Home or Office? An in-house lawyer’s verdict

The ‘new normal’ is the absence of normal. Some of us are still working from home, some are back at the office and others are somewhere in between. There has never been such a confused work landscape. So which work environment works best?

We asked an in-house lawyer at an FTSE 100 company which is better, working from home or getting back to the office

You had the opportunity of remote working with your previous job. Was that experience different to working from home during the pandemic?

It’s very different, working from home is definitely not the same as before. With the typical remote working role, there is much more freedom. My schedule was able to fit around my other life commitments. I was able to pop out and run an errand during the day if needed.

There was a lot of flexibility around working and travelling, you could hop on a train or plane and work during that travel time. I could go work in Spain for two weeks remotely, or stay with friends (Travelling while working for short periods works well, longer periods do become trickier with work visas, etc ). There is also the freedom to be able to work pretty much anywhere you felt you would get the most work done, you could work from coffee shops, libraries, I even knew someone who used to work in an art gallery!

During lockdown obviously, there weren’t really many options other than home for you to work from, so there was that added feeling of not being able to escape as you were working from home and then when clocking off, you were still at home! However even with lockdown easing, there still doesn’t feel like there is as much freedom, there is still that sense of not being able to work elsewhere.

A lot of companies are not used to the idea of remote working, so they haven’t quite learned to adapt to the flexibility aspect of it, so there is a sense that you should be available all the time, and the workday is more structured, still feeling like the 9 – 5  of being in an office. There will be an adjustment period of course, and in these strange circumstances it is obviously easier for companies to apply the same rules from the office to working at home, so there just needs to be more tweaking.

“A lot of companies are not used to the idea of remote working, so they haven’t quite learned to adapt to the flexibility aspect of it, so there is a sense that you should be available all the time.”

Another difference between remote working and the current working from home situation is that when working remotely, teams are generally quite scattered so there is more effort made to make sure teams can meet up regularly. Due to lockdown this wasn’t possible but now it still isn’t happening even though lockdown restrictions have eased, so we haven’t been getting that social contact that is needed when you work on your own.

With your current job, What have the pros and cons been with working from home?

Let’s start with the positives, the first and one of the best ones have been not having to commute through London! It’s saved me a fair amount of money, not just with travel but not having to pay for lunches and having time to prepare and eat lunch at home has been great.

My company has been really good at supporting us with our mental health at the peak of lockdown by introducing us to an app that helps you cope with mental health issues. Also

I have definitely noticed an increase in updates and communication, as we no longer have face to face interactions, the company has been really good at keeping everyone in the loop.

I think the other benefit we’ve had from having to use video calls for general communications and meetings is you get more of an opportunity to speak to people outside of your usual office bubble. I can speak to people from the company all across the world rather than just talking to that one contact in the office who might be able to help. It saves a lot of time because you end up going directly to the source.

There obviously has been some bumps in the road with moving to work from home. They still have a typical 9 – 5 mentality. The problem now is that the lack of flexibility doesn’t help now that the world is opening up again.

Also now that we have all got used to working from home, the mental health check-ins aren’t really happening anymore and I still think there needs to be because we aren’t back to normal and people are still adjusting to the way things are now.

“Now that we have all got used to working from home, the mental health check-ins aren’t really happening anymore…”

The other thing I noticed is there is a massive difference between communication etiquette currently to when I worked remotely. The companies who had embraced remote working pre-Covid had a certain etiquette such as messaging people before you called to make sure they were free. Now, it’s a bit chaotic. People will call without checking in with you, because it’s so instant, compared to being in the office. If you are in an office and you are busy there are visual cues (wearing headphones, being on a call, already talking to someone else) that tell the other person you aren’t available just yet.

Are you an advocate of flexible working?

I think flexible working, whether it be the hours or choosing where staff work from, is what we should definitely be moving towards. Flexible hours mean you can tailor the working day around the individual. Increasingly now people have different life needs and commitments and there isn’t a lot of flexible working offered outside of people who have children. People with other responsibilities should be given the same flexibility options.

However, I’m not trying to take away how it could be difficult for some companies to incorporate flexible working, especially for their staff who are taking calls all day. It can work through.  We have people who work 7 am – 3 pm due to family commitments and they are very conscious of ensuring they make their phone calls and respond to emails much earlier than staff who work normal hours.

I think the ability to work from home and the office is a professional utopia. From my own personal perspective, I enjoy having the social aspect of going into an office, but being able to decide before the week has started, that actually this is going to be a tough working week. This means I can work from home for three days, meaning no commuting, giving me more time to deal with my workload and there are fewer distractions.

“The ability to work from home and the office is a professional utopia.”

People can start moving out of the city and can afford to have a better work-life balance, making it much easier for them to commute if it’s only for 2-3 days of the week. Another thing to consider when looking at costs is that flexible working allows companies to reconsider whether they need permanent office space, ridding themselves of rental costs, improving their staff’s wages and giving them an opportunity to give their staff monetary allowances for things such as office space if they do need social interaction.

What do you think companies need to do to improve working from home moving forward?

With a lot of their staff not being prepared to work from home, companies will need to make some allowances, for example being the understanding and reassuring staff that it’s okay that there may occasionally be outside distractions on video calls, like children, dogs, etc. They may not necessarily have the space to find somewhere quiet at home, so it would be good for them to take that into consideration.

The fear that a lot of companies had pre-covid is that staff working from home/remotely wouldn’t work as hard and use it as an excuse to slack off. It’s been evident that this isn’t the case. Managers who have good contact with their team will know who’s doing well and who isn’t. Regular contact is key, at the moment we are having two video meetings a week, so we can see where everybody is with their workload.

With that in mind, it is also good for managers to remind their staff that they are not to be chained to their desks. They can get up and get a coffee, have their lunch break away from the work area and not be working well into the night, just because they have access to their work 24/7.

As I mentioned previously even though communication is frequent, there still needs to be some work towards setting boundaries with calling. There is a bit of an assumption made that people are just sitting at home in their pyjamas with not a lot to do, when in fact it’s been quite the opposite! So it’s important to make sure staff are communicating when they are busy and also making it clear to check with people when they are free.

Do you have any tips for working from home?

  • Routine is essential. This doesn’t necessarily mean having to be at your desk at the exact same time every day, but it does mean you could be getting yourself ready every day, putting on fresh clothes, keeping similar breakfast times, etc. It will stop you from slipping into laziness and improve your mood, therefore your motivation
  • Take at least two short daily walks. You forget that you don’t get up as often as you do when you are in an office, I can tell when I haven’t been active enough when parts of me start to go numb!
  • It’s important to have the right equipment at home, and although you might not be able to bring your equipment from the office, it would be a good idea to get a decent mouse, keyboard, chair, screen, good headphones. It is something that companies need to consider if they want to continue the move to more flexible working and working from home. It’ll help staff to be comfortable and happy while working from home.

Overall I think companies should be encouraging flexible working as it makes staff more appreciative, work harder, it helps with mental health and keeping a work-life balance.

Alex Louise is a member of the Operations team at Harvey John.

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