With increasing numbers of people working from home, the work from home landscape is changing from the situation prior to COVID-19. Prior to the virus precautions it was not uncommon to have one family member working alone from home in a day job that either gave them flexibility over location or where their job was home based. As more businesses have moved from centralised office locations to having large numbers of staff working off site and typically from home, this situation has changed dramatically.
It is possibly now, during the COVID-19 measures, more common to have multiple family members all working from home together, looking after children and supporting extended family either within the one home or remotely, than it has ever been. Having children and relatives in need of support will place different pressures on family members, pressures that may result in the need to decide between family and work commitments. These extraordinary circumstances should therefore call for some significant adjustments in organisational and individual expectations of one another.
Do we need a 9 to 5 life when working from home
The traditional 9 to 5 style of working arrangement has been in place since the early era of industrialization. Factories relied on regular working hours to ensure machines were serviced and those servicing the machines, so the concept goes, needed constant supervision. All of this led to the development of a regimented working day and working week. Over the same period organisations began monitoring the attendance of personnel, particularly those undertaking manual work, to use attendance to calculate reward. This same attendance metric has also been long applied to knowledge work, where many companies calculate and sell work by the hour, essentially forming a self fulfilling ‘virtuous’ circle of expectations.
However, for many, particularly knowledge workers currently breaking the bonds of organisational oversight and working from home, the question really needs to be asked about how flexible or otherwise should peoples working from home lives be. For instance, personnel caring for school age children who are also now at home are likely to need a high degree of flexibility in their work expectations to ensure the children are accessing their education needs, eating and have a sensible amount of exercise, most of which would generally occur at school under the guidance of teachers. These parents should not have to decide between attending a meeting at 8am or providing their children with breakfast.
Similarly, two or more family members working from the home may need to share a home computer (if one or more of them is not provided a company computer) or may have limited internet capacity, constraining their ability to have concurrent video meetings, or even have limited physical space to work. Our home lives and environments were generally not designed to accommodate an entire family unit all working from home for more than perhaps a day or two.
Options for flexibility
In the initial flurry of moving from a working in an office to a work from home situation it is entirely understandable that companies will have retained their meeting pattern and simply gone virtual. However, as time passes it is likely to become increasingly important to review some of the timing to provide flexibility for working from home staff such that they can balance their family and work.
Examples could be to constrain large team meetings to between, say, 9:30 or 10 am and 12 then from 1:30 or 2pm to 4pm, this would allow employees the flexibility to take care of children without feeling pressured to join meetings. Smaller meetings, when needed, could then fit in some of these gaps at the start and end of the day, but planned to accommodate the needs of the participants.
Similarly, many working from home may now find they are able to perform some portion of their work early in the day, late in the evening or on a weekend, options which may not have been available to them before they began working from home.
Some may need to take a ‘work day’ out of their schedule to take care of a family situation, and instead of claiming the time as vacation or sick time, make up the work commitments at other times such as weekends or late nights.
Organizational accommodation of flexibility
It is said that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. To remain viable and serve their internal and external commitments, organisations need to embrace flexible working options at this time. Doing so will give their personnel the options to continue to contribute to the business while also meeting their family needs. To not do so will jeopardize the business into the future since many employees will judge their employer by their behavior during these extraordinary times once things return to normal. Organisations need to show that they trust their personnel to do the right thing, in just the same way as employees need to work responsibly to meet their employment commitments.
Predictability and routine is good
Alongside the need to consider and embrace flexibility in working from home, it is also important to recognise the need for routine and predictability. So, from the organisational side, consider a model where defined core hours are considered as the domain of bigger meetings and that there is a general expectation that the majority of personnel will be accessible at these times, that hours close to core are there for smaller and less formal meetings, with most staff available and that hours outside of those are then available for personnel to do what they need to support themselves and their families while also meeting their employment commitments. After all, does it really matter is someone completes a report at 11pm when their home is quiet as long as it is done ahead of agreed deadlines.
From the individual’s perspective, routine is generally considered healthy, it makes you predictable when your colleagues may want to contact you, and it gives your day structure. I will end this piece however by cautioning against becoming either a workaholic when working from home or a couch potato, neither are healthy in the long term for your physical or mental well-being.