The psychology of remote working

In depth: The lockdown has proven that we can make working from home work, but the jury's still out on what it's doing to our brains.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 09 Jul 2020

On September 13 2001, Penny Pullan was booked on a flight into New York City. A member of the new change team at Mars-Inc-owned ISI, she was supposed to be launching a global programme of business change. Of course, her plane never took off.

Two days before, four hijacked commercial airliners crashed into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon building in Washington DC and a strip of Pennsylvania farmland. With the 9/11 terror attacks, the world changed in an instant, flights were grounded and Pullan found herself needing to adapt rapidly to an entirely new way of working in order to see her project through.

“I’d never worked remotely before, other than occasional video conferences or phone calls with global colleagues,” reflects Pullan, who founded the Virtual Working Summit in 2010 and wrote the book Virtual Leadership. “In some ways it has echoes of what’s happened to companies today.”

As a result of the national lockdowns imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic, we are living through what Bloomberg first described back in early February as the world’s largest work-from- home experiment.

According to the Labour Force Survey, the proportion of UK employees working mainly from home increased gradually from 4.4 per cent in 2002 to 5.6 per cent in 2017 (although a much larger proportion of workers have made use of limited home working arrangements at some point in their career). Between February and late March 2020, this increased to nearly all UK office workers. 

Exactly when this experiment will conclude remains to be seen, but the results so far have defied expectations, both in terms of how easily organisations have implemented remote working en masse, and how successfully teams have performed from home. As one CEO told Management Today, a change programme that they would have expected to take six months to prepare for and years to implement was - out of necessity - largely completed within a couple of weeks.

We don’t know yet how commonplace remote working will be in 2021 or 2022, once both the immediate restraint of the lockdown and the overarching threat of the virus are gone. It probably won’t be as prevalent as it is in mid-2020, but it’s almost certainly going to be significantly more prevalent than it was in 2019.

“The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,” said Barclays CEO Jes Staley after announcing that the bank would be restructuring its working patterns after staff had been able to run the bank successfully “from their kitchens”. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey announced that staff would be free to work from home “forever” if they are in a role and situation that enabled them to do so, while the likes of Google and Facebook are content to keep remote working as the norm until at least the end of this year.

This acceptance of radical new working practices isn’t just for rarified tech giants. In America, IBM polled 25,000 people and found that 75 per cent wanted their employers to allow them to continue to work remotely at least some of the time, while 54 per cent wanted it to be their main form of working after Covid-19.

Employers - convinced perhaps of the effectiveness of working from home as much as the cost savings from office downsizing - seem to be coming round to the idea of a hybrid way of working, whereby they continue to operate offices, but where a significant percentage of their workforce will be working from home at any one time.

US research firm Gartner asked 300 CFOs what proportion of their employees they intended to move from on-site to off-site roles after Covid-19. Nearly as many (23 per cent) said they intended a fifth or more of former on-site workers to stay at home as intended everyone to come back in (26 per cent), with the rest somewhere in between. Back in the UK, a poll of 200 Management Today readers found that over a third expected to have 50 per cent or more of their workforce working remotely after Covid-19, compared with only 12 per cent before the virus struck.

A fuller picture will emerge over the course of this year, but it is clear that attitudes have changed, likely for good, and that many firms will be considering long-term options that would have seemed quite implausible only a few months ago.

As with any decision of this magnitude made quickly, the danger is that this brave new world of widespread remote working could bring all sorts of unintended consequences. Just because it has functioned well during the last three months, there is no guarantee it will continue to function equally well over time. Also, there is a big difference between a hybrid arrangement, whereby some team members are in the office and some out, and the fully remote arrangement to which we’ve all become accustomed.

To help prepare for what these unintended consequences might be, let’s look at what psychologists say remote working does to us as individuals and groups.

Is remote working bad for wellbeing?

A survey conducted by the The Institute of Employment Studies looked at the wellbeing of employees working from home during the first two weeks of the coronavirus lockdown. The findings were not encouraging. Among other things, respondents reported significant increases in musculoskeletal complaints, while 50 per cent said they were unhappy with their work-life balance.

Results such as this are complicated by the circumstances - it is difficult to know how much of that unhappiness was the result of coronavirus- related health or financial anxiety, or the misery inflicted on so many by the lockdown itself.

It’s also not representative of what remote working in the future would look like, because it was sudden, complete and involuntary. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the Alliance Manchester Business School and president of the CIPD, has done extensive research into all forms of flexible working, which includes doing your job remotely, with varying hours and part-time. As he puts it, “flexible working works, until someone is forced to do it.”

A more useful measure of remote working’s impact on employee wellbeing would be to look before 2020, but even then the record was far from perfect. 

A 2017 United Nations report revealed that 41 per cent of remote workers said they experienced high levels of stress, compared to 25 per cent of office workers. Wladislaw Rivkin, senior lecturer in work and organisational psychology at Aston University, argues that being at home requires individuals to exert greater levels of self-control, which “consumes mental energy” and can lead to exhaustion if not well managed.

A particular challenge is knowing when to step away from work - a process of “psychological detachment” that is critical for being able to refresh oneself. “While the simple act of leaving the office after work immediately helps detachment, this clearly becomes much more difficult when working from home,” writes Rivkin for The Conversation.

One consequence of struggling to separate work from home life - and of no longer having to commute - is that remote workers tend to put in longer hours, which a 2013 study published in the academic journal Employee Relations found contributed to wellbeing-sapping overwork.

This can be especially problematic when remote working becomes working in isolation, without the camaraderie of a team engaged in a common endeavour. In another group of remote working veterans - freelance journalists - stress levels were found to be lower than in the newsroom environment (admittedly not the calmest of workplaces) in a 2003 paper from the University of Manchester’s Lynn Holdsworth and University of Central Lancashire’s Sandi Mann. But the freelancers interviewed reported higher levels of loneliness, irritability and negative emotions, which the researchers attributed largely to their being unable to share problems with colleagues.

This out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality can result in feelings of personal and professional isolation, which can be detrimental to a person’s long-term mental health and wellbeing, says Stephanie Russell, principal lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University. Russell’s own research found that employees who experienced “a lack of feedback” from managers suffered from increased feelings of anxiety as they felt unable to benchmark themselves or “judge whether they were up to standard” among the wider organisation.

There can be wider impacts on team dynamics and culture too. A survey of 1,100 workers by US social scientists revealed that remote workers were more likely to feel left out, with just under 45 per cent believing their office-based colleagues actively said things about them behind their back. In fact a 2019 white paper published by the UK healthcare provider Nuffield Health determined that employee relations and productivity start to decline if staff work remotely for more than two and a half days a week, partly due to the fact that the quality of relationship between co-workers is likely to be diluted and partly due to misconceptions that remote workers have an easier deal.

These problems are all exacerbated by the fact that managers who might normally be able to pick up on signals that employees were stressed, anxious or isolated generally find this harder over video conferencing. “It is almost impossible to get a truly accurate understanding of a person’s wellbeing remotely,” says Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the IES. Indeed, the IES’s research into lockdown wellbeing found that the greater need to monitor team members’ mental health contributed to managers themselves reporting higher levels of stress when working remotely.

Creativity and collaboration

In a hybrid arrangement, there is a risk that those who aren’t physically present will miss out on crucial decisions and information-exchange if important conversations generally take place in the office. That’s why Yahoo’s then-president Marissa Mayer famously issued an edict to employees in 2013, to come into the office or find another job. The company banned remote working because, as Mayer told the company’s 11,000 or so staff, if they wanted to stay ahead of sector rivals, “collaboration and communication” would be essential. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings... speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

There is some truth in this. As Cooper puts it, “human beings spark human beings.” It is very hard to recreate the serendipitous, spontaneous creativity and flow of information that occurs when people can bump into each other in the cafeteria queue or in the lift.

Even some of the most successful remote companies have found collaboration at a distance challenging. The software development company Automattic has over 900 employees working only from their homes in over 60 countries around the world, across several time zones.

This works well, thanks to a “flattened” communication system where ideas are discussed on asynchronous threads that anyone can join, and a system where managers have weekly one-on-ones with colleagues plus daily team catch-ups.

Nevertheless, founder Matt Mullenweg told the neuroscience podcast Making Sense with Sam Harris that the company still expects its staff to spend at least three to four weeks a year together face-to- face. Automattic hosts a whole in-person organisational meet-up at least once a year, with AI assigning the seating plan to encourage people to mix outside of their own immediate team. Mullenweg also opened a small office in San Francisco especially for investor meetings - it lies empty 90 per cent of the year.

“Technology is unable to replicate completely what happens when you’re eyeball to eyeball, which is why there will always be a need for an office environment,” says Cooper.

While you’ll struggle to recreate the serendipitous water-cooler moments of the office via Zoom, it is not impossible to work creatively and collaboratively from a distance, insists Pullan. However, it requires “practice” and is dependent on having the established principles that firms like Automattic have in place.

Indeed, recent studies suggest that video communication tools, if used correctly, can go some-way to facilitating highly intensive collaborative creative work. A joint University of Cologne and Leibniz University Hannover working paper assigned teams the task of creating illustrations to convey the meaning of different words, splitting the task into distinct, complementary team roles. The researchers found that, when judging the ‘usefulness’ of a team’s attempt (in this case, whether other people understood which word was being illustrated), teams using video conferencing tools were actually slightly more likely to deliver ‘excellent’ ideas than those working face-to-face (groups working over text chat did much more poorly). The paper argued that the video communication enabled them to harvest a greater diversity of individual ideas.

Management matters

There is no definitive answer to whether remote working is good or bad for wellbeing and collaboration, partly because there is no paint-by- numbers approach to doing it well. Differences in individual personalities and circumstances matter. Extroverts tend to prefer being around people, while introverts generally like peace and quiet. People working in a book-lined study at their country estate will likely find it a more agreeable experience than people sharing the kitchen table of their inner city flat with strangers they found on spareroom.co.uk. People whose jobs are all about sparking ideas on whiteboards will probably need to come into the office to be effective rather more than those who prowl spreadsheets for a living. Organisational cultures where there is no trust are less likely to cope with a distributed workforce than those that are built on empowerment.

As with most things, the success of hybrid working implementation will depend on the quality of management - and here, there are some general principles. For example, people with such diverse needs will generally respond positively to having a choice over their working arrangements. As a result, as Pullan describes it, “This way of working will not suit command-and-control types.”

Cooper zeroes in on the need for even greater people skills for managers in remote or hybrid environments, including a willingness to listen to their teams and adapt to different modes of communication. The role of the manager as a coach and mental health first aider is also likely to become more pronounced than ever. “The significance of this from a management point of view is profound,” Cooper says, because these skills were not something with which the pre-Covid-19 United Kingdom was especially well-equipped.

Given the well-established impact of absenteeism and presenteeism related to poor working practices, firms will therefore need to reassess the way they recruit and promote managers, ensuring soft skills are treated equally to technical competence.

But it is that need for a change that leaves the IES’s Bevan optimistic. “In some ways there’s some liberation for managers here. It could lead to a greater realisation that people skills are a priority for getting remote working right. The most effective organisations will understand that.” 


This article is from the summer 2020 edition of Management Today

Correction: This article was amended to reflect that Stephanie Russell's research into employee anxiety did not relate to the students on Anglia Ruskin University's remote courses.

Main image credit: Kensington House/Getty Images

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