By Dr. JoDee Salisbury, Dr. Patricia Morgan, and Dr. Stephanie Dunston
Pre-pandemic, organizations often experienced ups and downs or situations that challenged their leaders to think differently about problem solving, but those challenges also offered time for trials, adjustments, and thorough implementations. Over the past few months, many organizations have been faced abruptly with navigating the work environment around the new normal presented by the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). Many organizations had to reinvent operations and move work from a traditional brick-and-mortar operation to developing home-based platforms for their employees. The major concerns for many organizations were keeping employees motivated and connected, striking a work-life balance while working from home, and maintaining productivity standards during this strenuous time.
Companies prepare all the time for the inevitable. Much planning and detailing goes into how to keep the company operational during times of natural disaster or an unforeseen catastrophe (Bloom, Lian, & Ying, 2015). But few companies could properly prepare for the impact that the recent pandemic had on them. Organizations in all industries had to adjust, adapt, and remain diligent considering government closures, shelter-in-place orders, and phased re-opening plans. Due to the high rate of infection, easy spread, and sometime dangerous outcomes of the virus, many organizations found moving operations from the general work environment to a home base work environment beneficial to protect employees.
Once companies began working remotely, the difficult task of keeping morale high in the organization as well as a firm connection among peers and between employee and management had to be addressed (Bharaawaj, 2015). The central questions surrounding these ideas for the organization seemed to be “How do we keep employees engaged and motivated to maintain organizational morale?” and “How can we keep employees connected to maintain contact with coworkers and peers?”
The best answers to address both questions center on tools that can be used to foster a new work environment that helps build morale and support connection. Because the transition from the work environment to a home-based work environment had to be swift, organizations had to move fast. Online communication was quickly relied upon to keep employee morale high and employees connected to work and peers (Bharaawaj, 2015). Organizations became connected using online platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Zoom. These platforms allow employees to stay connected to discuss business strategy, collaborate on new ideas, and contribute innovative thought to the organization (Bloom, Liang, & Ying, 2015). Using this approach, employees can maintain high levels of motivation because they are still able to contribute, collaborate, and provide/receive feedback while working remotely.
To help keep morale high, organizations have a big responsibility. The organization must find opportunity to reward employees not only for their diligence, but also for the information contributed to the organization (Bharaawaj, 2015). When employees see their ideas used for operations and they are recognized for their efforts, employee morale will increase. Employees should then be afforded opportunity to connect with coworkers to talk about successes and enjoy support from their peers. Connection is a strong part of success when working remotely. The same tools used to connect for business can be used to help employees stay connected on a personal level to help make up for the loss of “watercooler” breaks or visits to one another’s office. Connecting in these platforms, employees can experience coffee breaks, virtual lunches, one-on-one meetings with managers or even after-work social hours. The benefits from social time can even help with employees learning how to strike the ever-elusive work-life balance (Salomon & Shamir 2000). While organizations and their management teams had to adapt, so too did employees.
A 2017 Gallup poll reported 47 percent of employees were performing some type of work-from-home activity during the workweek. While working from home is not a new concept, it became a new reality for millions of workers who found themselves thrust unexpectedly into their “home offices.” Jobs that were difficult to imagine as home-based, now had to be done remotely and with new perspective. The COVID-19 pandemic required employees in a multitude of industries to immediately adapt some of their homes’ space to accommodate office equipment and space, and required them to adapt their daily schedules, perceptions, team meetings, team building, and work-life balance issues. Employees were now forced to work from home and, in many cases, deal with competing demands of homeschooling, spouses who were also working from home, and equipment and protocols that were simply not ready for this shift. As companies sought to stay afloat, employees sought to be productive while balancing these competing demands with the training or readiness preparation for maintaining a work-life balance in this new reality. Three important elements for successfully navigating this new reality include high-performance technology, dedicated space, and appropriate scheduling.
High-performance technology extends beyond a mere laptop (Lusinski, 2020). Companies need encryption software to protect customer and vendor data, meeting software to allow employees to come together, and monitoring software for employees to ensure productivity expectations are met. Employees need reliable internet service and closed/protected Wi-Fi connections as well as backups for power outages. Training on new software applications or company protocols is essential as employees become accountable for productivity measures that require these new platforms. Teachers in the public school systems, for example, were expected to deliver lessons electronically using platforms they may have never seen and were now expected to call their students on a regular basis; many teachers were using their personal home phones or cell phones initially, which meant students now had their contact information. Ensuring employees have the basic equipment and training needed for productivity will help reduce stress that results from failing or faulty equipment while ensuring privacy concerns are addressed.
Dedicated “office” space in the home helps employees to separate their work lives from their home lives (Duffy, 2020; Pollock & Coombes, 2020). Leaving the office at the end of the day creates a physical and symbolic separation of work and home, but when employees work from home, they do not have that. Having a room in the home that has a desk space, good lighting, a comfortable chair, and privacy is essential. Employees working from home should stay out of the home’s centers of activity—the kitchen and living/family rooms. Being in the middle of activity means little privacy, frequent interruptions, improper ergonomics, and the inability to separate work time from personal/family time. Dedicated spaces mean not only providing areas with quiet to allow employees to concentrate, but they may also provide an opportunity for employees to separate themselves from the family activity. If an empty room is available, employees can simply shut the door to indicate they cannot be bothered; signs or Post-It Notes on the door can indicate the need to be quiet due to phone calls or meetings; and that dedicated space means papers or work there shouldn’t be touched. Creating those boundaries will help the work-from-home experience be less stressful by creating “rules” like the unwritten rules that existed when employees went into the office. For example, the kids would never drive to the office building, run into the workplace, and begin complaining because a sibling just did something they did not like, and the same “rules” should apply for the home office.
Scheduling is integral to work-at-home success and is key to maintaining that work-life balance. Often, employees are stressed or even fail at working from home because they cannot separate their work and home lives, which adds to stress and blurs boundaries (Pollock & Coombes, 2020; Duffy, 2020). One of the most important elements of scheduling to maintain a work-life balance is having a set schedule. Working from home is not a reason to shop more or go to the gym during off-hours. If employees went to the gym before going into work, they should continue to wake up early and go to the gym (or exercise/walk/run if gyms are closed) before beginning their workday. Employees should also avoid extending their workdays. Studies have found that employees who work from home work longer hours. Working too much from home is just as dangerous as working too much in the office. It is also important to take dedicated breaks throughout the day. In an office environment, there is movement as employees move among their colleagues’ offices or departments, go the copy room, or simply take a walk outside to escape the office building air. Employees who work from home often find themselves more sedentary. Having a fitness band with reminders to get up and move can help an employee’s frame of mind, circulation, and improve fitness levels. Employees should follow a morning routine. including getting dressed before they head into the office, practice routine schedules for their workday, take dedicated breaks, and when the workday is completed, they should shut their office doors.
Pre-pandemic, the importance of the work-life balance and technology improvements allowed the work-from-home dream for many to become a reality. Working from home allows employees to save money, save time commuting, work independently, work flexible schedules and, ultimately, stay more focused. There is good news for all of those who enjoy working from home. Numerous studies indicate that an employee’s productivity is much greater when working from home. One study conducted by Bloom (2014) noted that employee calls were up 13.5 percent when employees worked from home. Another study, conducted in 2019 by Choudhury, Foroughi, and Larson, concluded that there is a 4.4 percent increase in output on productivity. According to Brann (2020), employee productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness are all under the employee’s control, whether working from home or in the office.
Why is the work-from-home phenomenon increasing employee productivity? One factor is that employees are not constantly being interrupted by coworkers. These interactions can distract an employee by interrupting innovation or processes that delay productivity. Another factor is that employees working from home can save time on commuting and can take care of personal matters more easily than at work, allowing employees to concentrate with greater detail while working. Perhaps the most important factor improving employee productivity is that work-from-home employees enjoy autonomy (Johannsen & Zak, 2020), and autonomy raises productivity. In fact, the autonomy that comes from working from home can significantly improve individual and group productivity as well as positively affect the mood of employees.
Working from home is also becoming popular with employers. Employers have recognized the gain in employee productivity. Employers are also saving money by eliminating the office space required for a full staff. With the added benefits of employee satisfaction and cost savings, employers are now starting to see the extended benefits of employees working from home. The recent COVID-19 pandemic may have shown employers who never thought working from home was an option, that it is possible and maybe even beneficial.
The coronavirus pandemic will not last forever, and while companies are experiencing the need to navigate this new environment, working from home has presented an opportunity to keep employees working. Maintaining a work-life balance while working from home is challenging, and there will be days when those lines are inevitably blurred, but with proper technology, dedicated space, and good scheduling habits, working from home can be productive, satisfying, and cheaper for the employer and employee. Utilizing appropriate measures to keep employees motivated, allowing for opportunity, and promoting work-life balance as well as reviewing innovative ways to maintain productivity allowed companies to continue operations. As the world evolves from this pandemic, new business models and opportunities are sure to arise and those organizations that capture and embrace those will be most successful.
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