Unravelling the puzzle of how to work from home

Varying environments and disruption of communication require firms to think differently

Collaborative tools such as Zoom and Skype enable collaboration but cannot mimic or act as microcosm for our office settings. File photograph: iStock/Getty Images

Collaborative tools such as Zoom and Skype enable collaboration but cannot mimic or act as microcosm for our office settings. File photograph: iStock/Getty Images

 

After the great industrial revolution, our brains have been programmed to the routine of waking up in the morning, rushing to the office, coming back home in the evening and spending the rest of the time with family. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, our work patterns have been disturbed and we have no choice but to “work from home”.

In this crisis situation, organisations and workers are unclear on how to work from home as there are no standards or procedures that we can successfully adopt.

Prior to this, organisations have operated with a nine-to-five work schedule with detailed guidelines on incentives, hiring, promotions, professional ethics, etc, so that employees can develop behaviours and habits in line with the vision of the organisation. Employees are now thrown into mystery “workspaces” at home with little guidance on operating procedures, making the transition difficult.

To address this puzzle of working from home, we need to understand how “work from home” differs from the traditional nine-to-five job or “work from office” situation.

First, work-from-home environments vary drastically from person to person. The home environment of some employees may not be conducive for doing “office work” either due to distractions from family, children, or from external factors making the work challenging.

Second, office workspaces allow for seamless communication between employees, which increases employees’ ability in understanding co-workers’ emotions, feelings and thoughts more clearly and enhance productivity. In contrast, transferring all the emotions and thoughts to co-workers while working from home would be almost impossible as communication between humans is mostly non-verbal. For example, collaborative tools such as Zoom and Skype enable collaboration but cannot mimic or act as microcosm for our office settings.

Third, in offices workers can build team cohesion and bonding, and share information with co-workers by using various types of artefacts such as sticky notes, physical boards, papers etc. The lack of these artefacts in a home setting can rattle group and individual cognition and decrease employees’ ability to efficiently respond to the assigned task.

So, how do we efficiently manage the work-from-home situation?

Forefathers

Currently, there are no silver bullets for working from home. But if we look back at the history, prior to the industrial revolution, our forefathers always worked from home, for example in careers such as pottery, crafts, garments etc. This suggests that the process of working from home is in-built in our DNA but needs to be unleashed for us to do it successfully.

When working from home, one might think it is important to focus on higher order analytical skills such as reasoning and evaluating. But a recent study, carried out at the University of Limerick, found that, in an online working environment, roughly 10-20 per cent of the group cognition was orchestrated in lower order skills such as our ability to remember and understand the problem or task at hand.

This finding suggests that while working from home, we should not neglect lower order skills as they have potential impact in making teams productive.

In addition to identifying the key skills for working from home, organisations need to develop rhythms – repetitive actions with regular or irregular beats much like a musical rhythm – that have resonance with the wellbeing of the organisation during the crisis.

Rhythms in organisations are generally formed when workers routinely carry out tasks and interact with employees, though these rhythms never get recorded, they can reside in organisational or team memory and create systematic effects on performance of the team and individuals. For example, a great virtual team meeting with positive emotions can create upward rhythm and lead to happiness, job satisfaction and higher productivity while working from home.

In an ongoing study, researchers at the University of Limerick, National University of Ireland Galway, Pennsylvania State University and Case Western Reserve University have found that when creating software through virtual communities, it is better to intersperse writing software with discussions and meetings instead of doing coding marathons.

In other words, a punctuated rhythm is better than a monotonic rhythm in an online work setting, suggesting that organisations should break up their work to be more productive.

It is vital that organisations and managers are cognisant that a global pandemic does not represent an ordinary work-from-home context so they need to handle the situation with diligence and care.

In order for organisations to be successful with working from home, they need to develop skills and rhythms that resonate with employees and boost the overall productivity of the firm.

Dr Veeresh Thummadi is a Research Fellow at Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software at University of Limerick.

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