Home office: Well-designed work brings well-being
Prof. em. Dr. Rainer Wieland / Industrial and Organizational Psychology
Photo: Sylvie Doumet

Well-designed work brings psychological, physical and social well-being

The industrial and organizational psychologist Prof. Dr. Rainer Wieland on the still young field of work "home office

The topic 'work in the home office' has triggered a real boom in recent years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of people working in a home office (HO) has increased as rapidly as the number of studies on the subject. Now that the pandemic is over, however, the challenge is to implement this newfound workspace, often out of concern for contagion, in a meaningful way. But this is not so easy for both employers and employees, knows the industrial and organizational psychologist at Bergische Universität, Prof. Dr. Rainer Wieland, who has worked intensively on this topic. The majority of current HO studies are based on subjective judgments of respondents about the effects of working in a home office or the advantages and disadvantages from the perspective of employers and employees.

"From the employees' point of view," explains the accomplished researcher, "the perspective was initially very positive." There was a feeling of being able to work more independently in the home office, he says. "There was some evidence that people's mental health, their well-being, was better," Wieland says, "that they had less absenteeism, that they felt more productive, and also, to some extent, that they felt they had a better balance of their work-life balance and family regulation." Similarly, the travel time saved to the workplace was experienced very positively. A number of benefits were also assumed from an employer's perspective, such as increased productivity, travel time savings, and better work-life balance. However, managers feared that they had too little control and no longer had an overview of the work performed. Working in a home office is therefore now backed up very positively by a number of studies and surveys, and yet the Wuppertal expert is missing one essential aspect.

Work in the home office is only as good as the work done in the office

"What I feel is missing from the discussion is an examination of the question: how should the interface between office work in the company and home office be designed?" says Wieland. "If, as is to be expected, home office will be part of everyday working life in many areas of work in the future, then we should pay more attention to this interface," he explains, saying that "work in the home office is only ever as good as the work in the office." This means that the better the work is designed at the workplace, the easier it will be in the home office. As an industrial psychologist, he defines it this way, "I see two core features. If those are realized, I'm more likely to have working conditions that are not only good and productive, but also healthy and conducive to well-being. The first is the cognitive requirements. This includes, among other things: Can one plan the work oneself? Can one do it oneself and also control it?" In specialist circles, this is referred to as 'complete activity', which functions when the work task is tailored in such a way that a product is manufactured that can be processed relatively independently. For this, employees also need sufficient leeway to make their own decisions. This eliminates the need for queries, which impede the workflow and are often associated with involuntary waiting times. "Another condition that is very essential for successful task accomplishment and in the context of the topic of home office concerns work disruptions or regulatory impediments," Wieland continues. This relates to unwanted interruptions, lack of feedback on work results, and non-transparent tasks that did not allow employees to act clearly, he said. "We know from our projects in companies that work interruptions in particular are extremely stressful and associated with absenteeism and adverse health effects. Work interruptions occur less in the home office because there aren't people constantly interrupting." Although interruptions are also present in one's own home, e.g., due to children, they are easier to handle, he says, because they can be actively avoided by those affected - unlike in the workplace.

According to current occupational psychology findings, coping with tasks in the home office seems to be more successful than working in the company office. "This concerns, for example, the experience of autonomy, flexibility, the scope for action in task management, as well as job satisfaction. However, the lack of face-to-face exchange with colleagues and managers is problematic. Three days a week in the home office and two in the company office are therefore considered the optimal distribution."

In summary, one could say, and this is also empirically proven: "The type of activity - demanding, complex versus simple, monotonous and much versus little scope for activity in the processing of tasks - has a clear impact on health: the greater the scope for action in terms of content and time, as studies on teleworking show, the higher the well-being and health of those working in a home office." Wieland also emphasizes the WHO (World Health Organization) perspective on this, saying, "In this context, health does not mean absence of illness, but mental, physical and social well-being."

Home office is not clearly defined by labor law

A legal definition of the term home office does not yet exist. In general, it is understood to mean occasional or permanent work in the employee's private premises. Ultimately, home office is a case of telecommuting. "The attitude of employers on the subject of home office is not clear," he explains, "too many labor law and economic reservations prevent a binding clear line here. Employers often avoid the word home office, arguing that "you can't clearly define home office," because that's really mobile work, which people could do on the train, at the beach, and so on. If home office is understood as a case of telework, "then the employer would have to take over the equipment of the home office workplace as well as take care of occupational health and safety issues." The latter, of course, is difficult, he says, because you can't just go into people's homes without their permission. In addition, the legally required risk assessment of mental stress cannot be easily transferred to the home office. However, many companies have now made internal agreements for home office work and provide their employees with the necessary work equipment, such as laptops, etc.

Workplace equipment important?

A well-equipped workplace at home can be expensive. But how authoritative is perfect, ergonomic equipment? "I have come to believe that the ergonomics of the office chair is rather secondary. Whether sitting on a stool, a ball or a sensible office chair," says Wieland, "the main causes of back complaints are not in the physical area, but are mainly psychological." Even physicians confirm that in approx. 96% of the complaint cases no organic cause can be determined and one can assume rather from psychological loads as cause. In this regard, the scientist cites his own study on workplace health promotion, which was conducted with garbage workers, i.e. waste disposal companies on the one hand, and with employees of tax offices in NRW on the other. "In both the tax offices and the waste disposal companies, it was almost 70% of the employees who complained of back pain, with some performing physical tasks and others performing sedentary work." Thus, the quality of the work or its psychologically effective characteristics such as autonomy, scope for decision-making, meaningful tasks and as few work interruptions or regulatory impediments as possible are apparently decisive for the health of the employees. The high-tech equipment of an office workstation evaluates the work psychologist therefore in your contribution for the health of the employees in relation to the quality of the work as rather small.

Home office, a still young workspace, Pixaby

Self-regulation and social isolation at the home office workplace

In the linking of work activities with the private living space, new demands on one's own self-discipline or self-regulation arise at the same time. "We know from a number of studies that home office workers are confronted with a number of additional demands and stresses." Thus, as Wieland puts it, it is role, goal and time conflicts due to necessary 'family regulation`, work-life balance conflicts and associated deficits of internal (mental) demarcation or distancing from work content in non-work time, which, in addition to the completion of work tasks, place additional demands on self-regulation. "Home office workers* also perform higher levels of work engagement on average, and the more frequently they worked in the home office, the greater the extent of extra work."

Whether home office work succeeds, however, is not just a private matter. "If we have a corporate culture that is not geared toward working as long and as much as possible, then it becomes easier for me to stop at a certain time," says Wieland, "but, if I feel there is extreme pressure to perform, it looks different. Of course, personality also plays a role; some are better at distancing themselves than others, better at switching off after work than others." There is also a lot of research on this ability to distance oneself. In general, switching off from work is a problem for many employees, but one that is often exacerbated by home offices, Wieland emphasizes.

Adding to the increased demands on self-regulation is social isolation. "You are left to your own devices in many matters and have to deal with possible anger, e.g. with your manager or difficulties in completing tasks yourself. Working in a home office often goes hand in hand - especially if it's for long periods of time - with the loss of social contacts." There's that intersection of business and home office again, Wieland continues. "You have to take this seriously, and specifically create additional opportunities for communication with colleagues*. At work, you usually have the opportunity to talk to each other. For work in the home office, you could schedule fixed times to 'officially chat', so that social, collegial communication is structurally anchored and valued by the company management."

No value creation without appreciation

Appreciation and recognition are important components of successful work, which are significant in every company, the researcher confirms and says: "There is the nice saying 'Without appreciation there is no value creation'. Now the question for me is: What does appreciation result from?" Is it enough, the industrial psychologist wonders, to occasionally pat one or the other employee on the back or say, you did a great job? "From an occupational psychology perspective, appreciation that manifests itself in the fact that I, as a manager, assign responsible tasks to my employees is much more sustainable - and probably more appreciative - than just a pat on the back. This brings us back to the topic of psychological work design." Employees can assume responsibility when they are assigned complete activities. Planning, execution and control, as well as sufficient decision-making opportunities, are then in one hand. "In this way, I signal as a manager: 'I give you demanding tasks and trust you to complete them successfully.' ` You could also call this an appreciative, task- and employee-oriented leadership style." The scientist emphasizes that this form of leadership is particularly effective for work in a home office.

Home office - a workplace of the future?

For Wieland, the question is: "What do we need for a future-oriented, people-oriented and at the same time economical design of work in the home office?" There will probably not be any simple answers, he says, because the outsourcing of work to the home office is accompanied by numerous changes that also require a cross-company, social discourse. "For example, there are ideas," he says, "including from unions, that advocate for new housing programs that are also directly homeoffice-ready, meaning they have a small room extra." Thinking and reflecting on the home office issue is urgently needed, he said. In doing so, home office work should not be considered in isolation, but rather in the context of the question of what we need more urgently in the future: Less work or better, more humane work?

The design of work will be a central, social issue in the digitalized world of tomorrow. In this context, it will not be enough to start from technical feasibilities and neglect the needs, characteristics and abilities of people. "What makes people tick, the basic psychological and social mechanisms at work in all of us, have not changed for centuries. Therefore, the psychology of work can also make a valuable contribution to the future design of work."

Uwe Blass

Prof. Dr. Rainer Wieland (emeritus) headed the Department of Industrial and Organizational Psychology in the Faculty of Economics in the Schumpeter School of Business and Economics at Bergische Universität from 1993 to 2017. He is deputy chairman of the Wuppertal Institute for Business Research and Organizational Psychology (WIFOP) and heads the continuing education program "Industrial and Organizational Psychology" at the University of Wuppertal.

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