COVID-19: Working from home likely to last beyond pandemic - expert

By Kim Moodie for RNZ

The line between home and work has blurred, with so many forced into their living rooms to work from home during the pandemic.

AUT Business School human resources management professor Jarrod Haar said a culture change could be looming, with the home doubling as the workplace for many.

"We're going to see, I think, a lot more professional workers having that kind of hybrid workplace - working from home, maybe two or three days a week and going into work the other days."

A mix of office and home working was more appealing for some, and managers need to be ready to meet in the middle, he said.

Skills Consulting Group head of wellbeing Jane Kennelly said bosses needed to plan for the long-haul, instead of having workers in and out of the office after each Covid-19 announcement.

"It's not about ice baths and kombucha and special parcels tuning up at your doorstep," she said.

"The key right now, because it feels different, is the organisations need to start to move towards very structured at-home working environments."

Employers need to give staff certainty, so people know what's expected of them, she said.

"So, taking a stronger step around the whole notion that structure creates liberty and I think we need to make sure that we protect our employees, by allowing them and, in fact, requesting a very structured working response from them that isn't going to see them over-committed."

Harr said workers need to be trusted, with studies showing productivity levels at home are on-par with in-office levels, and some research suggesting people are more creative out of office.

"There are some employers who don't like it, they want to keep their eyeballs on their workers," he said.

"My personal opinion is that if you're so worried that your employees working from home are not really working, I bet you that employee is doing the same thing in the office.

"They're either the social butterfly going around, or they're on the internet all the time and none of it actually has to do with work."

Harr's research, released last year, found an uptick in workplace burnout as people found it harder to balance their work life with pressures from the Covid-19 pandemic.

One in three employees were at high burnout risk - up from one in nine at the beginning of the pandemic, when the survey began.

Workers who were tethered to their office via smart devices had the highest risk of burnout, followed by Māori employees and workers with high demands.

Harr said there were still many social benefits of working with colleagues and suggested colleagues could buddy up with others working from home and organise Zoom catch ups, to ward off loneliness.

Office workers RNZ spoke to said they wanted more flexible options.

"We offered flexible working before Covid-19, and some people are able to work more, because they can stay home with their kids, or do whatever they need to do," one said.

"So I think on balance, it all works out. It would be tricky to get people back in full-time, if that's what we wanted to do."

Another office worker said they didn't even feel like working from home was an option - even though it would make no difference to their day to day activities.

"I feel like it'd be ostracised if you seem to have a preference to work from home," he said.

"Personally, I think I'd actually prefer to work in the office, but I don't think I could even raise the issue with them."

Another manager told RNZ his workplace used to offer flexible hours and the ability to work from home as an incentive, but now so many workplaces were offering flexible working options it had lost its edge.

University of Auckland associate professor of psychology Niki Harré said rock-solid boundaries were key when working from home.

"I think the problem is that you can start to be really messy in how you work," she said.

"For example many people, like me, have two email addresses. So, you check your work one and then your own one, and maybe you see there's a special on for a pair of shoes that you like, and you look at that and then feel a bit guilty.

"Then you think, 'It's okay, I'll work for an extra five minutes today' and it all gets really confused in your mind as to how much work you've actually done."

Without the structure a traditional office environment provides, people can ultimately work longer hours, but have less to show for it, Harré said.

She had some tips for people struggling to keep on track.

"I use a pomodoro app that gives you 25 minutes to work and then five minutes for a break.

"And it means that I can actually, in those five minutes, hang out my washing without feeling guilty, because that is my break.

"It really structures your day in a way that, I think, has been incredibly helpful."

She also recommended keeping track of how many hours you've actually worked - rather than sitting down in your makeshift office first thing in the morning and only leaving when everything's finished.

It was important to remember that not everyone would be able do their jobs remotely, or have the resources to, Harré said.

Jane Kennelly said some employers needed to wake up and smell the home-brewed coffee - or staff will vote with their feet, and leave.

"If employers don't get this, they will lose their people and then they have to re-employ," she said.

"Tell me productivity losses, when you lose significant people in your business and you try to re-employ in an employment market like this.

"It is a recipe for absolute further disaster."