The remote working revolution was already well established before news of a highly infectious – and dangerous – virus began to emerge from Wuhan. The events that have transpired over the past 12 months, however, have accelerated this trend at an unthinkable pace.
In March 2020, there was an abrupt shift from office working to remote working in the UK. Some companies acted before government guidance was issued, whilst others waited for the decision to be all but taken out of their hands. Either way, employees across the country swapped their desks for their kitchen tables almost overnight.
In the early months after the change, employers and employees alike grappled with this strange new reality. Even businesses who had previously embraced flexible working will have found this a daunting task. It is one thing to have one or two members of staff working from home once a week; moving an entire workforce out of the office proved to be far more complicated.
For organisations believing that the pandemic would be short-lived, it was easy to overlook key elements to support remote working. From investment in IT software and hardware through to supporting employees’ mental and physical wellbeing, many actions were put off in the hope that life would soon return to normal.
Slowly, though, everyone has come to terms with the fact that this crisis will not abate. Nor will the challenges that come with staff working from their homes all the time. And right now, businesses across the UK must realise that they have to do much more to support staff who are preparing to work from their homes for many more months.
Employees have not been supported
According to the Office of National Statistics, half of all employed people in the UK were working from home during the height of the first lockdown earlier in 2020. Prior to the pandemic, fewer than 30% of people had worked from home at all.
On the whole, this has been seen as a positive move. Remote working has long been hailed as an important means of giving employees greater autonomy over their working lives. Indeed, a recent poll of 1,000 UK workers found that almost a third would rather quit their job than forfeit the option to work from home on a permanent basis.
Add to that the fact the virus itself is likely to remain at large for many more months, meaning office working will not be deemed safe, potentially until late 2021. Evidently, businesses must accept the “new normal” of remote working.
At present, this has not been the case. A YouGov survey of 1,195 employees – conducted some three months after offices were closed – showed that 41% of home workers have an “inappropriate” working environment. Almost two-thirds (64%) have resorted to make-shift arrangements at kitchen tables, sofas and beds.
Clearly, this will not work in the long-term. That is why the Health & Safety Executive has been keen to stress that businesses must protect home workers – this includes putting measures in place to ensure their mental and physical wellbeing is being looked after.
Home working setups require investments
If CEOs, HR directors or team leaders were to see employees in the office on a daily basis who were sat on uncomfortable chairs, positioned at awkward angles or slouched to see their screen, they would take action. Sadly, this is the case as people work from home – and the mindset of it being “out of sight, out of mind” will not suffice.
Businesses of all sizes must invest in their employees’ home working setup. In fact, a recent study found that 70% SMEs in the UK were making savings of up to £840 per month by working remotely throughout the lockdown period; these savings came from not paying for staff food and drink, reduced rent or cancelling cleaners.
Working from home cannot be considered a cost saving exercise – at least not while staff are working in unsuitable conditions. Rather, a budget needs to be set aside to enable companies to properly equip staff with what they need to work safely, productively and comfortably.
As companies adapt to the so-called “new normal”, ensuring their survival is likely to remain the absolute priority. However, this does not mean that the wellbeing of the workforce should be put on the back-burner.
Rather, employers should adopt their mindset, so that employee wellbeing is viewed as a vital tool to ensuring the longevity of a company. Tellingly, in August it was reported that there was a backlog of unheard employment complaints totalling a massive 39,000. Employers will – and should – be keen to protect themselves from facing any legal backlash of their own from unwell home workers. And, this will only be possible if they prioritise employee mental and physical health within their business strategies and budgets.
Doug Bodenham is the managing director for curatd., a new offering by The Furniture Practice aiming to solve the challenges increasingly faced by business leaders responsible for working-from-home teams. Applying over 23 years of workplace experience, curatd. is working with companies to equip their staff at home with compliant and ergonomic furniture and equipment – offering trade priced solutions via a convenient online procurement portal, it helps businesses fulfil their duty of care to their staff with a fully-integrated solution.