‘The reality of hybrid working is pretty complex’
Ella Rhodes spoke to visiting Professor of Occupational Health Psychology Gail Kinman (Birkbeck, University of London) and Dr Christine Grant, Deputy Head of the School of Psychological, Social and Behavioural Sciences (Coventry University), ahead of their British Psychological Society webinar on ways to make home working a success.
13 October 2021
What will your webinar cover?
GK: Many organisations are realising the benefits of home working because they've seen happier people and better performance, although there are some very entrenched organisations that want to drag people back to the office kicking and screaming. A lot of employees now seem to be voting with their feet: if they're not going to be allowed to have the working patterns that they want at least some of the time, there is evidence that they are likely to leave to go somewhere that will and even take a pay cut as well. People are prepared to sacrifice a lot to have more flexibility and work in the way that best suits their preferences and needs. But I think many organisations are struggling to put this into practice. Although people may say that hybrid working is wonderful because you can balance three days a week at home where you'll get peace and quiet to work and you can fit in your personal responsibilities, with two days in the office where you can interact with colleagues and have face-to-face meetings, when you start dismantling it it's actually pretty complex. There are many issues we need to consider – what type of support do people need, what sort of skills do managers need, and how can we help employees develop the competencies needed to work at home effectively.
CG: There's a groundswell of change happening now and more coming, and some organisations may not be fully prepared or realise what is actually going to happen in terms of the future changes to working practices and the need for greater flexibility for employees. One of my key concerns is that it has taken Covid to make employers realise that remote working is a viable way of working. We are now changed as workers in this post-covid recovery stage. Some organisations are struggling to accept that, whilst others are very forward thinking. Some organisations may still be putting controls in place around their remote working policies and, therefore not creating the trust in employees that needs to be there for this approach to work well. I'm really concerned about the future of work and ensuring that productivity gains and employee well-being are both fully considered together hand in hand. Our approach is evidence-based – we’ll be looking at the benefits as well as the risks and the need for guidance and policy, and to put a framework around the implementation of remote working – but it does need to be a flexible framework and it does need to consider that people are not all the same. A ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work.
Do we know whether working from home has an impact on productivity?
GK: It's a typical psychologist answer but it depends! There is some high-quality evidence highlighting certain risk factors – women with young children are more likely to struggle and new starts and people who live alone may have particular difficulties with homeworking. That isn't to say that people are less productive… they may be more productive due to boredom, but it would be difficult to sustain this over time. There are risks and we need to look at the longer term and bigger picture, in light of evidence that people may be working longer and harder to let their boss and organisation know that they can be trusted and they have ‘earned’ the privilege of homeworking. If they're bored or if they live alone, especially during lockdown, that could be a big, big issue – many people were saying that they've never been so productive in their lives. But does that come at a cost in terms of work-life balance, mental health and physical health further down the line?
CG: There are definite psychological issues with social isolation, and I'm hoping that the future brings more local co-working hubs – ways that people can meet to be more creative and network, because we do know from research that networking is not as easy as it could be when you're working virtually. You have to be quite proactive to make new contacts and to retain existing ones. I think in the short term doing this kind of work is okay – it can be a welcome break from the ‘normal routine’, it's different – but when you do it for 18 months plus it changes the dynamic. The longer term issues associated with remote working need to be considered.
GK: It also depends on the job that you do. I train social workers – imagine doing child protection cases when you're sitting in your lounge with your own children around when you are being exposed to distressing situations. It's particularly difficult for them to set boundaries to separate their work and their personal life. There are techniques that you can use physically and psychologically that we will be covering in the webinar.
How did you both become interested in home working?
CG: It started with my own career – when I was working in London I began to feel burnt out. I was trying to juggle my young daughter and commuting a long distance into work. It meant long days and little time spent at home. There was technology around at that time that allowed me to work from home, but the organisation didn't fully support this approach to remote working, preferring me to be in the office every day. That frustrated me so I started to do some research into remote working and through my PhD developed a measure called the E-Work Life Scale to look at the quality of people's remote working lives and to identify ways to support the benefits but also identify the disadvantages and ways to ameliorate. I met Gail at this time, who was my PhD examiner, and we've been working together ever since! We connected because part of my research was looking at work-life balance, job effectiveness and wellbeing related to remote workers. Gail is interested in occupational health psychology and is a lead researcher in work-life balance. It all just connected.
GK: Chris knows a lot more about management theories and HR than I do because I never did an occupational and organisational psychology postgraduate qualification – I went straight into my PhD in occupational health psychology, and it's wonderful to work with somebody who has that management background. I think you need that because when you're training people who are often very senior and very knowledgeable, you have to have an appreciation of the organisational world. I started looking at home working when I was doing my PhD on academics, because of this whole idea of always being on, the job is never finished, and you're always taking work home with you. For academics and teachers in general, the home was an extension of the workplace long before we were able to ‘formally’ work at home using technology. I found a psychological divide that was really interesting, and I think quite important, generally – just because you can be productive, doesn't mean you should be. You could write 25 papers but have a really miserable personal life and with little opportunity for social support. It's really about identifying strategies that people can use to stop themselves from being over-committed as well as meeting organisational demands.
What is something that needs to change in this area?
CG: There needs to be a focus on developing competency frameworks for remote workers, to help organisations understand the current and future skills needed for this style of working. I've just completed a large project for a private sector company to implement a digital resilience competency framework based on upskilling and identifying training and development needs for remote workers. Some organisations seem to be focusing on making policies rather than thinking about how to develop remote workers skills, and to support and foster resilience for remote workers. So that would be one change for me.
GK: Firstly, we need to develop holistic psychosocial risk assessments – at the moment a lot of organisations are mainly concerned with the physical working environment in terms of ergonomically safe desks and monitors. This is undoubtedly important, but we need a risk assessment for home workers that takes into account psychosocial factors like ensuring activity, getting out for a walk during the day, having strategies to switch off from work physically and mentally. Secondly, we need to train managers to support staff at home – that's been highlighted as a big issue in most of the research. Many managers lack the confidence and skills and this needs to be put in place to ensure successful homeworking. A lot of focus is placed on the individual, but managers also need support.
Is there anything that might surprise someone who isn't familiar with this area?
CG: We often talk about checking the phone on the toilet in our workshops! People do actually check their email or phones or work whilst they're doing other things… they can use what we call masking behaviour to distract others from knowing that they are doing this… and that I guess it's not surprising, but it is surprising where they do it!
GK: We have known for many years that longer working hours do not equate to better productivity and wellbeing. You may have high job satisfaction but poor work life balance, which you are not going to be able to sustain and your health will be at risk. It’s crucial to have a ‘toolbox’ of strategies in place that you can draw on during times of stress and get yourself into good habits. If you Google ‘work life balance’ or ‘working at home’ everybody's got an opinion, and they're not necessarily evidence-based or they're recycling advice from other people, and it makes it sound so simple, e.g. ‘five tips for a perfect work life balance’. This was a real problem during the pandemic when people urgently needed evidence-informed guidance. It's not as simple as people may think.
To what extent do you think the physical redesign of workplaces will involve psychologists?
CG: You can't ignore it any longer – there is a psychological impact to working at home and your working style and your workplace and what that looks like. I think for us as a society the change has probably been a good thing, and we can now get more involved in influencing that design.
GK: Psychologists can help to shape change and what the new world might look like. We need to embrace uncertainty – and I think psychologists know a lot about how to help people manage that, and about how people may react differently, and some fairly complex reactions that people may have to change and uncertainty. Some organisations have sold off their office premises really quickly, so even if people wanted to go back to working in the office, they can't, they have no other choice. Psychologists can help support organisations and individuals in helping to manage such drastic change in the way we work and live.
CG: Some of it's happening to us and some of it we may have the groundswell on making the change ourselves. We do need help as a society and I think that's where psychologists come in, in helping with those psychosocial issues. We also need to continue to influence the government on some of this, because they will make statements, Boris Johnson is known for it – "everybody back to work, it's all going to be okay" – and some of that feels quite uncomfortable. I'm not sure they always hit the mark with how people are feeling. I think it would be great if the government involved psychologists in workplace design of the future.
GK: While there are psychologists on SAGE there should be more and more attention paid to psychology when making changes, when making pronouncements. And psychologists can be involved in planning office spaces and how they may work. Also in management training, supporting people's wellbeing and supporting them to work should be seen as an important competency for manager selection purposes. Organisations may be considering putting surveillance in place to monitor the productivity of their staff who are working at home – there are major risks here, some managers and organisations may be tempted to think they need to make sure staff aren't slacking, but the damage that that can do to engagement and performance is enormous. Psychology can very much help with that – the damage you're doing to your relationship with your staff is going to be immeasurable.
CG: Trust can take a long time to create but it can also be lost quite quickly. Surveillance is one way of losing trust very rapidly.
If you could pick one main message that you'd have people take from the webinar, what would it be?
GK: The importance of using evidence-based practice and encouraging a flexible approach to supporting homeworking for employees and managers.
CG: Not being afraid that we are in a different post-pandemic world and to know that there is a difference, that you feel differently, and to be able to express that as well. I would like to think that our workshop will allow people to realise they don’t have to put their feelings of change behind the door and think “oh now I need to behave like this again”, when actually there are benefits to behaving differently and to growing and to looking at a different perspective on the future of work.
- Professor Gail Kinman and Dr Christine Grant’s webinar is on Wednesday 8 December from 11am to 1pm.