How the COVID-19 outbreak could make your organisation more flexible (and possibly more trusting).
The widespread adoption of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has prompted the evolution of telework from a means to avoid long commute times, and reduce pollution and congestion in big cities, to an opportunity to improve employee job satisfaction, enable a more diverse workforce, enhance collaboration and increase productivity (Basile and Beauregard, 2016; Messenger and Gschwind, 2016). And in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, it provides many businesses with the opportunity to continue operating within the confines of emerging social-distancing norms.
Telework (also referred to as telecommuting or simply ‘working from home’) is a work arrangement that enables employees or other workers to work remotely and not have to congregate in a central place such as an office building. This will become an increasingly essential aspect of social distancing in the coming months as the COVID-19 virus outbreak unfolds, which epidemiologists and virologists are currently saying will continue at least until June 2020 (some are suggesting much longer).
During times of ‘business as usual’, many organisations have successfully embraced telework as a means to harness associated cost efficiencies, such as decreased employee absenteeism and turnover, and reduced costs for office space use and maintenance (Daniels, Lamond, & Standen, 2000 ; Gajendran & Harrision, 2007, cited in Anderson, Kaplan and Vega, 2015). These are potential advantages that can still be realised amid the current global health crisis, particularly for those within the ‘knowledge worker’ sector.
Working from home is by no means a new concept. A 2010 report prepared by Deloittes for the Australian Public Service Commission highlighted the advantages of telework for both employees and employers. Benefits for the employee included:
- cost savings by not having to travel to work;
- flexibility in work hours and therefore increased ability to manage work-life balance;
- increased job satisfaction; and
- a greater ability to participate in the workforce where traditionally this may not have been possible.
The benefits to the employer included:
- improved recruitment and retention outcomes;
- reduced absenteeism;
- increased business resilience;
- reduced costs associated with office space; and
- increased productivity.
In 2008 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicated that around one-quarter of Australian workers (24%) worked at least part of their time from home. This was consistent with data collected as part of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey that indicated 23% of respondents in 2010 reported working from home at least some of the time – working from home is nothing new and in fact is ‘business as usual’ for many hardworking, high performing Australians. The caveat here is not about the worker however, it is the way teleworking is managed by supervisors and decision-makers.
In a study which interviewed 50 teleworkers from a range of Australian organisations it was found that, in order to facilitate productivity and performance, those in a management role must explicitly enable and encourage the use of ICT and support the purchase and installation of ICT resources where necessary (e.g. software, webcams, apps).
Priority should be given to resources that enable people to:
- work collaboratively;
- get feedback on their work;
- demonstrate their abilities and work to their strengths; and
- support each other in developing deliverables and/or achieving outcomes (Read and Campbell, 2020).
It was also found that organisational culture and associated norms tend to dictate the use of ICT and the extent to which the potential advantages are harnessed (Read and Campbell, 2020). While ‘business as usual’ norms are being disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, workers will still require the same psychological needs to be met to ensure high performance and productivity are sustained during the coming months.
Research shows that teleworking or working from home policies and practices need to ensure:
- employees have the opportunity to develop new competencies and/or feel confident with new skills to enable teleworking (which might mean initiating training sooner rather than leaving it until it is actually needed);
- employees have the freedom to experiment with ICT use and initiate their own work practices rather than being pressured and coerced to engage as directed (i.e. managers should not use ICT as a means to micro-manage) ; and
- employees need to feel respect and belonging in relation to both supervisors and peers. This might mean, for example, all meeting attendees join the meeting via video call rather than some gathered together in a room and others on video call treated as the exception (Deci, Olafsen and Ryan, 2017).
Based on a review of research using Self-Determination Theory to understand work motivation in teleworkers it is suggested that “policies or practices that are likely to support the employees in each of the three ways outlined above are likely to facilitate autonomous motivation, well-being, and high-quality performance. Those that thwart any of these employee experiences are likely to promote controlled motivation or amotivation, along with ill-being and, at best, quantity but not quality of performance” (Deci, et. al. (2017, p.38).
Reciprocity is essential for moving forward. It is a time to look after and engender trust in each other. Trust that your employees will do the right thing by your organisation and let them know they can trust you to look after them as, together, we navigate our way forward through this global health crisis.
Anderson, A. J., Kaplan, S. A., & Vega, R. P. (2015). The impact of telework on emotional experience: When, and for whom, does telework improve daily affective well-being?. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 24(6), 882-897.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Locations at Work, (2008).
Basile, K. A., & Beauregard, T. A. (2016). Strategies for successful telework: How effective employees manage work/home boundaries. Strategic HR Review.
Deci, E. L., Olafsen, A. H., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). Self-determination theory in work organizations: The state of a science. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19-43.
Deloitte Access Economics, Next Generation Telework: A literature review, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2010).
Messenger, J. C., & Gschwind, L. (2016). Three generations of Telework: New ICT s and the (R) evolution from Home Office to Virtual Office. New Technology, Work and Employment, 31(3), 195-208.