Working from home - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Working from home

“Working from home requires careful planning and supervision to ensure both individual and organisational success”

In recent years, the number of employees working from home has increased significantly as more individuals look to gain increased flexibility. With the advancement of technology and the global shift towards remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, organisations across various sectors are reviewing the way their employees work.

The veterinary profession is not exempt from this move. Veterinary Woman has an article on its website that features six vets “shar[ing] their experiences of remote working in the profession” (Veterinary Woman, 2021). The article specifically highlights the impact of telemedicine and how “the use of technology enables team members to advise owners on pet care without additional pressures, such as commuting and long shifts, on their own mental health and wellbeing”.

Working from home requires careful planning and supervision to ensure both individual and organisational success.

While remote working comes with its advantages, it also poses unique challenges that demand careful management. As a result, it’s important that employers understand that working from home requires careful planning and supervision to ensure both individual and organisational success.

The lay of the land

All workers have the legal right to request flexible working, which can include a request to work remotely or from home. According to the law (as it stood in July 2023), workers must have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks to be eligible to request flexible working. However, this is changing in 2024 – most likely on 6 April – as the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023 received Royal Assent in July 2023. This will make changes to the right to request flexible working in the UK, and the government has said it will enact secondary legislation to make the right to request flexible working a day-one right. But for now, employees will still need 26 weeks of service before they can make a flexible work request.

Under the new Act, employers are required to consider any requests and provide a reason before rejection if the request is not accepted. Workers will also be entitled to make two statutory requests in any 12-month period rather than the current single request when the law changes.

Working from home – the statistics

The Home Office Life website has curated data and statistics, all referenced, on home working (THOL, 2024), which provide a great understanding of the changes in flexible working over the years. The site recognises that since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the number of people working from home in the UK has dramatically increased. Before then, working from home was the exception, not the rule. 

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the number of people working from home in the UK has dramatically increased. Before then, working from home was the exception, not the rule

More doing it

Back in 1981, homeworking was relatively rare with only 1.5 percent of those in employment reported working mainly at home, but by 2019 it had tripled to 4.7 percent. But to show how much the landscape had changed, the proportion reporting that they worked exclusively at home rose from 5.7 percent of workers in January/February 2020 to 43.1 percent in April 2020.

The pandemic changed things overnight, so by April 2020, 46.6 percent of people in employment did some work at home. Women were slightly more likely to do some work from home than men, at 47.5 percent and 45.7 percent, respectively. Notably, 40 percent of respondents’ perceptions about working from home have substantially improved, but 5 percent of those respondents’ perceptions have slightly worsened.

By May 2022, 78 percent of those working from home in some capacity said that being able to work from home gave them an improved work–life balance, and 47 percent of workers recorded improved well-being from working from home in some capacity.

However, post-pandemic, 85 percent of workers preferred to work in a hybrid model. Indeed, since September 2022, there has been a surge in workers returning to their offices in Central London. As of October 2022, representative average daily demand on the London Underground returned to about 82 percent of pre-pandemic levels, while bus demand was around 84 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Productivity changes

The site comments that it’s unclear how much working from home improves productivity but reveals that those who’ve found remote working beneficial for their productivity levels want to remain working from home in the future. Many also found that they’ve actually worked longer hours because they’re at home.

The statistics show that 40.9 percent of homeworkers reported that they were able to get as much work done in June 2020 as they did six months earlier. Meanwhile, 28.9 percent said they got more done, and 30.2 percent said their productivity had fallen. Alternatively, 65.5 percent of employees who reported that they were able to produce much more per hour while working at home in lockdown wanted to work mainly at home in the future, and 30 percent reported an increase in their hours while working from home.

Mental health

Records show that the biggest struggle with remote working is not being able to unplug, followed by difficulties with collaboration and communication. The most named benefit of working from home is flexible scheduling, followed by the lack of a commute. Overall, it was found that people are generally happier working from home because it allows for more flexibility, but there have been struggles when it comes to communicating and collaborating with teammates.

The popularity and success of working from home differs depending on the type of work and type of business, with […] healthcare employees least likely to work from home

As expected, the popularity and success of working from home differs depending on the type of work and type of business, with those working in IT finding it the easiest to work from home and healthcare employees least likely to work from home. Furthermore, the larger the business, the more likely it is that employees are working from home full-time.

The rise of videoconferencing

Along with the sudden rise of working from home, the use of videoconferencing apps such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams has dramatically increased in the last few years. In February 2020, there were just under 5 million downloads of the Zoom app (on iOS and Android) globally. By March 2020, this had surged to 26.9 million downloads. With the onset of the pandemic, Zoom was by far the most used videoconferencing platform compared to similar counterparts, like Teams and WebEx.

Regardless, the rise in video conferencing has led to the rise of the so-called “Zoom fatigue” – tiredness, worry and/or burnout associated with overusing virtual communication platforms. This fatigue is the result of us taking longer to process non-verbal gestures via video chats. Also, we often end up overcompensating for this with lots of over-exaggerated movements like nodding, shaking our heads, waving and thumbs up. In real life, a party might be inclined to walk around during a conversation but can’t do that when chatting on Zoom. Lots of faces appearing to stare at us constantly is also intense, and it can even feel intimidating.

How can we tackle the challenges of working from home, and what management tools are available?

Communication and collaboration

One of the primary challenges of remote work is maintaining effective communication and collaboration among team members.

In a traditional office setting, colleagues can easily approach each other for quick discussions, brainstorming sessions or problem-solving. However, remote working arrangements will lead to any such discussions taking place via digital means, such as emails, chat platforms or video conferencing. Without proper management of those channels, there is a risk of miscommunication, delay and misunderstandings. In turn, this could lead to decreased productivity and strained personal relationships.

Employers need to […] establish clear guidelines for communication etiquette and encourage regular team meetings to foster a sense of camaraderie and to keep everyone informed

To reduce these risks, employers need to consider appropriate communication tools, establish clear guidelines for communication etiquette and encourage regular team meetings to foster a sense of camaraderie and to keep everyone informed.

Work–life balance and health and safety

The line between work and personal life can blur when working from home. Without careful management, employees may find it difficult to switch off from work, leading to burnout and reduced productivity. The lack of physical separation between the workplace and home can make it challenging for individuals to set boundaries and allocate time for leisure, family life, etc. It is crucial to remember that employees have a statutory right to a 20-minute break if they work more than six hours a day.

Employers should risk assess the way their employees work remotely as part of their health and safety procedures

To promote a healthy work–life balance, managers must encourage employees to take breaks, establish set working hours and avoid expecting immediate responses outside of those hours. Additionally, providing resources for mental well-being should be considered. Employers are responsible for their employees’ health, safety and well-being; this includes when they work remotely. Employers should risk assess the way their employees work remotely as part of their health and safety procedures.

Monitoring and accountability

Managers may struggle to track the progress and performance of remote employees without adequate monitoring systems. Unlike in an office setting, where supervisors can move about and more easily observe employees’ activities, remote work may require alternative methods for measuring productivity. Some organisations use project management tools that offer real-time updates, task tracking and performance analytics.

However, employers should consider the data protection and privacy implications of using these project management tools or software. Data protection impact assessments should be put in place to consider any issues arising from using any privacy-intrusive software or management tools.

Maintaining workplace culture

Workplace culture plays a vital role in driving employee engagement and motivation. In a remote work setting, where face-to-face interactions are limited, preserving and nurturing the culture becomes increasingly crucial. The absence of shared office spaces can lead to feelings of isolation and detachment from the organisation’s values.

In a remote work setting, where face-to-face interactions are limited, preserving and nurturing the culture becomes increasingly crucial

To help maintain a strong workplace culture while remote working, employers should consider team-building activities, promote transparent and inclusive communication and recognise and regularly reward employees’ contributions.

Cybersecurity concerns

Remote working and working from home expose both employees and employers to potential cybersecurity risks. Employees may use personal devices with weaker security measures or work on unsecured networks, making them vulnerable to cyberattacks. This can lead to data breaches, the compromise of sensitive information and damage to the organisation’s reputation.

Practices should make sure that their policies and procedures, including data protection policies, are up to date and reflect remote working arrangements

To mitigate cybersecurity risks, practices should invest in appropriate security measures, conduct regular training on best practices for data protection and enforce strict policies regarding the handling of sensitive information. Practices should make sure that their policies and procedures, including data protection policies, are up to date and reflect remote working arrangements.

Training and skill development

Remote work could also potentially hinder traditional methods of training and skill development as in-person workshops and seminars may no longer be feasible. Without careful management, employees’ professional growth and development may stagnate, hindering their ability to adapt to changing trends and advancements.

Without careful management, employees’ professional growth and development may stagnate, hindering their ability to adapt to changing trends and advancements

To address this challenge, veterinary practices can embrace online learning platforms, webinars and virtual training sessions. Offering personalised development plans and encouraging employees to take charge of their learning can lead to a more skilled and adaptable workforce. Employers should be transparent about promotion and other opportunities to ensure that employees who are working remotely understand what opportunities might be available.

Conclusion

Remote working arrangements do create risk for employers. Effective communication, work–life balance, monitoring and accountability, company culture, cybersecurity and training are critical areas that require planning and adaptation by organisations.

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