Working from home is hurting productivity. Time to ditch the ironing board desk!

When will we go back to the office? That’s something PM Boris Johnson didn’t cover in his lockdown exit roadmap, but it’s reasonable to assume we’ll be working from our home office/ kitchen table/converted campervan for some time. There’s lots to like about working from home – no commute, more flexibility – but not everyone experiences it in the same way, with growing evidence that it’s not the productivity panacea many first thought. According to Eric Garton and Michael Mankins, authors of Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, most organisations are less productive now than they were a year ago. The pandemic has widened the gap between the most and the least productive companies, and those that weren’t already “effective in managing the time, talent, and energy of their teams” have “struggled mightily”.

So, what is it about remote working that hampers productivity and how can the challenges be overcome?

Prioritise mental health

Studies show that wellbeing and productivity are closely linked. If your employees are healthy in body and mind, they’re less at risk of burnout, less inclined to take time off – although that’s not necessarily a good thing! – and more likely to be effective at work. The pandemic, however, has taken its toll on people’s mental health, with serious and costly repercussions for business.

Research from Westfield Health found that absences due to mental health increased by 10% during 2020 and cost UK businesses £14bn last year. The same research also revealed that presenteeism (the problem of employees being on the job but not fully functioning because of health reasons) is on the rise, with one in three workers saying that mental health issues have negatively impacted their productivity every week.

In fact, three quarters of those surveyed feel their productivity has stagnated or fallen since last year.

Employers can no longer afford to ignore the issue of mental health. Some companies are already stepping up and adapting their former in-office perks to provide benefits that support people working from home. Free breakfasts and gym membership are being replaced with Employee Assistance Programmes and access to mental health and meditation apps. Managers too are playing a critical role in supporting their teams and encouraging healthy behaviour – and that needs to continue. Ultimately, organisations that prioritise workplace wellbeing will be able to attract and retain the happiest, most engaged and most productive staff.

Provide the right tools

Even the most engaged employees will struggle to be productive if they don’t have the right business-quality equipment.

You would think that after almost a year of remote working, people would have the proper set-up to work from home, but a survey of over 2,000 professionals by Currys, PC World and Canon found that a quarter of British workers are still having to get by on minimal equipment. A fifth say they don’t even have a computer screen. Over a third miss having a printer, while a quarter miss having a desk. One woman has taken matters into her own hands and is working on an ironing board. It’s height-adjustable and can be packed away, she says, but I expect that’s where the benefits end.

The bottom-line is that if people don’t have the appropriate tools to do their job remotely, they won’t be effective. With working from home set to continue, businesses should consider offering home office grants, much as Google did last year, or at the very least carrying out assessments to find out what people need for productive working.

The right infrastructure

Giving employees the right equipment is only part of the equation. For optimal productivity, companies also need to have the right infrastructure in place to deliver a high-performance experience for employees and customers, wherever they are.

Currently, many of the challenges are around providing secure remote access to information and services, with common employee complaints including slow connection speeds and authentication and log-in issues.

But eventually offices will go back and a more hybrid way of working is likely to emerge – a couple of days in the office, a couple of days at home. The challenge then becomes how to ensure that people can work and collaborate as efficiently and productively from home as they can from the office. The IT operations model needed to support this is what Gartner calls ‘anywhere operations’.

“The traditional, structured processes within Infrastructure & Operations made organisations fragile when it comes to the flexibility of location,” said Gartner research vice president Jeffrey Hewitt, speaking at a Gartner conference late last year. “Anywhere operations enable organisations to decentralise staff and activate operations where it makes business sense. It even makes way for broader talent choices as organisations do not need to necessarily recruit staff in a specific geography.”

At the start of the pandemic, many businesses made rushed decisions to get their IT infrastructure ready to support mass working from home. As we emerge from the crisis, businesses need to take stock and ask themselves: is my IT infrastructure ready to support the way my business is working now – and in the future?

The importance of place

While it’s possible to help people work more productively from home, experience shows that home working is better suited to some tasks than to others. If you need to concentrate on a piece of work or undertake detailed research, home is often the most productive place to be. However, if you want to brainstorm ideas or meet with colleagues, it’s hard to beat the face-to-face interaction that the office environment allows. In many ways, a hybrid working model offers businesses the best of both worlds. Having the flexibility to choose the right place for the right activity is pretty compelling, provided the place is up to the task. Time to ditch the ironing board and invest in a proper desk!

Learn more about Step5 and the work that we do to help organisations provide seamless and secure working environments that meet the needs of their people and the changing demands of modern business.