With the global pandemic, there has been a dramatic shift in the way that millions of people conduct their day-to-day lives. From hastily setting up home offices to adapting to the ubiquitous Zoom calls with colleagues experiencing varied levels of Wi-Fi signal, businesses have been forced to adopt working from home with little advance preparation.
Adapting to this scenario has supercharged a process that many have long since thought to be the future, with flexible and remote working becoming the norm. No one, however, could have anticipated that this would, in little over a month, become the ‘new normal'. This has left many turning to working from home – or WFH, now added to the Oxford English Dictionary – for the first time with no experience of how to be as productive as they are in the office. Neither do people know when it is acceptable to clock off in an age of presenteeism, which a survey last year* marked as affecting 83% of workplaces.
Long hours have, for many years, almost been a byword for working in finance or professional services. Our recent research: The UK Productivity Index 2020, revealed over a third of the UK's workforce regularly work more than 50 hours a week – above the EU's maximum working limit – of 48 hours per week on average, with certain exceptions. And while we may have, as a nation, voted to leave the EU, it's hard to see this being one of the reasons to do so.
Another issue that has come to the fore in the past few years is presenteeism; not wanting to be the first one to leave the office, no matter how little you may be able to get done after a 10-hour day. Our research showed that nearly 40% of workers feel presenteeism reduces their productivity at work, a shocking proportion which, in the context of what has been dubbed the ‘productivity puzzle' of stagnating productivity in the UK, paints a picture of inefficient work environments.
Long working hours and constant access to phones and laptops has created a culture where employees are ‘always-on', often to the detriment of their wellbeing and productivity. Working from home has blurred the lines of this balance even further – when there is, ostensibly, no difference between work and home environments, it becomes increasingly difficult to switch off.
It's important to put in proper hours when WFH – and for managers to allow flexible working, especially for those looking also after children. While sometimes working longer hours to get tasks done is necessary, this should not be the norm for employees.
When employees are less productive, they are wasting their own time and, inevitably, impacting their mental health and perception of work. This can have dire consequences for individuals and the wider economy as people leave jobs more frequently and the talent pool shrinks. As we are overcoming challenges, such as the current pandemic, and later Brexit, as business leaders we need to learn lessons quickly to secure the next generation of finance professionals and executives, keeping them in employment and happy in their work.
It may seem counterintuitive when WFH, but proper breaks are essential to maintain focus and produce good-quality work. It involves trust in employees to self-regulate breaks, but there is no more sure way to inspire low morale than to be chained to a desk (or dining room table) for 10 hours a day.
This is a challenging time for all, and most of all small business owners and managers, so keep in contact with your staff, check in when you need to, and be as transparent as you can with your daily workload. Communication is a very real issue for those working from home for the first time, so it's important to make a real effort to get this right.
Avoid burning out
Working from home can blur the lines between work and family life, so it is important staff know exactly when to sign on and, most importantly, when to sign off. They may feel that continually putting in 16-hour days is what the boss wants, but it will only lead them to burn out, so make sure they know when to log off.