Home Working Hacks: Health, Happiness & Higher Performance

For many, home working is here to stay and like Marmite – “you either love it or hate it”. Recently, the term ‘working from home’ has been translated into ‘living at work’. If we are to thrive while the lines become even more blurred between work and life, we must consider a holistic perspective of what ‘life’ entails – and factor this into our ‘work’.

1.       Start as you mean to go on

One of the biggest changes that occurs when we go from working in the office to working from home occurs right at the start of the day. Suddenly the alarm is not as pressing, the morning commute is a few short steps and opening the laptop with your dressing gown on is not frowned upon. But what is the impact of this change from the routine when travelling into the office?

Our data has previously shown that when employees work from the office, cognitive performance or “brainpower” is greatest in the morning vs. the afternoon. However, with the switch to home working, the opposite is true. Could it be that much like physical exercise, when our bodies need warming-up, that we also need a mental warm-up to best prepare us for the day ahead?

The good news is that some simple strategies can be used to get your mind (and body) into gear. The first of which is getting some daylight as Christina Friis Blach Peterson, CEO and co-founder at LYS Technologies, discussed in a previous ART podcast. She summarised “If you are working from home, it is so important to get out of the door or sit next to a window. Just to get that natural light intake, and to try and get it as soon as possible after you wake up. It will have a huge impact on your wellbeing and your productivity during the day”.

If you want to level-up, then why not combine this light exposure with some physical activity. The benefits of physical activity as a workplace performance tool were discussed by ART Science Consultant Lauren Gourlay in a recent article. And when we talk about physical activity this could be anything from a 30 minute Joe Wicks workout to a walk listening to music or a podcast – great for the mind, body and soul, all in time to open the laptop and take on the day ahead!

2.       Make your set-up “desirable”

So, we have started the day right, but all that good stuff will not be as useful if we then spend the next 7/8 hours battling against a poor workstation set-up. One of the most interesting insights that we have gathered during the home working period is that when employees rate their working environment as “desirable”, some powerful relationships emerge.

1.       Employees have greater cognitive performance on tasks reflective of individual focussed work than those who perceive their environment to be “undesirable”. And when we consider that the ability to perform individual work is commonly reported as the most important factor to employees (as shown in the recent Leesman home working briefing), the value of this cannot be understated.

2.       Employees subjectively perceive that they are happier and less stressed in “desirable” conditions. On the surface this is perhaps unsurprising, however if you consider the knock-on impact that being happier and less stressed has for mental wellbeing and interactions with those around you, something as simple as your working set-up suddenly seems quite important to the rest of your life.

3.       Employees are more physically active when they consider their environment to be “desirable”. We can’t be sure what is the cause and what is the effect here but it certainly poses an interesting question – are happier, higher performing employees, who are more satisfied with their workplace also motivated to perform greater levels of physical activity? Or is it the other way round – are employees who perform greater levels of physical activity fostering a better mood state and higher levels of performance?

Either way, we have seen up to 50% of employees report more pain/discomfort during home working compared with the office. It is perhaps unsurprising that of the individuals for whom home working is desirable, they are significantly more likely to be working from a dedicated workstation within an office. If home working is to become part of the “new normal” then the importance of making the working set-up desirable to employees is clear. In the absence of the Utopian society where all employees have access to their own home office, what can be done to make the environments at least a little less undesirable?

3.       Take advantage of your ability to personalise

In the generation of open-plan offices, the Voice of the Customer has spoken loudly; noise from nearby colleagues’ conversations is a major distraction, there is never going to be a comfortable temperature for everyone, and the quality of the air around us has never been more important.

And yet at home, we suddenly have the ability to take ownership of our own environment and tailor it to our own needs. For many, this was immediately capitalised upon and we quickly saw from our data that employees had much higher satisfaction with their environment at home compared with when they were in the office.

It’s not just about satisfaction though, things like exposure to natural light, access to biophilia and the surrounding noise levels all have direct impacts on objectively measured wellbeing and performance too. Here are some things to consider:

  • Are you able to work from a position with a good supply of natural light? And if you are seated near a window, why not face it?! As Christina says “most offices are around 250 times dimmer than outside and this is not enough to stimulate our brain”.
  • If looking out from that window doesn’t give you a nice view over rolling fields or even a couple of trees, maybe consider a desk plant? Our innate affinity to the natural world can display tangible effects on wellbeing.
  • Do you find your productivity with focussed tasks has gone through the roof while working from home? It’s probably no surprise that this has coincided with more comfortable acoustic conditions. In the future, is it possible to be aware of this and schedule tasks that need completing during “quiet-time” accordingly?

4.       Let’s get Physical… Activity

There is no denying the impact of the pandemic-related macro forces on employees’ ability to get out and about since the start of the home working period, much of which occurred during a nationwide lockdown. The immediate impact to the physical wellbeing of employees was clear, however the picture that we’ve seen through ongoing measurement adds to this story. For many, structured physical activity routines have been maintained, despite limited access to gyms, leisure centres and outdoor recreational activity. What has remained impacted is one of life’s simple metrics – steps.

Despite the upward trend since the initial 20-25% reduction in steps with lockdown, there appears to have been a plateau in recent weeks regardless of the further easing of restrictions, such that the general trend shows a decrease in ~1,000 steps per day when employees are working from home. Coupled with an increase of 58 minutes in time spent sedentary per day (above the time already spent sedentary!), the long-term effects to the wellbeing need to be considered, as was discussed in this recently published scientific article, suggesting increases in physical inactivity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could add to the global burden of cardiovascular disease.

The good news is that there are some simple, quick, and cheap fixes – this isn’t about pounding the pavement to train for a marathon, it is giving the body short but regular snippets of activity that among a myriad of benefits can include; strengthening posture thereby reducing pain/discomfort at a desk, stimulating blood flow contributing to enhanced cognitive performance, and releasing endorphins (the happy hormones) bringing about feelings of happiness and improved general mental wellbeing.

So why not try and build these ‘exercise snacks’ into your day? This could be just taking a 10-minute walk round the block at lunch or following a short movement routine. I promise you won’t regret it!

5.       And relax…

As much as most people are grateful for the removal of the morning commute, when it comes to the evening, we are now in a position whereby ‘just one more email’ is all too easy. The journey home in the evening actually may have offered a chance to officially switch off from the working day, to de-compress, and leave any stresses or baggage behind before moving onto spending time with friends or family. This is no more apparent than when looking at our data which shows 80% now feel that they are working longer hours while at home.

The potential impact of this behaviour is particularly relevant to mental wellbeing but also to sleep. Although sleep may not immediately come to mind as a workplace wellbeing and performance tool, there is a bulk of evidence displaying sleep as one of the main drivers of things like mood, nutritional choices and cognitive performance.

When we review how the picture of sleep has changed over the course of the current home working period, the majority of employees took full advantage of the removal of the commute during the first 3-4 weeks of lockdown to gain some much needed extra shut eye. However, as time has gone on, there has been a steady but consistent trend for sleep duration to reduce – essentially, we are reducing the capacity of our body and brain to recover. It could be that the novelty of no longer having the morning commute has gone, or it could be that difficulty in switching off at the end of the working day is eating into our precious Z’s.

Given we spend 2/3 of our lives sleeping or working, it seems fair to allow an appropriate amount of consideration to optimising both facets! Some areas for consideration:

  • Do you have a finish time for work? Committing to a time and sticking to it can be a great way to ensure ‘just one more email’ doesn’t turn into attempting to clear the whole inbox!
  • Can you employ an evening ‘mind commute’? This could be an activity at the end of the working day that allows your brain to transition from work to home life and is the trigger to switch-off… perhaps a little stroll around the park (two-birds, one-stone and all that!)
  • Do you prioritise sleep? There are lots of things we all know but how many of us can actually say that we do them? Things like avoiding being on your phone in bed (try charging it in another room!), having a pre-bed routine (you’re never too old!), and generally relaxing/winding-down can all have major benefits to both how quickly we are able to fall asleep but also the quality of our sleep.

The difference between remote working and Marmite (among many others I’m sure – stay with me here) is that the end outcome, loving it or hating it, is not set in stone – and the purpose of this article is to show some of the ways, as employees, we can take ownership of our home working scenarios to foster health, happiness and high performance. If I knew I was going to be required to work from home more regularly in the future, I think I would rather love it than hate it.

Dr Josh Jackman

Operations Director, ART Health Solutions

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