If homeworking is the new normal, are we researching it enough?
According to most commentators, it appears almost certain that homeworking will be integral to the oft-discussed new normal once the pandemic subsides. Employees have often found they like working at home and report their performance is unaffected or even better for it. And universities seem ripe to be central to this trend − but is this inevitable or even desirable?
Big choices are incoming for universities and their staff, choices that require careful consideration to avoid sleepwalking down the assumed-inevitable path of a digitalised society.
The pandemic has provided an unplanned experiment in homeworking, and not pondering the role of homeworking for universities in depth would be to miss a unique opportunity to exercise evidence-based management, reinvigorate employee involvement and extend employees’ choice.
Employers and employees must jointly evaluate their and others’ experience during the pandemic. An important part of the exercise will be assessing how much the enforced and unplanned nature of the homeworking, set within the context of a deadly pandemic, makes the experience unique.
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A longitudinal study of homeworking I have been conducting in two universities since the onset of the pandemic gives important indicators of what the evidence will reveal. First, satisfaction metrics alone are not a sufficient basis to decide the way forward. Self-reporting of performance is notoriously unreliable. And, more significantly, satisfaction is distinct from well-being.
For example, length of commute has a decisive impact on satisfaction with homeworking but no effect on employees’ well-being. Crucially, in our survey more than 75 per cent reported being satisfied with homeworking, while those who reported being anxious were also in the majority. Moreover, satisfaction with homeworking increased between spring and autumn, but well-being levels fell significantly in this period.
Second, factors that most affect the decline in well-being reflect the downsides of homeworking: loneliness and inability to detach oneself from work. Job insecurity also increased and was the key pandemic effect on well-being. While job demands increased in this period, they had little effect, even by autumn, on well-being.
Increased levels of job autonomy, a major predictor of well-being, had a positive effect in spring but by autumn it was insignificant after being swamped by homeworking factors. Other issues also come into play when looking at short-term fluctuations in well-being, including the degree of social support from colleagues, work/non-work conflict and changes in the Covid death rate.
The third indicator is that factors related to the enforced nature of the homeworking – the extent to which people could work normally, the lack of preparation for their new regimen and being constrained by care responsibilities or inadequate IT equipment – were unimportant for well-being. However, satisfaction questions on such issues are useful for indicating problems such as dissatisfaction with support from senior management, line management and IT – all of which declined between spring and autumn, whereas that from peers, partners or cohabitees increased. The question, then, is the extent to which stated support issues reflect longstanding problems that the pandemic has accentuated, which themselves require serious consideration.
Overall, the research shows the inadequacy of making decisions based on reported levels of satisfaction with homeworking and performance, no matter how thoroughly these are compiled. At best, they can give clues as to where to target improvements.
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Developing a homeworking policy must be part of a vision of a healthy university, and a realisation that, while a healthy university depends on a healthy workforce, it is itself defined by its provision of means by which this can be achieved.
The current emphasis on employee well-being initiatives in universities is targeted at stress not stressors, coping with, not eliminating the causes of, stress. Any evaluation of these initiatives typically relies on surveys about satisfaction with the service provision. Such surveys, akin to market research, are in danger of becoming the main means of employee involvement in organisational design.
The homeworking issue highlights the fact that the challenges faced by universities as they emerge from the pandemic are crying out for intensive employee involvement. Allied to this, the increased digitalisation of work processes provides the opportunity to correct the long-standing lack of user involvement in IT design.
Instruments of involvement such as working parties constituted on a cross-level and inclusive basis, surveys capturing the experience of homeworking and other forms of idea-capturing can all play a role. The focus should be on identifying new ideas, facilitators, constraints and stressors − and less on training for imposed changes or programmes for coping with stress without regard for its underlying causes. Let’s hope such opportunities are not missed.
Stephen Wood is a professor of management at the University of Leicester’s School of Business.