Employers with tailored work from home strategies will reap rewards, say researchers

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A review of nearly 2,000 academic papers on the advantages and disadvantages of working from home has painted a mixed picture, leading researchers to conclude that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to designing effective home- and hybrid-working strategies.

Forward-thinking companies that take this into account and adopt an approach that is tailored to individuals, however, will reap the benefits of remote working, researchers say. 

The Experiences of Working From Home Umbrella Review, led by King’s College London in collaboration with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and published in the Journal of Occupational Health, found many health, wellbeing and productivity benefits associated with working from home, but also numerous downsides.

Photograph: iStock/lechatnoir

For instance, some studies examined by the researchers found that remote working positively affected productivity – particularly when it comes to creative tasks – while others pointed to longer working hours and longer periods of working without a break. Some of the research suggested that homeworkers ate more fruit, vegetables and dairy than office-workers, while other papers highlighted increased alcohol and tobacco consumption and weight gain among people working remotely.

The umbrella review showed that there are “winners and losers” when it comes to homeworking, but, overall, companies that embrace it and design their remote-working strategies carefully stand to gain, Neil Greenberg, a professor at King’s College London and co-author of the study, has told Safety Management.

“Our results suggest that forward-thinking organisations which take account of the evidence to optimise the benefits of homeworking for the individual and their employer are likely to do well,” said Professor Greenberg. “Being able to facilitate homeworking equates with flexible working, which helps retain staff.”

This is particularly relevant in the context of upcoming changes to flexible working regulations in the UK. From 6 April 2024, employees will have the right to request flexible working arrangements – including working from home – from the first day of their employment, instead of having to wait 26 weeks. 

Other advantages of well thought-out remote-working strategies include the ability to weather transportation crises and other disasters while avoiding unnecessary disruption, and reduced operating costs associated with requiring less office space, Professor Greenberg added.

Preparing staff to work from home effectively and ensuring that line managers feel confident to speak to employees about their mental health is “likely to pay dividends”, he said.

The umbrella review looked at three areas of remote working: the working environment, the personal impact on employees, and the effect on their health.

In the first category, researchers found that the use of “inadequate” furniture, the tendency to work long hours without sufficient breaks and a lack of training in homeworking were areas that could be improved in the future. They recommended that employers carry out online assessments of home-based employees’ workplace ergonomics and send “regular reminders” to workers to take breaks.

On the issue of personal impact and health, the review recommended that to minimise feelings of isolation, line managers and employers should hold regular, informal online chats with workers, as a substitute for “water cooler” discussions in the office. They also suggested that employers educate workers on healthy lifestyles.

Overall, the researchers concluded that working from home is “a situation that differs greatly” from person to person, due to individual circumstances. As such, there is a need for “a deeper understanding of the WFH context on a case-by-case basis”, and managers “need to understand they cannot simply give the same advice and guidance to all staff using a one-size-fits-all approach”.      


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