Absence makes the team forget

Challenges of home working

David Kennedy

We have been in various stages of lockdown for over a year now and it has fundamentally changed the way we interact for both work and social interactions. Many praise this as a liberalisation of the work-life balance, but I’m not so sure. I believe that we may be losing something of great value that cannot easily be replaced by an audio conference.

The benefits of home working

When we discuss the benefits of home working, we seem to always assemble a list of personal points that appear to favour the individuals’ perspective. These generally include: time management flexibility; no office interruptions/distractions; ability to self-organise the home office; better environment for conference calls; no commuting, and more time with family.

Inherent in these is the permission we give ourselves to intersperse the work with many home actions: do the laundry, walk the dog, get the shopping while everyone else is at work. Now I am not saying these are bad things, but it actually dilutes the home – work boundary in a way which may actually be counterproductive.

Then you find that people start to use personal issues as the reason they should work from home – I am expecting a delivery, I have to keep an eye on my mother, etc., – and while this in itself should not affect productivity, the logic that we don’t go to the office because we have a lot of personal things to organise is threatening to the focus our work should have for the equivalent of a working day.

The challenges of home working

The biggest challenge of home working is ensuring the work gets appropriate focus in the life vs. work balance discussion. Home is by nature designed about our own comfort, entertainment and enjoyment. We have fitted our homes out to give us the life comforts we want and to support all out personal interests. This means the challenges we face when working from home are: time management; home interruptions/distractions; increased risks of misunderstandings due to the limitations of emails; long response times between colleagues due to individual schedules; boredom, taking naps, too much tv/music in the background; and less time with colleagues.

Some of the advantages are the biggest challenges as well. The most damaging aspect is that we are much more restricted in our expressions when using emails, messages and video links than when we meet person to person.

The top issue home-office workers find problems with is “disconnecting” from work. Without the clear-cut change of location and defined office hours, many people have difficulties clearly dividing their personal and professional time. Our use of the one platform, e.g., emails for both work and private communications means that our social connections keep popping up while we are working.

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The office perspective

From the perspective of the relationship between the individual and the company certain vital concerns arise. The absence of regular person-to-person communication can be a challenge for some people. The biggest issue is to do with the value assessment of the contributions the individuals are making in their absence from the office. This is reflected in the concern of many home workers that their professional efforts wouldn’t be fully appreciated as they were not in the office and their colleagues wouldn’t automatically see what they are doing.

If we try to list the concerns from the company perspective, we can see that many of the intangible aspects of the beneficial work environment are challenged: keeping the team spirit; maintaining the company culture; understanding and sharing the company policies; team members underworking or overworking in the home environment; and team members feeling lonely or left out.

And this can be compounded by the difficulty of having tough talks about performance or participation issues over the video link. It is much more intimidating to try and bring up difficult personnel issues over the phone than by speaking directly to each other.

A simple example of the challenge we face today is the question if it is acceptable that audio conferences are interrupted by children running in or by the dog attacking the postman. I’ve just been in an international conference where the speaker was interrupted by his very young daughter and, while it was not anything to complain about, it did distract him from his presentation to several hundred people. How should we view this – acceptable in the new world or unprofessional?


I have to be honest here and admit that I have not used the home-office option myself, as I need the physical delineation between the home and the office to put me in the right mindset for work. Yes, I do answer emails in the evening and other things, but then I know that I am not at work and can keep it in context.

The biggest challenge I feel is the loss of the casual team interactions over coffee. I have always managed to get a lot of updates, give help on immediate issues and generally get a feel for how my colleagues were managing the work and the, hopefully short-term, overloads. Home working occasionally does not damage this, but prolonged absence due to the COVID situation has precipitated means that you have learned to do without this dialogue – and that is not good for anyone.