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Does one size fit all? Working from home in 2020

Published: 28-09-2020

Dr. Kiki de Jonge - Does one size fit all? Working from home in 2020 - interview Rvdb with tips for HR professionals

Core questions highlighted in this interview: For whom does working from home (not) work? What is known in theory about working from home, and how does this translate into practice? What can HR professionals and managers take from this? Here is the interview:

To bridge the gap between practice and science, I contacted organizational psychologist Dr. Kiki de Jonge, assistant professor at the University of Groningen and owner of Groeiflow coaching. Among other things, she does a lot of research on effective homeworking and I am triggered to hear her vision on homeworking right now. I structure this article on the basis of questions that I hear a lot in practice.

Do excellent employees (not) excel when working from home?
Many HR professionals and colleagues can't wait to go back to the office every day. According to them, that is where they can do most of the work. Others, on the other hand, enjoy working from home most of the time and get more work done at home. Kiki describes that blended working is an ideal form of both: Tasks that require deep focus and concentration can usually be done at home undisturbed, where you don't get distracted and can go into depth. The tasks that are about connecting and collaborating are preferably done at the office, where the physical workplace can be more of an inspiring meeting place. A place where you can get ideas, inspire each other and help each other out. Working out those ideas and putting them into practice is then done at home, where you can get to work undisturbed. This is also how I prefer to organize my work. The extent to which you like to work at home or at the office varies from person to person. Many organizations have questions about the effect on the productivity of the employee. Understandable given the mixed stories of employees about productivity described above. Kiki de Jonge's answer to the question about the excellence and productivity of employees in this forced homework situation did not surprise me:

"It is important to realize that the current homework situation originated from an emergency situation. Before the coronation period, we were able to decide more for ourselves when to go to the office or to work from home. Ideally, this choice should be made per person and work assignment in order to achieve optimal work results. In the current forced homeworking situation it is not enough to only look at homeworking itself. Uncertainty and stress about health, freedom, private circumstances and financial stability, play an important role right now. This can also affect productivity. Practical circumstances such as (the lack of) a good workplace at home also plays a role. For example, I recently spoke to someone who was now using his ironing board as a desk. An extreme example. We also saw that when day care and schools were closed, young parents often had to have business conversations while the children were buzzing around the room. Other stories are about the extra stress and uncertainty. Will I stay healthy? Will my parents keep doing well? Will I keep my job?

Do we need a different way of managing?
It is recognizable that people now have more worries. I can imagine that productivity can be stimulated by tailoring leadership and looking at individual needs. This makes it possible for me (the interviewer) to go to the office more often as long as I register well in advance so that we can keep track of how much we are in the office every day. As long as we don't exceed the maximum number of colleagues at the office, I have the freedom to schedule my week exactly the way it works best for me. The fact that it is discussed with me and my colleagues and that this possibility is offered by supervisors indicates that individual needs are met by the supervisors. How does Kiki de Jonge see these different needs of employees and ways of leadership?

"Employee needs differ per person, per project and per home situation. I have conducted research on this topic. For some, structure is important where it is clear what is expected of them and how they like to work. Working from home makes it difficult to maintain the structure you are used to. More autonomy is supposed and required. More than before, the employee has to manage oneself and make their own choices. Managers could help by offering structure and support, for example by discussing day schedules with the employee or starting the day with a short work meeting.

The other thrives in an autonomous role and enjoys being able to make their own decisions. For these employees, working from home can work very well. Here it is important that a manager gives this employee space with help within reach should this be necessary.

A last need I researched is connectedness. Connectedness with your colleagues and with the organization. By working completely from home, you see your colleagues physically less and therefore you also lose the small talk at the coffee machine. It is important to realize here that these small talks can also be done virtually. During an online meeting you don't only have to talk to your colleagues about work content, but you can also ask how everyone is doing. In this case, as a manager, in can help to create space to discuss how things are going with everyone and drink an informal online cup of coffee with each other.

Interestingly, the need for connection is not only about the connection with colleagues but also about the connection with the organization as a whole for which you work. Organizations often talk about the "DNA" of the organization and with the forced homework situation it must be ensured that that connection is guaranteed for the employees at a distance. From Kiki's answer I deduce that this connection can be facilitated as a manager by, for example, planning informal coffee breaks or team meetings and continuing to communicate about what the organization stands for. In this way you respond to the need of employees to stay connected with colleagues but also with the organization as a whole.

Are you losing each other?
Some organizations have struggled with having to relinquish control of the homeworker. That felt unnatural. For example, clients say that this letting go is hard to find because you don't know what people are doing one day. Do they do their laundry during working hours, watch a movie or run around the park? Another customer clearly found it easier to let go of controlling employees. They even saw in the productivity figures that they had become even more productive since the corona crisis. Mixed stories from the market. I'm increasingly curious about whether it's right to trust employees remotely. Kiki de Jonge says the following about this:

"The challenge lies primarily in building trust in the organization that employees will do their best and continue to do so. Take the good in people as a starting point. Research shows that work is an important part of our lives and we like to be serious about it. People need trust and mildness in these times. Employee productivity will be stimulated precisely when managers try to understand the situation of the homeworker with trust and together look for customized solutions. Ask your employees what they need and when they are working effectively. Translate this to the employee's homework situation".

And so to all employees: seize the opportunity to express your needs to your manager. In this way you, as an employee, also get the best out of your homework situation. Together you develop your organization. To be able to create a working situation for everyone, you need a strong HR team!

"In addition, work in the new homework situation continues into private life. People quickly tend to be reachable at all times. When do you take a break and when do you stop for the day? Effectiveness research shows that people tend to take less breaks at home and work longer. Because your laptop is within reach, you can open it easily. In general, people work more instead of less at home. This requires HR and the manager to remain alert that people also continue to take sufficient rest and breaks. Effectiveness research shows that regular breaks and switching off improves productivity and job satisfaction".

One size doesn't fit all!
In the conversation with organizational psychologist Kiki de Jonge, with organizations and HR professionals, the differences are particularly noticeable. There is a great demand for customization in management, organizational development and support from the HR team. As a result of the corona crisis, working in the Netherlands has made a fast run in making this forced homework situation workable and liveable. However, the lasting benefits, that everyone can find a form to effectively work from home in his or her own way, still needs to be developed together. Kiki de Jonge likes to think along with you in this.

Working at home will remain high on the agenda in the coming period. So HR teams, we are counting on you! Advise your employees and managers in the organization that everyone is different and therefore everyone has different needs when it comes to working from home. Start from the differences and the goodness of people, trust each other and stimulate productivity in this way! One size doesn't fit all!