The Occupational Psychology Centre share findings from a survey exploring employees’ experiences whilst working from home during the Covid-19 crisis…

With the advent of the Covid-19 Pandemic, in April this year the Occupational Psychology Centre (OPC) commissioned some research looking into how peoples’ working worlds had changed dramatically when they were left with no choice other than to work from home (WFH). As a team of occupational and business psychologists, with over 25 years’ experience working alongside the rail industry, the OPC’s interest is all about peoples’ working world. With the Covid-19 lockdown it was a unique situation – possibly a once in a generation opportunity, to look at this change and its impact. The survey explored employees’ experiences and reflections whilst working from home around themes such as their work-life balance, job performance and satisfaction, working relationships as well as daily stresses and wellbeing. The OPC received survey responses from over 300 workers from around the world with some interesting findings.

It is likely that working from home will stay as the ‘new normal’ for lots of people, for some time, until there is a vaccine. Results from the OPC’s Covid-19 survey found that about half the participants said: ‘On the whole they enjoyed working from home, but not all the time’ – the majority of employees (56 per cent) said they would prefer to work from home twice a week, as opposed to 16 per cent who would prefer to be in the office full-time. However, nearly 15 per cent of employees said they would be happy working from home up to four times a week, which could mean opportunities to explore new working contracts or job location for some roles where working from home hasn’t previously been the norm.

The ‘Jury was out’ with regard to the impact WFH had on productivity. About a third of respondents said they were more productive, another third saying they were less productive and the last group reporting no change to their productivity. OPC business psychologist, Katarina Otcenas, did some advanced statistical analysis to uncover the main insights behind this split. She said: ‘It was fascinating to see that productivity was relative to individuals and that it had a lot to do with their psychological need for social contact or isolation. Dependent on those needs individuals reported feeling more or less productive whilst WFH.  More importantly, many employees felt a new sense of control and responsibility whilst working from home that was very satisfying. They said that ‘being in control’ contributed significantly to their productivity.’

Alongside productivity the OPC survey also explored how stressed people felt whilst WFH. Over half the respondents reported feeling much less stressed. For those reporting feeling less stressed there was a moderate correlation with feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction and control, particularly in regard to control. However, worryingly over a quarter of people reported feeling more stressed. Further analysis of this group suggested they experienced more home-work life conflict; they felt less well supported by managers; they were less productive and they felt that WFH had a negative impact on their leisure time. Notably those people with a younger family juggling the associated lockdown childcare and schooling requirements featured within this group. Many individuals reported great coping strategies to counter stress like planning and organising their daily routine, break times and leisure activities, room swapping for quieter workspace or conference calls and rotating AM/PM childcare responsibilities.

Dr Stephen Fletcher, Occupational Psychologist and Director at the OPC stated: ‘One size may not fit all with regards to home working. Whilst some employees may be more productive and less stressed in these circumstances, others may feel the opposite. Therefore, managers may need to work alongside individuals to identify some root causes for each employee and help provide suitable and tailored job role solutions as appropriate.’

The enforced working from home did bring some positive gains. Over half of the employees reported improvements in leisure time and the research indicated a moderately significant link between those people reporting an increase in leisure time also reporting lower stress levels. Many individuals shared comments about new-found activities, or fitness and outdoor pursuits like gardening or time with their pets.

Employees overwhelmingly reported that their organisation and managers did a great job whilst they were working from home. Over 80 per cent of employees believed their organisation tried to accommodate their home working needs and 75 per cent of respondents said they had the appropriate technology to effectively work from home – excluding the usual frustrations of intermittent Wi-Fi or insufficient broadband! Surprisingly, 63 per cent of people said they found it easy to get work related advice and the use of technology such as Zoom or Skype for Business had the most mentions. It would appear that this facilitated people talking frequently with colleagues with 82 per cent of people reporting this. Yet just under half of the respondents reported feeling alienated and missing face-to-face interaction. Katarina Otcenas commented: ‘It is essential that we recognise the importance of the social interactions experienced in our offices and the contribution they can have on performance and wellbeing. Although technology can be a useful tool, it cannot replace the informal chat about work or homelife with a colleague over a cuppa. A key question for organisational leaders isn’t just about workspace design but also how they can facilitate face-to-face contact whilst still abiding by social distancing guidelines and working from home.’

The survey highlighted that remote working didn’t appear to affect knowledge transfer. This may have been due to people talking frequently with colleagues online. However, 45 per cent of employees believed that home working did reduce training and mentoring opportunities. Our learning and development experts need to explore how we can embrace remote and flexible learning still further whilst WFH to equip our employees with the knowledge, skills and experience to thrive at work.

Dr Stephen Fletcher’s final reflection was: ‘As the OPC and OPC Assessment seek to help organisations assess, recruit and build successful teams with motivated, satisfied high performing individuals, we would encourage organisations to utilise the findings from this research. There are many opportunities here, but in particular we can explore job design, workspace, flexible approaches to location, working hours, breaks, autonomy and daily routines. Green space and leisure options may help people manage stress, and help employees achieve a good work-life balance. As we contemplate either full or part-time return to our pre-Covid work places, a failure to take this opportunity could leave some employees feeling a sense of loss or dissatisfaction and their full potential may be lost to us.’

The full infographic results from the OPC’s Working from Home Covid-19 research can be found on the news page of their website.

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