Working from home has quickly and unavoidably become the new normal for any company capable of accommodating it. As the world adjusts to life under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have been unwillingly catapulted into the world of working from home. While seasoned home-workers look on in bemusement, the newly home bound are having to discover for themselves just how to work in a radically different environment to the office. Rather than being another article about how to position yourself so your children do not run through while you are on a conference call or telling you the importance of getting dressed every day to get yourself motivated for work, this article will examine some of the pitfalls and perils that surround home working.
While working from home it is most likely that you are using a company computer, not your own. This means that your company has ultimate control over what is installed on the computer and you may not even be able to see some of the programs. With workers who once would have been in the office under existing surveillance schemes (e.g. the watchful eye of managers or cameras), it seems unlikely that companies will relinquish their surveillance measures just because employees are in their homes.
Corporate surveillance software already exists that can log keystrokes, take screenshots and take photographs using computer cameras. While this may be tolerable in the workplace, there are still questions as to whether these measures are acceptable in a private home. With work increasingly becoming a thing we do rather than a place we go, it is important to consider how much intrusion we will accept in which locations. When working from the office, some might consider the computer camera taking a picture of us at our desk as reasonable, but at home, this might be legitimately rejected as completely unacceptable.
Surveillance is a fact of everyday life in a vast swathe of the industrialised world. That does not mean we have to let it into our homes, so we should be wary of surveillance creeping in with our company technology. For those of us unused to working from home, checking through the programs installed on our computers, careful computer placement, ensuring computers are shut down when not in use and being careful not to use them for anything non-work related are all sensible measures to take to avoid this pitfall.
Working for Free:
Many people report that working from home for more than the occasional day results in a strange phenomenon: they actually spend more time working. Without the commute to mark the boundary between home and work life, people tend to wake up and go straight to work. People also lack a clear cut off point for the working day and end later than usual. As many people have been plunged into working from home unwillingly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lines between work and home life have become increasingly blurred. With children off school, partners working from home and few opportunities to leave the house, people will lose track of time and likely end up working more than their contracted hours.
While there is nothing wrong with being helpful to your company and working a bit extra here and there (especially during these current times of crisis) people should remain cognizant of how long they are actually working for. While good companies reward extra time at critical junctures and allow for give and take in worked hours, there are many disreputable companies that would take advantage of people working longer hours. If your salary is based on a number of hours, then working longer is just working for free. If you have to work longer than your contracted hours to get your work done, unless you are having productivity issues you are being overloaded with work or are being paid less than you should be because the company is getting the additional hours for free.
If you really enjoy your work enough to work additional hours for free, that is a valid choice. In these times of compulsory home working just be aware that extra hours are not sneaking into your life involuntarily. Remember that there are established links between each extra hour you work and lethal diseases like heart disease and strokes. Make sure that you maintain the balance in work-life balance.
With a huge number of workers working at computers these days, ergonomics has long been an important workplace consideration. As work has suddenly shifted out of the workplace however, many people are finding that they do not have the correct set-up for spending large amounts of time at a computer. Even for those used to working from home, having a partner also working from home can be enough to severely limit the amount of space available for safe working. For example, if you only have one desk that may be sufficient for one person working from home, but lack of other spaces may be less than ideal with two.
This makes it more important than ever to ensure that you have a suitable ergonomic set-up at home. Companies have a duty of care wherever work is being carried out, not just in the office, so if there is something you need for a healthy set-up, you should have the support of your company. From developing minor strains all the way up to more severe musculoskeletal disorders, working hunched over laptops at a kitchen table can have a detrimental effect on health. Now that working from home is an abrupt reality and look set to stay, it is critical to ensure that ergonomics do not fall by the wayside. Do not sacrifice health for the company.
Closely related to working for free, there has been a massive shift in the last decade towards being always-on and always available. Due to digital communications and smartphones, people are now possible to contact easily 24/7 wherever they may be irrespective of whether they are working or not. Many companies have flagrantly abused this technology, using it to beleaguer employees who are not on-call with company business outside of working hours. Though sometimes not enforced, it is often expected that employees receiving an email during the evening should respond rather than leaving it to the next morning. By constantly working, people never get time to switch off from work and this can have a negative impact on family life, health and wellbeing.
With geographical lines between work and home life being newly distorted for many, it will become more important to reinforce temporal lines to keep these two realms separate. When finishing work, draw a line under it and do something else; just because there might not be much to do during a lock down does not mean that you should be constantly pestered by your company to do more work. Set hours and stick to them.
Home Working as the New Normal
When the world comes out of lock down and the pandemic is over, we are going to come back to a world very different from the one we left. There will be a huge economic shock as many companies have been totally unable to do business and many of those who have been able to continue will have done so at a reduced capacity. Companies that pull through will be looking to cut costs and that will mean big changes to real estate and the workplace. With some companies finding that they actually can run the business successfully with all employees working from home, some will want to cut costs by minimising offices or getting rid of them entirely. This will mean working from home as the new normal for many employees.
This will likely be presented as a privilege or benefit of some sort, but in reality, it is a huge cost saving for the company with little benefit to employees. The danger here is that rather than having a system for working from home when convenient, employees are all forced to work from home instead of having an office. All the while employees will be using their own electricity, coffee, internet etc instead of having these provided for them as a benefit for coming into the office. Going forward, employees will have to be aware of the threat of being handed a poisoned chalice dressed up as a benefit. At the end of the day, as a salaried employee you are paid because you help the company make money. The company should provide the tools for you to do that, whether its technology, tools or an office.
The global pandemic presents a serious and unprecedented challenge for the whole of society at the moment. There is nothing wrong in accepting that these are challenging times and we should pull together to get through them. Understanding and cooperation on the part of both employers and employees will be needed to successfully navigate this crisis. Indeed, employees should support their companies as much as possible for self-interest if nothing else, as companies that fail will lead to job losses. However, it is important to strike a balance and making allowances where possible does not include letting disreputable employers take advantage of compulsory home-working for their own ends. Avoiding these pitfalls will help both employees maintain their mental and physical health during this crisis and employers ensure that they are not mistreating their staff, whether intentionally or not.