The last few weeks have seen a tremendous rise in the acceptance of home working, with employers across the world advocating it in a bid to ensure employees remain healthy in the face of the COVID-19 virus. With remote working largely a minority activity in many workplaces, it raises the prospect of people working in environments that are not ideal, as they have never had to consider their home work environment before.
Place someone in the hustle and bustle of Grand Central Station, and it’s unlikely that they would perform well in the kind of tasks we require of people in the workplace. As such, environmental psychologist Sally Austin argues that the way our workplaces are designed is crucially important to the effectiveness of employees.
In Built to Thrive: How to Build the Best Workplaces for Health, Well-Being, & Productivity, she highlights how important seemingly esoteric factors, such as the color of the walls or the configuration of the furniture affect our performance at work.
The work is part of a growing movement towards making our workplaces more humane places to be, with a noble aim to improve productivity by making us happier and healthier when we cross the threshold each morning.
Making work better
The question is, do we still need to come into an office in order to be happy and productive workers? Broadband Internet connections and portable computing tools are largely pervasive, thus enabling many ‘knowledge workers’ to work from anywhere they choose.
It’s estimated that nearly a quarter of American workers work remotely, with over 1.5 million workers in the UK working from home full-time. Indeed, across the globe, it’s estimated that up to 70% of people work remotely at least one day a week.
It’s already fairly well established that workers are happiest when they have agency over their working conditions, including the hours of work, the location of work, and often even the type of work they do. This leads to lower stress levels and higher engagement. Indeed, research has even shown that people would gladly accept lower pay for such autonomy.
Of course, this is not a new concept, with telecommuting existing as a concept back in the 1970s, but the availability of technology has made it increasingly feasible. It’s perhaps no surprise that it has found a willing home in the tech sector itself, with startups ranging from Automattic, Fiverr, InVision and GitLab all having a distributed workforce working from wherever they feel most comfortable.
Attracting the best
The cost of corporate real estate has long been an issue for those in the facilities management profession, but the costs associated with urban living is increasingly an issue for HR departments too. Areas such as San Francisco, New York and London are becoming more and more expensive to live in, and are seeing talent priced out into more affordable areas. By allowing workers to operate remotely, therefore, organizations are opening themselves up to a far broader talent pool than is available within commuting distance of a physical office.
The economics of work are just one of the factors behind this move, however. While working together in a single location can help workers to collaborate and innovate, they can also have a range of nefarious influences, from politicking and distracting that undermine performances.
Companies such as GitLab are attempting to bring an extreme level of transparency to their work in a bid to overcome these factors. Team meetings are shared on YouTube, with employees crowdsourcing the employee handbook collectively. The idea is that all employees have a say and a stake in how the company is run.
Of course, just because you’re not working in an office environment doesn’t mean that you could, or should, ignore the best practice guidelines in workplace design. It’s still where you need to produce your best efforts, so needs to be the ideal environment to support that.
Ideal home (office)
Working from home affords you a large degree of freedom around your work environment, and in doing so, you might want to consider things like the work you’ll be doing, the equipment you’ll need, whether you’ll be making conference calls, or even hosting external clients or colleagues.
For instance, central offices have a huge array of equipment, most of which you probably use very rarely. A photocopier, for instance, is very expensive, so you are probably better off using local copying services rather than investing in hardware yourself.
Lighting is also a crucial consideration to make when planning your home office. In an ideal world you want to ensure you have as much natural daylight as possible, as this is the most evenly balanced source of light available.
It’s also hugely important to ensure you have privacy in your workspace, especially if other people are at home as you work. Just as the noise of an open office environment disrupts our work, so too does noise in our home environment. You might also consider ways to mark out your work area, with bookcases a personal favorite as it provides a physical barrier while also providing excellent storage space.
Working remotely, you also often lack any kind of health and safety policies, but that doesn’t mean you should neglect your wellbeing by skimping on an ergonomically robust workspace. The health risks of sitting are now well established, and many traditional furniture places our body in an unnatural and unhealthy posture. This should not, of course, be limited to your chair, but your entire workspace.
“Rather than sitting all day, you need to have circuits of activity, and you don’t want to be efficient and have everything in arms reach,” says the University of California, Berkeley’s Galen Cranz. “Instead, you want to get up to answer the phone, file something or talk to somebody else. You have to build micro-movements into office routines.”
Cranz highlights how we can typically tolerate just three hours of sitting per day, as doing so results in the electrical activity in our muscles dropping, and a reduction in the lipase that our liver uses to digest and break down fat. This is why sitting for prolonged periods is so risky in terms of heart attacks, strokes and cancer. Make sure you construct your workspace to counter this risk.
It’s perhaps been too easy to dismiss flexible working as the preserve of the software industry, and therefore not something for the rest of us to worry about, but that’s increasingly not the case. Indeed, across the world, organizations are scrambling to put remote working procedures in place in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
While the software industry have undoubtedly led the way, now is the time to learn from their experiences and explore how remote working can benefit your organization, and especially your workforce.
When given the choice, a growing number of people are choosing to forgo their commute, and the unproductive environs of their open office and instead deciding to work in an environment they control. The workplace industry has focused almost exclusively on the office environment for decades, and while progress has undoubtedly been made in that domain, it’s high time they lent their expertise to the growing market for remote working, so that our home offices are as healthy and productive as they can be.