With employees increasingly looking for roles that move away from the traditional nine to five, office-based environment, remote office working can prove to be popular amongst a workforce. Ben McCarthy, employment law writer at Croner-i, explores the implications of this arrangement.

With Brexit uncertainty continuing to dominate the headlines, employers may consider permitting remote office working as a new method to attract talent to their organisation. That said, while this arrangement can remove typical work stresses, it can also create a whole set of new ones that staff might not be prepared for. There are darker sides to remote working that are often overlooked, and that is the negative impact it can have on employees’ mental health. There’s also feasibility to consider; some businesses may need their employees to be present in the workplace, meaning that a remote working arrangement would simply not be beneficial for them. It’s therefore important that employers are prepared to consider the implications of permitting remote working and whether it would be a good fit for their company.

The advantages of remote office working

Arguably, remote working can be key to encouraging the retention of key members of staff, alongside attracting talent to the organisation that may not have come before. Many employees may jump at the chance to work from home. They imagine a world where they don’t have to commute, where they get to play their music loud, and where it’s perfectly acceptable to wear pyjamas while conducting daily tasks. Some people thrive when they can dictate their own schedule and hop back and forth between work and personal chores. Additionally, employees who may struggle with outside commitments, such as caring for small children, will particularly benefit from an arrangement in which they can continue to do their job without having to look at ways to balance it with their personal lives. Employers may feel that allowing employees to work from home may encourage them to be less productive, easily distracted by Netflix and harder to manage. However, a CanadaLift survey has shown that homeworkers are actually more productive, with the relaxed atmosphere encouraging creativity and helping individuals to avoid office-based stress. Further studies indicate that remote workers actively work to be online for longer hours than on-site staff as they don’t want to give the impression they’re shirking their responsibilities.

Business-owners may also be concerned that it’ll be harder for the individual to work from home, with more opportunity for the system to not work properly or go down. Arguably, by taking simple steps to make sure employees have access to the system they require, this risk can be mitigated substantially. Many employees will already have access to the internet and mobile phone providers such as BT Mobile, Vodafone, O2 and Three have the working day covered.

There’s also another financial element to consider; if employees are able to work away from the office, the employer will not need to spend as much money heating and lighting the workplace and make use of increased space for other important activities, such as meeting with clients. Some companies have even gone one step further in this regard, replacing office rent with a virtual office agreement that allows them to keep a mailing address without committing to the cost of a full-time place of work.

The disadvantages of remote working

A major issue with remote office working is that of isolation. Some people prefer working from home because they don’t have to deal with distractions from other colleagues, office politics and overbearing managers. But we humans are social animals, and even the most anti-social remote workers may soon find themselves feeling lonely and alienated. Being away from the main office means that remote workers don’t have the same access to a support network that on-site staff do. So when they have a problem, either personal or work-related, they won’t have anyone to turn to. Some employees may also struggle to balance their work and home life as there will be no separation between the two. These two responsibilities often get in each other’s way, with problems that could have been put off until the individual got home from work now staring them in the face all day.

If staff are working away from the office, it’s only natural that their employer will want to monitor them more closely than they would on-site employees. But if remote workers feel pressure to always be online and available, this could have a devastating effect on their mental health. Managing employees’ mental health is an important issue for employers as recent figures show UK businesses lose £100m every year due to work-related stress, depression and anxiety. This could also put increased strain on management, who will have to go to additional lengths to make sure that the home-based individual is included in important discussions and provided with the opportunity for one-to-ones if necessary.

Managing remote workers

With the above in mind, it’s important that employers stay in regular communication with remote workers in order to assess whether they’re struggling with any mental health-related problems. Holding regular telephone calls offers an opportunity to discover how remote workers are handling current workloads, while individuals should be invited into the office for catch-up meetings wherever possible. Importantly this will allow employers to build up a sense of familiarity and rapport, which will make remote workers more likely to confide in their manager with any problems they’re experiencing. Cultivating a positive company culture has long been proven to reduce the occurrence of mental health issues as work. However, due to the nature of remote work these individuals may feel isolated from the rest of the organisation. As such, employers should make concerted efforts to include remote workers, whether that is by including them in group emails or inviting them to join team meetings remotely via conference call. Inclusion efforts should extend to out-of-work activities, ensuring remote workers are invited to team social events and holiday parties which can help boost morale and foster a sense of camaraderie between colleagues.

Conclusion

As discussed, remote office working can be highly attractive to employees and, when managed correctly, create a mutually beneficial arrangement. However, employers need to ensure that they do not take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to managing the mental health of remote workers. The task of working remotely, isolated from the rest of the organisation, can be particularly taxing for many and appropriate provisions must be put in place to ensure these individuals are supported.

Last reviewed 18 December 2019