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Work from home is about to be tested

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed many employers and their employees into work from home, forcing them to reconsider the nature of work. Some feared a loss of productivity or the beginning of a real “vacation” for employees; others wisely took measures to navigate through this turbulent and highly unpredictable situation.

Have we seen work from home’s true colours?

Most of us began working from home in the early spring as snow was melting and nature was coming to life again. As flowers bloomed and the warm sun returned, working from home seemed pretty great. Home workers enjoyed working outdoors, walking during breaks or even having lunch in the park, just a few steps away from home.

Several surveys have shown the strong attachment of employees to working from home. Surveys suggesting that only 8% of employees wanted to return to the office made headlines, and we often heard a colleague predict the end of downtown offices.

The timing allowed for a smooth transition. We got used to working from home in the spring, and adopted it during the summer, through a period of holidays and less sustained workload.

Winter is coming

This is Canada, however, and fall and winter beckon. Some companies have already announced that their employees will not be back in the office before the very end of 2020, or even 2021. This means that some will stay far from their workplace for a lot longer. Even those who went through the April-August period without any major hiccups are likely to face a substantial challenge in the next few months.

Considerable efforts have been made to maintain the productivity rate or strengthen staff commitment. The next challenge will be the employees’ mental health and psychological distress at the dawn of the upcoming season. As we all know, fall and winter can be difficult for many. These are the most common periods for seasonal depressions.

Winters are dark. Endless Zoom and Teams calls will start to become taxing, if they haven’t already. Sitting for hours on end in an uncomfortable chair will take its toll. Managing back to school for children will be stressful. All of this is to say the next few months won’t lack for challenges.

How to make this transition a success?

We’ve had several months to experiment, change, correct, adjust and evaluate the different metrics, the potential and the limits of working from home; it is now time to make them official.

Any manager who intends to make virtual work sustainable rather than temporary will have to consider several factors. The golden rule of this transition is to quickly implement a clear and detailed work from home policy. Far from being a simple grocery list, an effective work from home policy must include essential elements such as:

  • expectations toward home workers and the context of work from home;
  • the duties and responsibilities of employers and employees;
  • work schedules;
  • policy duration;
  • eligible positions;
  • management coaching;
  • health and safety in the workplace;
  • use of hardware and cybersecurity;
  • possible means of communication;
  • remote support resources;
  • any other aspects specific to your organization as each policy is unique.

There are other elements to consider beyond this policy. Indeed, internal communication has played, is playing and will continue to play a central role in the success of home working activities. The longer employees remain at home, the more challenging the commitment will be. It will be critical to keep in touch with employees so that they feel part of a team, feel empowered and receive feedback as if they were in the office.

In a few months we will enter an era of “Nordic home working”. Shorter days, cancelled events, extreme weather, increased loneliness and fatigue are likely to affect everyone’s mood. In order to build on the successes generated by home working since the spring, every manager will have to balance his or her communications and act as the glue that holds all the elements together.

Managers need to be in constant contact with home workers. Beyond the policy, promoting activities, sharing best practices and facilitating exchanges between teams must be valued. In order to achieve this, an organization must be aware of the required changes to shift from a “face-to-face” to a “virtual” management mode, including adapting its tools and putting aside its biases toward telework.

Home workers’ mental health will be a major issue very shortly. Many employees will feel the impact of loneliness, lack of motivation and feedback, etc. Knowing that schedules can be more flexible, and that this mode of management can come with additional limitations, it will be mandatory to prioritize results and meeting deadlines rather than just monitoring working hours. This will counteract some of the anxiety-inducing effects of home working in which some employees feel unable to take a break and impose very tight deadlines and restrictions on themselves.

Successfully managing this transition and taking up this new challenge of work from home 2.0 is a long-term task that requires openness, tact, respect and sensitivity. The implementation of home working must be managed like any other major business change.

We have collectively managed the first phase of working from home. The second may be even more challenging. Let’s make sure we’re ready.