The reality of working from home

By John Mortimer | 28 July 2020

Thanks to technology, the reaction of local government to the global work from home experiment has succeeded. But much of the findings and writing recently posted about this seem to focus on the technology. There is talk about the productivity of staff, and the saving of lost time commuting.

But let us stand back, and see our organisations for what they truly are. Surely now, there are fewer of us that still see our organisations as simplistic machines, with staff simply cogs tied to the machine by procedures, following daily instructions. We know that staff, as people, are the core of how a public sector organisation works. We know that the staff, team working, and the behaviours of managers, play a huge role in wellbeing and enabling how value is created.

We need to move away from simplistic machine metaphors and look at the reality of local government.

We are people. As employees, we are social rather than logical beings. We value interaction, and the way we feel about each other shapes our communication and cooperative behaviours. We often automatically create workplace rituals to support these aspects of work.

We separate work from home life. The physical act of leaving work and arriving home; on our way home observe how we summarise what went on in the work day. By the time we arrive home, we put work away. This is a ready made important psychological decision point; that we have left the world of work behind.

At work we tackle problems, we synthesise, we achieve and contribute to a greater whole, and we receive feedback. How much of what we experience about work is tied up in these intrinsically motivating activities that can go almost unnoticed by managers?

Observations on working from home

So, what is the real impact of working from home, on the above mentioned characteristics of work?

Today, I just had a call with a senior manager where, to her horror, she suddenly realised she had not come out of her front door for four days.

There are some employees in a particular council, who start work at 8am, and finish thinking about work around 6pm. Maybe they are not actually doing the work all day, but their mind is continually thinking about they are doing.

Working from home is merging the world of work with home; we remove recognised separation mechanisms, and it makes retaining control of our time and activities that much more difficult to achieve. The kitchen table is now a work object; how can we escape? The email arrives on the phone, and the familiar ring makes us want to read it.

Being in control

The concept and action of us being in control allows us to disconnect when we choose, and ultimately switch off. As soon as we feel that we are not in control, what happens to us? Our anxiety remains at work levels, and a part of our mind cannot relax.

When we work from home; how can we continue with the well worn rituals we have developed over time at work?

What could we do to maintain a balance?

  •  Retain control. We all need to retain control in our lives to remain psychologically stable. We need confidence our organisation has recognised that to switch off is a good and necessary thing to do.
  • Separate work from home. We need a deliberate way of establishing that separation. A clear instruction from our manager that we should stop work by a certain time gives us the confidence not to feel guilty of not doing more. A daily alarm on our phones can remind us to stop.
  • Working with others. To avoid de-humanising work, we need work-based interaction to remain a normal part of work. Effort needs to be made so that online calls are seen as meetings or conversations.We should book in chat time if we need to.
  • Explicitly create new rituals, that incorporate all the communication and social mechanism we wish to maintain. Check-in and check-outs are an effective mechanism to keep our social connections working.
  •  Pull in people into the team. Allow for everyone in a remote call to have a say. If someone has not spoken up, ask them specifically and encourage their contribution. Make an effort to contact those who you have not spoken to recently.
  • Come into work. For those who would like to come into work. We have to recognise that sometimes there is no substitute to getting together. There will be times, especially when pulling new teams together, that a real meet-up might be essential.

John Mortimer is a service and organisation designer

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