Since the start of the pandemic, many of us have made the shift to working from home. But while the benefits of home-working have been widely extolled, it also poses challenges. How can remote workers ward against isolation and recapture the sense of camaraderie they might have experienced in the office? Abi Millar finds out

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One of the furthest reaching changes that occurred this year was the shift towards working from home. Whereas in the past, home-working was a minority pursuit – the preserve of freelancers and those with very forward-thinking employers – it has now become something close to the norm.

For many white-collar workers, the commute to the office has been replaced with a trudge to the kitchen table. Work meetings have been replaced with Zoom calls – the camera artfully positioned to show off the participant’s bookshelves – and smart-casual attire has given way to leggings and slippers.

In the UK, 49% of workers reported working from home at some point in the week ending 14 June, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). In Australia, 32% of workers predominantly worked from home during April and May, while the figure for New Zealand was around four in ten.

It’s a dramatic change – last year, only 5% of the British labour market said they worked mostly from home – and like any change of this magnitude, it comes with its pros and its cons. For sure, there are many people who thrive on solitude, love their home comforts, and enjoy the extra hour in bed occasioned by cutting out their commute time. But there are just as many who have struggled, and very much miss aspects of their old life and identity.

“Working from home is a skill, particularly in relation to boundary setting,” points out Thom Dennis, CEO of the business management consultancy Serenity in Leadership. “Many organisations have experienced a spike in productivity from their people working from home, but this can be attributed mainly to the additional time released from travelling to the workplace and an inability to set clear boundaries of when and where work starts and stops in the home.”

He adds that it has not been an equalising experience across the board. In families, women have tended to bear the brunt of childcare and other domestic responsibilities, not to mention home-schooling. According to a report called Burnout Britain, 86% of women who were carrying out a standard working week alongside childcare experienced mental health problems in April.

There are class disparities too. Some people have the benefit of dedicated home offices, while others are crammed round a dining room table, or stuck working from their bedroom in a house-share. Then there are the basic differences in people’s psychological makeup. As Dr Lynda Shaw, a Business Psychologist and neuroscientist, explains, these have become more apparent as the pandemic has worn on. “Originally, it was a case of OK, we can do this – a honeymoon period almost,” she says “But we know that has worn thin as people have got used to working from home. It’s been great for people who are more introverted, but the extroverts have hated it, and then you’ve got those in the middle who oscillate between the two. It’s affected people very differently.”

Especially for the extroverts, one of the major challenges has been dealing with the loss of office community. Whatever your relationship with your co-workers, home working can mean eliminating a much-needed source of social contact.

“Not going to the workplace deprives the employee of access to socialising and chatting, which actually are very important and are not fulfilled in a limited online conversation,” says Dennis. “Many people cite reasons to go to work a the camaraderie, conversations, sharing of experiences, all of which contribute positively to the experience of the one third of one’s life one spends at work.”

He adds that some companies, aware of what’s being lost, are devising office routines in which people come to the workplace a couple of times a week in order to mix and network.

“But these are forced environments and experts are doubtful that the same advantages will accrue. The responsibility for work mental welfare that falls to companies is now in the spotlight,” he says.

What home-working takes away is the opportunity to make friendships organically, in that way that comes about naturally through hours of proximity. It can also limit your opportunities to forge business contacts in a non-forced way.

“Another issue I’ve seen is that companies are trying to be kind and compassionate and flexible, so that their staff can choose whether to go back in or not,” says Dr Shaw. “However we’ve got to be really mindful that it’s not creating a ‘them and us’ mentality. They’re more likely to get the promotion – they’re not having to commute an hour each day. You’re setting up a division and that to me is worrying.”

So, for those who are stuck working from home against their wishes, can digital forms of social contact ever be a substitute for the real deal? The answer is surely ‘yes and no’. While digital connections have proven very successful in bringing people together – particularly in the context of work meetings – many of us would agree that something is being lost in the mix.

“Many salespeople will tell you there is a whole series of steps in a negotiation that have easily become lost without face to face meetings,” says Dennis. “Using digital meeting tools can be efficient, but they tend to cut out an essential part of humanity. Studies show that the majority of HR functions have discarded any attempt at appraisals this year, and some of their challenge lies in hiring and firing. How do you fire someone with compassion and concern by Zoom?”

So-called ‘Zoom fatigue’ is very real. We have to work harder than we would in a normal conversation, since we miss out on a lot of non-verbal cues, and it can be exhausting to spend all day making eye contact via a screen. All that said, it’s vital to keep in touch however you can. Dr Shaw extols the simple joy of picking up the phone.

“Camaraderie is still important even if we’re calling people – what I’ve taken to is going for walks and ringing people I know are on their own,” she says. “If you can find a window to lighten up and have some fun, you’ll do yourself good, your loved ones good, and your business good.”

She adds that thinking of others is a good way to mitigate our stress response. When we’re in a stressful situation (such as being asked to work indefinitely from home in a pandemic), our cortisol levels rise, suppressing the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Over time, this can be detrimental to our mental and physical health.

“One of the ways we can break that cycle is by being altruistic – if we stop focusing on ourselves even for a short while we can get some respite,” she says. “My key advice is, don’t bottle anything up. If you’re a senior person in your company and there’s nobody you can talk to, join some kind of peer level networking group where you can talk things through virtually and realise that your problems are the same as many other people’s problems.”

Dennis believes the onus is on employers to harness whatever positives have come from the ‘new normal’, while doing what they can to get people back to the workplace as creatively and safely as possible. At the same time, they need to be proactively monitoring and supporting those who are still working from home.

“Businesses need to understand that the world they knew has gone and that to thrive they need to adapt to the new world, which is still in its nascence,” he says. “The days of clocking in and out are just not appropriate anymore, and standing over someone to ensure they do the work has never been effective, and there’s little excuse for it now.”

For many of us, our working lives can no longer be clearly delineated from our home lives. There is some consensus among employers and academics that working from home – or at least, providing flexible working options – is here to stay. We will need to take a clear-eyed look at what this new work culture will entail, and what we, as social animals, need to thrive.

“The important aspects of leadership for the future will not be characterised by command and control, but by compassion, collaboration, listening, and transparency,” says Dennis. “Now is the time for a steady heart and a thoughtful eye for the long term.”

IMPORTANCE of staying in touch

As important as keeping in touch with friends and family, talking to your colleagues about things other than work will help to keep up team spirit, especially important when working from home

It will also mean you’re less likely to dread the working day ahead, if you see your colleagues as friends as well as workmates