Making work from home… workable

Kate Kearins delves into how leaders can support colleagues to approach their work from home days more effectively.

Before the pandemic, work-from-home was largely considered either an ideal or an ordeal – and mostly an exception to the work-from-office norm.

Covid turned this WFH dream/nightmare into reality for many – but research shows that the benefits and stresses are not evenly distributed.

Evidence highlights the gendered nature of WFH, with female employees paying a greater price than their male colleagues.

For example, women who WFH report more frequent interruptions, both job-related and on the personal/home front. These interruptions lead to fragmented time, which brings the risk of reduced time to do the work, lower volume and quality of outputs, and higher levels of stress and exhaustion.

Beyond the challenges of fragmented time, the act of jumping from task to task – multitasking, to put it optimistically – undermines our individual ability to tackle the bigger and more strategically important issues that inherently require more bandwidth.

Fragmented time can of course be a feature of the nature of work, as well as care-giving or other parallel responsibilities which can fall to men, as well as to women. And it can result in feelings of constant juggling, of not giving any of those responsibilities sufficient time, and our CVs missing out on some of the more obviously impressive headline achievements.

Despite these hurdles, many colleagues prefer the home/office mix of hybrid work (as identified by my AUT Business School colleague, Professor Jarrod Haar), and growing numbers of organisations allow work from home, at least some of the time.

How then, can we, as managers, support colleagues to approach their WFH days more effectively?

Studies show a dedicated home office can reduce interruptions. It can also provide a sense of separation from other people and other ‘at-home’ tasks – not to mention the temptations of the fridge/pantry. But not everyone has the space, and even when lockdown is not a thing, some people need to work where they can supervise children.

Setting boundaries around when and how colleagues connect can also help. As managers, emailing rather than calling is recommended when possible.

In addition, it’s becoming common practice to check the organisation’s online shared calendar before arranging a meeting with your colleague.  We older managers can follow the lead of younger workers, who grew up texting rather than calling or dropping in announced.

It’s also a good idea to amass business-as-usual items and schedule catchups to deal with those matters, rather than bombarding colleagues with frequent emails about non-urgent matters.

Find out when colleagues prefer to be interrupted and try to schedule meetings or calls in that timeframe. Usually, it will be well before the end of the workday.

When possible, a judicious decision to occasionally not instantly answer a call or email can be empowering and enable colleagues to sort through an issue themselves.

It’s important to acknowledge the evidence about gendered WFH experiences. Researchers contend that women workers feel the impact of fragmented time more intensely because of an innate desire to help others. That can also mean women are reluctant to set boundaries in their professional interactions.

The double-edged sword of being more empathetic and caring means greater connectedness – and more interruptions – for women as well as for others who embrace these dispositions.

There are some simple things we as managers can do to help, but they require planning and a degree of self-discipline, as well as role modelling good practices as we make working from home workable for everyone.   

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor/Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology.

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