Imagine your employer asking you to work from home until further notice.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, this seems an increasingly likely scenario. “Everyone who can work from home should work from home,” said Harvard epidemiologist William Hanage this week.
In China and neighbouring countries, millions are doing so for the first time.
This week, NASA’s Ames Research Center in California joined them and declared a mandatory telework policy after an employee tested positive to COVID-19. NASA sites across the country have been testing their work-from-home capabilities.
In Dublin last week, Google sent 8,000 workers home for a day to trial an extended remote-work scenario after one employee came down with flu-like symptoms.
In Australia, Clayton Utz, Cisco and Vodafone temporarily closed offices last week as a precautionary measure.
The likelihood of extended workplace shutdowns seems increasingly likely. So what do we know about the pros and cons of working from home?
How common is working from home?
Perhaps not as common as you might think.
In Australia many companies now offer flexible work arrangements, but that doesn’t necessarily mean employees can work from home. Even those permitted to work from home may only be allowed to do so on a limited basis.
As the list of tech companies mentioned may indicate, it is easier to do a job from home if you need only an internet connection and a telephone line.
Read more: A short history of the office
In building a case for the national broadband network in 2010, Australia’s Gillard government set a target of 10% of the workforce teleworking half the time. This was up from an estimated 6% of employed Australians having some form of regular teleworking arrangement.
Consultancy Access Economics predicted this could save A$1.4 billion to A$1.9 billion a year – about A$1.27 billion of that being the time and cost savings of avoided travel.
Teleworking has many benefits
Governments since Gillard’s have been less focused on the idea, to the the extent we lack reliable contemporary statistics for telework in Australia.
But with increased commuting times, caring responsibilities and the stress of modern workplaces, the research says most employees highly value being able to work from home. In fact, a 2017 US study found employees valued the option at about 8% of their wages.
Research has also highlighted benefits including increased productivity, rated by both the employees and supervisors. One study showed a 13% increase in performance for employees working from home.
Part of this may be due to an increased ability to focus and less distraction. My research shows employees who can’t focus to complete their work are less likely to perform well.
Working from home usually means employees have greater autonomy over how they do their work, including the hours and conditions of their work, and how they manage their lives and other responsibilities. These benefits of teleworking have been shown to lead to greater job satisfaction, lower absenteesim and turnover, increased commitment to the organisation and, importantly, reductions in stress associated with work.
Work-from-home arrangements may also give organisations access to a greater talent pool.
But there are downsides as well
That said, there are challenges associated with working from home that organisations and individuals often do not plan well for.
Studies have shown working from home for extended periods can leave employees feeling socially and professionally isolated.
When we work from home, we have fewer opportunities to interact and acquire information, which may explain why remote workers can feel less confident than their office-based counterparts.
This reduction in interaction and knowledge sharing is a key barrier to the take-up of working from home.
According to a meta-analysis of 46 studies involving more than 12,000 employees, working from home more than 2.5 days a week could negatively affect relationships with coworkers as well as knowledge transfer.
Further, resentment could arise if teleworking was not widely available.
Employees who work from home have also perceived negative consequences for their career. Out of sight can sometimes be out of mind. Research published last month, however, suggests telecommuters are promoted as much as office-based colleagues.
Another significant issue is maintaining boundaries with home life. It can be hard to switch off, particularly when we don’t have a dedicated home office. Telecommuters often work longer hours, with 48% of employees increasing their work hours in one study.
How can we make it work?
Organisations can increase the success of working from home. Regular communication, particularly using video conferencing, can help ensure tasks are coordinated, knowledge is transferred, and social and professional isolation is reduced.
For organisations used to managing based on visibility and presence, letting go of traditional ideas of how to manage and focusing on outputs will be required.
If schools are also closed, employers will need to be sensitive to the challenges employees face working from home with children to care for and online schooling to incorporate.
Finally, employees need to establish boundaries between work and home life. Being able to switch off at the end of the day is important for both physical and mental health.
With no end in sight to COVID-19, many businesses are developing or implementing work-from-home policies to ensure business continuity. If employees and employers can get the balance right and enjoy the benefits of well-planned telework, this coronavirus outbreak could prove to be the tipping point for remote work arrangements to become the norm.