have employees that live alone or too far away from their family to form a support bubble. We have set up virtual tea breaks with our team… to have a chat about their day, plans for the weekend or what they’ve been enjoying on Netflix,” she said. 

“With no work chat allowed, we’ve found it to be a great way to make sure our employees can stay in touch with their colleagues and maintain the strong social bonds they normally have when we are together in the office.”

3. Competing demands

Another issue many employees face when working from home is the number of competing demands in their home life too, such as children being homeschooled. 

Cookson added: “We need to recognise that there are now, more than ever, multiple stakeholders in an employee's willingness and ability to be connected to their employer. They may have lots of people (family mostly) in their 'work' environment making it difficult to focus on one or the other. They may have technology and work environment issues that prevent them giving their best. They may have no one around them and that makes it worse for many people despite whatever remote engagement they have to the workplace.

“Find out about what competing demands people have, and talk to them about how they are managing them and what help they may need – though they may just want their employer to be aware of them.”

While the UK government has set out its roadmap to recovery, working from home seems like it is here to stay for the foreseeable future. A report by McKinsey found that firms are planning to reduce office space by 30% because remote working has proved successful.

However, the report said some work that technically can be done remotely is more effective in person, such as “negotiations, critical business decisions, brainstorming sessions, providing sensitive feedback, and onboarding”, highlighting the need for offices to remain.

Cookson said employers should be conscious of the fact employees are likely to be worried about returning to the office having worked from home for at least a year.

“Suddenly being exposed to more freedom may be equally as unsettling for many. Think about how difficult it is said to be when released from a custodial sentence and adjusting to freedom on the 'outside' – we could perhaps learn from what is done there,” he said. 

Workplaces must also be transparent about workplace rules, and these rules should be developed “in conjunction with employees” so the vast majority of employees will abide by them.

In a practical sense, staggered worker shifts, coronavirus risk assessments and increased cleaning schedules will be important, Cookson said.

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