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Potential Downsides of Working from Home
27 August 2020

Potential Downsides of Working from Home

Working from home as a result of COVID-19 has its positive aspects – time saved by not having to commute being one of the biggest. But as employers find ways to adapt business models to the new, contactless era, they should consider the importance of a shared workplace to employee mental health and company culture.

The fact is that many people are not suited to working from home, even if technology makes it possible. To these people, the office is not just a workplace, it’s a hub for interaction and exchanging ideas. It’s where they make weekend plans, motivate each other, and devise ways to improve the company’s processes, procedures and products.

These frequently spontaneous interactions create a company culture, where employees share a common identity, values and goals. Working from home means these interactions are not possible, which could affect company culture and employee mental health in ways that are undesirable.

Challenges of working from home

A June 2020 report by Melbourne productivity consultancy Building 20 listed these top five challenges for employees working from home:

  • Communication – 33%
  • Distractions – 32%
  • Social isolation, loneliness – 32%
  • Motivation – 30%
  • Work and home life separation – 30%

A similar US survey found the majority of employees (51%) do not feel as connected to company work culture when working remotely, and 57% miss the small talk and interaction with colleagues in the office.

Seeing each other benefits working relationships, as this year’s rise in video conferencing shows. Without it, our colleagues would be disembodied voices over the phone.

Video means we can reveal more of our thoughts and feelings through facial expressions and body language. By seeing our workmates, we gain useful information that helps us empathise and communicate better.

Concerns for employee mental health

Employee mental health is likely to move to the forefront of company considerations as remote work continues. Many staff need the support of their colleagues to be productive, whether it’s advice while catching up over a coffee or talking on the train while commuting. Take that away and they feel as if they are working in a vacuum.

SafeWork Australia warns that the psychosocial effects of working from home can result in employees feeling unsupported. Those who have maintained iron-clad boundaries between home and work feel they are losing control if they lack the discipline needed to set their own work hours, organise a workstation and remain motivated and productive.

Noting behaviour in online meetings can give clues to employees’ mental health. If they are not engaging as usual, seem dismissive or unfocused, it could be a sign they are not coping.

According to the Black Dog Institute’s Dr Aimee Gayed, an underlying tone in emails or phone calls and response times to emails are ways to sense how employees are faring. These could be technical issues, but if they persist, the problem could be more serious.

Keeping the team together

A company’s culture is a big reason why people stay in a job. When staff feel good about where they work it shows through the positive team spirit — from the receptionist to the CEO, everyone is part of the business’s success.

In some ways an office has a similar function to a team’s locker room. It’s where plays are discussed, problems solved and inspiration given. Without these, the team hits the field without clear tactics, a collection of individuals doing their best to cooperate but not quite connected enough to produce the best outcome.

Keeping company culture alive requires regular meaningful communication online and on the phone. The problems employees have may not be hard to solve, but they are outside the person’s comfort zone or knowledge area. It could be something as simple as explaining where to find an app and how to install it. A few minutes on the phone with IT could improve an employee’s working from home experience immensely, at least for the short term.

Many companies are looking at the advantages of working from home, but few are considering the impact on mental health and team culture. Managers should be wary of making a financial decision that affects the employees’ mental health, slows down productivity and ultimately changes the character of their organisation.