When I joined Umbrella as a Marketing Lead, and received my first emails from my colleagues, the first thing I noticed was they had their working hours and days specified in their signatures. Everyone at Umbrella has a schedule that suits their lifestyle, work preferences and habits. Flexible working at Umbrella is one of the strong “selling points” when we come to advertising for new team members.

In today’s article, I will cover some of the recent research on how New Zealanders perceive working from home and how flexible working impacts on people’s wellbeing, but I want to also highlight some of the potential risks associated with remote/flexible working, so these can be mitigated. I will provide practical recommendations on how to support people switching to a home office, or trying out a so-called “hybrid model” of work. At the end of this article, our Customer Relationship Lead Kate Milburn will share her experience of working remotely while she’s held leadership roles for the past number of years. 

After the lockdown in New Zealand last year, the University of Otago surveyed more than 2500 Kiwis about their experience of working from home. This study revealed that most people would like to continue working from home on a weekly/monthly basis, and that people felt they were more productive when they did so. People also enjoyed having no commute, reduced costs, and greater flexibility in general. Almost two-thirds (65%) of New Zealanders felt favourable towards working from home.

What flexible working may look like for your people

  • Finding time to go for a run at lunchtime, or attend a yoga class. Physical activity contributes to strengthening resilience and lowers levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.  
  • Starting at different times every day, or having the opportunity to make school pick-ups during a working day. Flexible working is a great way to support your employees to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and decrease the impact of childcare-related stress.
  • Knowing that you are able to leave work for an hour or so to attend an important appointment, see a doctor, or pop into the bank. Allowing staff to work flexibly can also work to reduce pressure from life’s admin tasks, which otherwise can quickly overwhelm some people. This sort of flexibility is about allowing people to have more control over their own schedule and decisions, and is associated with good stress management and better wellbeing outcomes. 
  • People go through various stages in life, and sometimes they face a crisis that triggers them to question their identity, purpose, or meaning in life and work. This may be followed by a resignation letter. Employers who offer sabbaticals to allow people to take time off during such a crisis, to explore the world, volunteer, spend time with family – “whatever floats their boat” – tend to have better and longer-lasting relationships with their people. 

However, the very best way to know what your people want is to ask them. Proactively find out what suits every person, and see how your organisation might accommodate the different preferences, ensuring health and safety, and supporting people’s productivity and engagement, are considered. One option for how this can be organised for any sized company is through the Wellbeing Assessment that we run at Umbrella. We can add specific flexibility-related qualitative questions to the assessment to accurately gather data on your employees’ preferences. 

LinkedIn conducted a survey of more than 5,000 users over two weeks: 50% of respondents said that hours or location flexibility have become more important to them since the pandemic, and 45% valued work-life balance more. Flexible working is associated with higher job satisfactionwellbeing, and productivity, among numerous other benefits.

When offering flexible working, however, it’s important to also consider and mitigate the risks associated with remote and flexible working. 

Risks associated with remote/flexible working and how organisations can help to mitigate risks

When introducing flexible working options in the workplace, employers are expected to think about potential health and safety risks: if people work from home and not in the office, it does not mean that this obligation doesn’t apply. Here are some of the risks that psychologists have identified:

Risk 1. Switching off from work becomes difficult when work is in the home 

How to mitigate: We advise line managers and people leaders to emphasise the importance of work-home segmentation in their communication. And to lead by example. It’s recommended that clear boundaries are created between work tasks and home life, and some common-sense rules are introduced for those working from home, e.g. have lunch away from the workspace, organise a dedicated place for work, schedule and take regular breaks, avoid checking emails after working hours.  

Risk 2. High risk of burnout 

People tend to work extra hours when they work from home, and the risks are high for burnout and exhaustion. Technology encourages us to be “always on” in life. According to ADP Research in their report People at work 2021, people on average, globally, are logging 9.2 hours of unpaid overtime weekly, which totals to around an extra four unpaid working days per month!

Online meetings (e.g. on Zoom) are associated with more stress than face-to-face meetings because, despite the improving technology, digital conversations are far from natural conversations – we miss a lot of the normal social cues, there’s no room for non-verbal communication, and we miss out on the natural production of oxytocin our brain releases when we connect with people face-to-face. The natural flow of conversation also suffers.

How to mitigate: Establish two-way open communication, hold regular check-ins with people working remotely, and promote, and allow time for, self-care. At Umbrella, we offer strengthening resilience workshops that help people build essential skills for stress management, and educate them on how to recover from work and life-related stress.   

Risk 3. Decreased visibility and lack of social interactions with colleagues 

When people work remotely or flexibly, it can quickly become a challenge to sync the team regularly, to make sure everyone is looped into communications. Collaboration becomes more challenging and, as a result, people may feel unsupported, isolated, or left out.

How to mitigate: We suggest promoting social connections, virtual coffees, and regular quarterly offline gatherings, whenever possible. Raising awareness of what it might feel like to work from home, and what are the associated risks with being isolated from team members, is a valid and important topic for discussion at a team meeting. Ask your team how their collaboration can be improved, and follow through with an action plan. Ensure all communications are being circulated to all people, and be mindful of people’s different work schedules when expecting responses to requests. 

In one of our previous articles on flexible working, we spoke about how to manage energy when working from home or flexibly – there is definitely a switched focus from time management to energy management, where managing our focus of attention is a key strategy. We also touched on how to organise your work from home routine to maintain wellbeing and sanity when juggling multiple tasks, e.g. house chores, kids, studies and work. 

With organisations in New Zealand seeking to leverage the benefits of flexible ways of working, we designed the overview Creating a culture of wellbeing in dispersed teams to get leaders to think about how their actions can promote a culture of wellbeing in our current complex working world. This includes also specifically considering how to support team members working from dispersed locations.

Research indicates the need for managers to flex from spontaneity to intentionality in their interactions with their team members, in order to more proactively support and engage them. This key message will be highlighted through practical strategies in the overview workshop. Contact us for the details

By Svetlana Elfimova

Kate Milburn

Kate Milburn
Customer Relations Lead

As a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, I am keen to promote flexible work and encourage leaders to think about how they create spaces and opportunities for people to bring their best selves to work. My perspective is that flexible work is a key enabler for organisations to create enhanced participation, belonging and performance. For many years now, I have worked flexibly in terms of when I work the hours I work (using “glide” time) and where I work, working from home or alternative remote locations. This sense of autonomy, provided by my leaders, over how I work has meant that I have felt valued, trusted and able to perform at my best. I’ve also felt more fulfilled in my role as a working parent as I have been able to take time during the day to attend kids’ school activities, and be unapologetic in doing so. So when I interviewed for a role with Umbrella, it felt perfectly natural to have a discussion about flexible work options.

When I joined Umbrella, I made the decision to reduce my working week to four days. I have previously worked reduced hours upon coming back from parental leave, but only for short periods of time (six and three months respectfully). This is the first time in my career where I feel this decision has been about my working preferences, career ambitions, and personal goals. My plan is to carve out time to focus on projects outside of work that I am most passionate about (both paid and voluntary), and to do things that “fill my bucket”. I feel very grateful to be able to make these decisions for myself and for my whānau, and I know that my ability to do this comes in part from a position of financial privilege, and support from my whānau and Umbrella.  So far, it’s been a bit of a learning curve – tackling a new role, and figuring out how to limit what I say “Yes” to at work (having only four days to work around), is still a work in progress. I’m not any less busy, but I find myself doing a wider range of things, and have greater freedom to spend time during the week with friends and family. Maybe I’ll come back to you all in six months, and let you know how it’s going and share some tips and ideas that have made it work for me!