Working from home: how managers can make it work for their staff

Associate Professor Yvette Blount
16 March 2020
Macquarie Business School


With more Australians expected to work from home, what should managers do to support the business and staff morale?

As a growing number of people are being asked to work from home amid the coronavirus outbreak, managers need to consider a series of measurements to ensure business continuity and that staff remain supported.

On the table: Managers need to be aware that some employees may not have a suitable place at home to work. Photo credit Nikola Balic, Unsplash.

The ability of an organisation to provide services to customers is essential for achieving service level agreements, fulfilling contracts and orders and mitigating supply chain disruption.

Unexpected issues can arise including extreme weather events such as the recent Australian bush fires, cyclones and floods that can impact on a business's ability to provide services to customers.

The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced the quarantine of thousands of people globally who are either in isolation, unable to travel or in hospital.

By February and March 2020, as a response to containing the spread of the virus, many businesses in China, Europe and Australia have asked their employees to work from home.

Managers need to determine if employees working from home are overworking and have policies such as shutting down technology after hours.

Working from home (also known as telework, telecommuting) has many benefits including better work-life balance, less commuting time leading to less congestion on the roads and improved productivity.

The negative impacts of working from home include loneliness (social and professional isolation), reduced creativity and inability to form strong social bonds necessary to solve complex problems.

For example, one paper on a pilot study of call centre employees in China who worked from home found that productivity increased, staff turnover decreased and employees reported feeling happier with their job.

However, when the work from home policy was rolled out across the whole organisation, it was unsuccessful.  The main reason reported by the employees was loneliness.

Organisations that had previously championed working from home, such as Yahoo in 2013 and IBM in 2017, brought employees back into the physical office believing that proximity is the key to collaborative efficiency. Therefore, working from home is not a matter of just working in a different location.

Tips for managers

Management competencies and skills to manage flexible workers are critical for realising the benefits and mitigating the risks. The research shows that managers should consider the following for successful work from home arrangements to encourage an employee's engagement.

Secrets to success: Managers and employees should have a clear understanding of how productivity is measured. Photo credit: Eea Ikeda, Unsplash.

1. The technology should be enough for employees to work from home, including a broadband connection that has enough capacity for employees to work efficiently and effectively (see also point 7).

2. Job design, specifically the level of autonomy, is important for employee satisfaction.  Managers and employees should have a clear understanding of how productivity is measured and how they will communicate and receive feedback (including how often).

3. Managers should understand individual characteristics because not everyone is happy to work from home.  The reasons include that they miss the social interaction, the employee may not have a suitable place at home to work (kitchen table rather than a separate office, distractions and tensions in the family,  those with disabilities who may not have the resources they need at home). For some employees working from home may raise stress levels, for example, if they have caring responsibilities.

4. Recognise, understand and be sensitive to differences in local cultures.  Managers and employees should be aware that more than 90 per cent of information is conveyed on how words are delivered and facial expressions used. Therefore, when working from home, there needs to be more awareness about how communication occurs between team members and customers.

Managers should have a cohesive plan on what happens after the COVID-19 virus stabilises.

5. Work-life imbalance occurs because of physical and temporal boundaries for employees that work at home do not exist in the same way as working in a physical office. For example, employees may use technologies and work in a way that disrupts family life.  Managers need to determine if employees working from home are overworking and have policies such as shutting down technology after hours. For example, the email policy should clearly state that employees are not expected to respond unless in business (working) hours and expectations of when employees should be available for communication with their manager and other team members.  Also, managers should not send non-urgent communication such as emails in non-worktime because this encourages employees to respond after-hours, setting up an always-available culture.

6. Tacit knowledge is information that relies on know-how, based on intuition and subjective insight and is missing when employees are not in close physical proximity. It is challenging to create tacit knowledge or 'water cooler talk' online.  However, there are some creative ways to try and encourage more informal interaction.

7. The risk of a data breach increases with so many employees working from home.  Many employees access organisational information (including emails and texts) using personal devices, do not use a virtual private network (VPN) and are not aware of increased cyber risks as they use web browsers to access information.  The cyber threat is growing, with more ransomware attacks usually occurring by phishing emails.  Managers should ensure employees are educated about the risks (continually evolving) and ensure basic cyber hygiene.

8. Managers should have a cohesive plan on what happens after the COVID-19 virus stabilises.  That is, a plan for how employees work from home temporarily while the pandemic situation evolves and is stabilised is essential for business continuity planning.  Managers should also have a plan on how to move back to business as usual, including how the team will work and deliver customer service in the physical office or from home.

Dr Yvette Blount, pictured, is an Associate Professor at the Macquarie Business School and a member of the Centre for Workforce Futures at Macquarie University.


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